Our culture has many strengths — especially technological strengths. But one of its principal weaknesses is moral: the tendency to act on the basis of immediate feeling or convenience, without thinking through and accepting responsibility for long term consequences, and expecting others to pay the price for our decisions.
That’s our culture’s approach to something as mundane as trash and something as big as climate. It’s our approach to abortion and to race. One of its quiet but important expressions is in vitro fertilization. There’s a precious good there, to be sure — the good of children. But for the sake of this good, the bodies and souls of the vulnerable are literally put on ice, awaiting our decision: to let them develop their full potential, or to be kept in a limbo of cryo-preservation while we decide whether we want them. It’s scary how closely that resembles our nation’s history with race relations.
The solution to this moral weakness is a multi-faceted discipline. It’s a discipline of feelings so that immediate feelings and convenience don’t rule our actions. It’s a discipline of thought so that we think things through, and only act after deciding that we’re willing to accept the long term consequences of our actions. It’s the discipline of responsibility, paying the price for our decisions rather than expecting others to do so. As the Holy Father said five years ago when he published his encyclical on the environment (“Laudato Si’”), it’s a discipline that involves replacing “consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing … It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs.”
That’s the kind of discipline we learn in Natural Family Planning (NFP) — and as we celebrate NFP Awareness Week it’s fitting to point it out. Faithful use of NFP in marriage won’t solve every problem in our culture — only the second coming of Jesus will do that! But NFP develops precisely those habits that work to heal our culture’s moral weakness: it builds attentiveness, respect, communication and a shared discipline of feelings and action with an eye toward long term consequences.
When St. Paul VI published “Humanae Vitae” 52 years ago, calling Catholics to reject contraception and stay faithful to God’s plan for marriage, he was widely denounced for failing to “get with the times.” But it turned out he was right — and “the times” were headed straight off the cliff of the sexual revolution.
“Humanae Vitae” was not well received — in part because it was not well understood, and perhaps it’s fair to say that it was not perfectly explained. But the last 50 years have seen a tremendous development of the science connected with NFP. The development of the Theology of the Body — both on a technical and on a popular level — has shown how our sexuality is connected with the central mysteries of the faith. And the cultural wreckage of divorce, abortion and pornography have shown that we need to re-ground our approach to sexuality.
On its 30th anniversary, I published a pastoral letter on “Humanae Vitae” and the Natural Law. On its 40th anniversary, I published a pastoral letter on “Humanae Vitae” and the Theology of the Body. The task today, however — on this topic as on so many others — is not for us to say more words, but to live the faith more deeply.
I encourage you to visit the USCCB website, and the Facebook page of our own Office of Natural Family Planning. Both contain resources and events that can help you live more deeply into this aspect of the Catholic faith.