by Elliott Louis Bedford, MA
Ethics & Medics
September 2012
Part II

Ambiguous Language

According to Gaudium et spes, “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the time and of interpreting them in light of the Gospel”; therefore the Church must explore new avenues to enable the teaching of Humanae vitae to be received more perfectly.5 While the phrase “natural family planning” may (or may not) be widely understood, exploring alternative terminology might prove beneficial.

Although the term “natural” has a rich history of significance within the Catholic tradition, it might not afford the Church the clearest means for communicating the core reality of the sexual practices of responsible parenthood in the context of contemporary American culture. In a world devoid of traditional Aristotelian– Thomistic metaphysics, the particular significance that Catholic tradition ascribes to the term is easily lost in translation. Thus in a world dominated by the materialism of Darwin, what is natural is typically dichotomized with what is artificial. This tends to erect a “natural-is- good / artificial-is-bad” opposition that is inconsistent with Catholic tradition.

Second, the term “family planning” is equally prone to unhelpful ambiguity. For instance, the term could lend credence to the idea that NFP is morally good because it produces a good outcome, namely, that the family is indeed “planned.” This focus on the “planned” status of the outcome feeds into an assumption, evident in the CDC report, that NFP is just Catholic contraception. In this view, NFP is just another form of contraception that helps those who are “at risk of unintended pregnancy.” 6 In truth, the Church does not support NFP because it produces fami- lies that are planned. The Church supports NFP because it helps couples regulate births in a morally responsible way, regardless of whether they are “planned” or not. In the Catholic tradition, the means matter.

Third, the objective of all forms of NFP is to gain an awareness of the couple’s fertility and then make decisions consistent with responsible parenthood based on that awareness.7 Perhaps, then, the phrase “practice of fertility awareness” might better express the actual practice in which the couple engages.8 After all, it is through the choice to become aware of their fertility that the couple seeks to make the further choice to either abstain from intercourse at a specific time or pursue pregnancy. In addition, we need to emphasize the increasing techno- logical sophistication of the techniques by which couples become aware of their fertility, the continuous research into these techniques, and their potential therapeutic uses to counteract misperceptions that the Church supports only an archaic, nonmedical rhythm method.9 Hence, we can say that the practice of fertility awareness—and not of contraception—is an element of truly reasonable and responsible parenthood.

Further, it is imperative to distinguish practices of responsible parenthood from contracepted sexual acts in sober terms that resonate with contemporary experience of American Catholics, specifically regarding how these practices affect meaningful human relationships.
The tradition already recognizes that the power of the sexual urge, and the influence it can have on human behaviors and attitudes, is immense.10 This honesty is a solid starting point, especially in the highly sexualized setting of contemporary American culture. As a further point of honesty, we must admit that, for many people, the moral status of contracepted sexual acts is not necessarily immediately apparent, even to people long aware of the Church’s teaching. I would suggest this is because, in one sense, the evil of contracepted sexual acts is so small that it is not apparent.11 For instance, people might argue that because contracepted sexual acts achieve the same outcome as periodic abstinence there really is no differ- ence. In another sense, the evil of contraception is so large that it cannot be seen from up close. Pope Paul VI suggests, for example, that the full impact of contraceptive practices only becomes evident over the extended course of human relationships or on a societal level.12 In either case, the real evil of contracepted sexual acts lies in their deceptiveness, their seeming innocuousness or even goodness.
Because of this ambiguous deceptiveness, the differ- ence between the choice to contracept and the choice to practice responsible parenthood—from the perspective of the acting person in today’s culture—is extremely slight, a difference of only an inch. Yet, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the difference of an inch is everything when we are striving to balance on the virtuous mean.13

5 Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965), n. 4.
6 “As defined in this report . . . , at risk of unintended pregnancy includes all women who are not using contraception but who had had intercourse in the last 3 months, plus those who are having intercourse and are using contraception. Those using contraception are ‘at risk of unintended pregnancy’ because there is a risk that their use of the method could fail and result in unintended pregnancy.” Mosher and Jones, “Use of
Contraception,” 8–9.
7 John F. Kippley and Sheila Kippley, The­Art­of­Natural­Family­
Planning, 4th ed. (Cincinnati, OH: Couple to Couple League
International, 1996), xii.
8 Ronald Ferris, “Fertility Awareness–Based Methods for Family
Planning and as an Alternative to Hormonal Contraceptives for Therapeutic Reasons,” Linacre Quarterly 78.2 (May 2011): 175
9 See Richard J. Fehring, “Efficacy and Efficiency in Natural Family Planning Services,” Linacre Quarterly 76.1 (February 2009): 9–24; Richard J. Fehring, “The Catholic Physician and Natural Family Planning,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 9.2 (Summer 2009): 305–323; and Ferris, “Fertility Awareness– Based Methods.”
10 John Paul II, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 45–69.
11 John Paul II both affirms the Church’s teaching that contraceptive acts are always contrary to human dignity and notes their relative gravity. He does not speak to the specific gravity of individual contraceptive acts (save those that cause abortions) but rather focuses on the danger of the “contraceptive mentality.” John Paul II, Evangelium vitae (March 25, 1995), n.13.
12 See Paul VI, Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968), nn. 17–18.
13 See G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy:­The­Romance­of­Faith (New York:
Image Books, 1990), 100.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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