Natural Family Planning: NFP and the Need for the Magisterium

Everyone recognizes that there was widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae when it was issued.  In recent years some have opined that if John Paul II had written it based on what he would later write in his Theology of the Body, it would have been a different story.  In my opinion, that’s wishful thinking.  The anonymous authors of the Student Guide edition of The Art of Natural Family Planning (Couple to Couple League, 2007) might agree.  “In a certain sense, Paul VI’s teaching, while prophetic and absolutely consistent with the Gospel, had almost no hope of a legitimate hearing” because of the culture into which it was introduced (p. 7).  
     On the other hand, these authors seem to believe that the papal Theology of the Body is such a wonderful tool for understanding human love and sexuality that it can be a stand-alone source of teaching.  They do not state that explicitly, but they make no reference to the teaching authority of the Church.  Further, in the promotion of the new teaching program, the traditional program was criticized for allegedly expecting couples to accept the teaching of the Church just because the Church says so.  “Instruction: relied on the authority of Church for moral underpinnings of NFP.”  That’s a caricature of the traditional program, but it does contain the truth that we did not think that our covenant explanation was so good it could stand alone without the teaching authority of the Church.  Ours was an effort to practice theology in accord with St. Anselm’s dictum that theology is faith seeking understanding.  It also needs to be said that Pope John Paul II has provided no basis for us to think that he thought his Theology of the Body was a stand-alone position.  On several occasions after the conclusion of the TOB he referred in very strong terms to the teaching authority of the Church that is behind the teaching reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae
     The CCL Student Guide (SG) is admittedly difficult to evaluate on theological grounds because it is so vague.  However, I think it is fair to say that the authors think that an appeal to human dignity suffices to persuade readers of the merits of Catholic teaching on sexuality.  At the conclusion of a paragraph about being made in God’s image and likeness, the SG says, “The body then has a dignity and value in its own right” (p. 7).  CCL’s Extreme Makeover comparison says, “Instruction starts with person created by God as inspired by Theology of the Body.” 
     No Christian can dispute the power and wonder of the biblical teaching that we are made in the image and likeness of God, but that’s not the end of the story.  The SG goes on to say that contraception, pornography, lust and masturbation violate the dignity of the person (143).  I agree and wish that everybody did. 
     The problem is that the leading “Catholic” proponents of sodomy call their organization “Dignity,” certainly a shorthand way of affirming their opinion that such behavior is in accord with human dignity.    Further, some of the leading Catholic proponents of accepting contraception as morally acceptable have argued that contraception is in accord with the dignity of the human person.  Specifically, the minority of the papal birth control commission pointed out that the acceptance of contraception entailed the acceptance of non-marital relations, oral and anal copulation, masturbation, and direct sterilization.  The majority pro-contraception position replied that it too rejected oral and anal copulation because “in these acts there is preserved neither the dignity of love nor the dignity of the spouses as human persons created according to the image of God.”   Notice the language about persons made in the image and likeness of God.  I agree with them about those actions that constitute marital sodomy, but what they did NOT say is more important than what they actually said.  They failed to reply to the objection regarding other forms of contraceptive behaviors, thus implicitly arguing that the forms other than anal and oral copulation DID respect the dignity of human persons. 
     My point is this: when Catholics on contradictory sides of an argument each claim that their position upholds the dignity of the human person, how can the question be settled with certainty?  The only way is by an authoritative decision by an authority recognized to be guided by the Holy Spirit.  That is, the question can be decided only by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  Pope John Paul II recognized this and did not refer to his own Theology of the Body as the vehicle to reaffirm Catholic teaching on birth control in a decisive way.  Instead, on at least five occasions after the completion of his Theology of the Body, John Paul II reaffirmed the teaching of Humanae Vitae by referring to the authoritative Tradition of the Church.  You can find these summarized on page 148 of Chapter 7 of the book in my signature below.   It is clear that John Paul II did not intend his Theology of the Body to be used to denigrate in any way the argument and explanation from authority.  The Extreme Makeover’s antagonistic comparison of the traditional course and the new course on this point has no foundation in the words and actions of John Paul II himself. 
     It is sometimes alleged or inferred that there is something almost degrading about accepting something by way of obedience to the teaching authority of the Church.  Sometimes the phrase “blind obedience”  is used to insinuate that such obedience is contrary to the dignity of the human person.  I agree that blind obedience to another person or organization can be highly contrary to human dignity, but not every obedience is blind.  Teachers say, “Students, open your books to page 51.”  Respectful students recognize the teacher’s legitimate authority and obey.  Athletic team players obey their coaches or they find themselves as spectators.  Governments tell us to obey traffic signals.  The military teaches something very close to blind obedience; orders are not to be questioned, at least not at the time.  In all of these cases, obedience is rationalized on various grounds of legitimate authority.  Blind obedience is given when someone obeys someone who has no legitimate authority to ask for obedience. 
     Of all the kinds of obedience that a person can give, the one which is most in accord with his dignity as a person is obedience to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  This authority has been established by God himself.  It is as far as it can be from blind obedience.  Obedience to such a divinely instituted authority is religious obedience, based on the reasons for being Catholic in the first place.  You can find much more on this in my book listed in my signature below.  Allow me to suggest that if you are at all interested in the covenant theology of human sexuality and the birth control debate as it unfolded in the Sixties and continued into the Seventies and to the present time, you will gain much from reading this book.  

NEXT WEEK:  The purpose of NFP instruction

John F. Kippley
Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius)
Natural Family Planning: The Question-Answer Book, online at

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