Natural Family Planning God's Law Pursues Humanity

Anthony Zimmerman
December 11, 1992
Reproduced with Permission

"I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years" (Francis Thomson, The Hound of Heaven).

Methods of birth control in use

At the "Summit Meeting on the Natural Methods of Regulating Fertility" convened by the Pontifical Council for the Family on 9-11 December 1992, Victoria Jennings of the Georgetown University School of Medicine reported a rough estimate that "48% of women worldwide use modern contraception, 45% use no method, and 7% use periodic abstinence." In other words, among the half of the human race which now uses family planning, 7 out of 8 couples contracept in confrontation with nature and God, whereas 1out of 8 follows nature's ecological way, the way which God can approve, natural family planning. Her rough estimate of 7% would indicate that over 60 million couples in the world now practice natural family planning.

Pope John Paul II, expert on humanity, is not unaware of this horizon-spanning pastoral problem. He labors mightily to steer the race back on course, the sooner the better.

In 1980 he had distributed to the Synod of Bishops a book titled: Natural Family Planning, Nature's Way - God's Way, a compilation of contributions by 62 experts. In the book they give witness from experience, science, and theology in support of the doctrine articulated by the Magisterium in Humanae Vitae. At that Synod the Pope also invited a number of the contributors to Rome to provide face to face testimony before the assembled Bishops. They testified, while the Pope looked on, that natural family planning is quite within the normal range of effort and ability of families who have need of it, and is normally reliable when learned properly and used with good will. Mother Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity teach NFP to families in the slums of Calcutta and to the poor in many parts of the world, was among those witnesses. The assembled Bishops, though waiting overtime for the noon meal, stood up to applaud her and manifest their solidarity. The Pope, who had in former years instituted a vast and thriving network for the NFP apostolate in Krakow, which became standard in all of Poland, now recommends NFP to Church and world.

Twelve years after this 1980 Synod of Bishops the Pope once more welcomed some 50 NFP experts to Rome for the NFP Summit on December 9-11, 1992, and spoke with them at an audience on 11 December. By now he knows many of them personally. Borrowing words from his Familiaris Consortio he encouraged them to promote "a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied." The task is formidable and vast, as he knows, and is not much applauded by the media. But like the Hound of Heaven, sung compellingly by the poet Francis Thomson, the Pope is not deterred though the pastoral quest may be protracted; he calls to humankind with persistent voice, knowing that the world cannot long be happy with contraception:

Still with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace.
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a voice above their beat -
"Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter me."

In line with Thomson's insights, the Pope, surely urged on by the charity of Christ, today urges mankind to cease using contraception and to adopt, when indicated, natural family planning. Here are some of the highlights of the recent Summit on NFP which was welcomed to Rome by the Pope.

NFP is family oriented, not subject to demographic policies

The reports and discussions demonstrated the general consensus of the group that natural family planning is reserved for promoting family welfare, and is not to be abused as an instrument for directly manipulating demographic trends. Considerations concerning periodic continence, which refer to the knowledge of the woman's cycle, in the texts of the Magisterium, are always linked to marriage, to spouses, to the domestic Church, to the sanctuary of life. This is a significant interpretation of the term "responsible parenthood" as described in Humanae Vitae which states that "husband and wife recognize fully their duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family and toward society, in a correct hierarchy of values" (No. 10). In this sense the group distanced itself from the concept that couples might have a "duty toward society" to limit offspring primarily to decelerate national or world demographic growth rates.

This interpretation conforms to the constant teaching of the Magisterium that generous couples who rear and educate well ordered large families are "those most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures" (Pius XII, "The Large Family" 20 January 1958). Also apropos are the words of Gaudium et Spes: "Among the married couples who thus fulfil their God-given mission, special mention should be made of those who after prudent reflection and common decision courageously undertake the proper upbringing of a large number of children" (GS 50). Again, Pope John Paul II advised couples in the USA that: "It is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety" (Address "Celebrate Life" on the Capital Mall in Washington, 7 October 1979).

Osservatore Romano of 9 December 1992 noted that the Pontifical Council for the Family had invited "50 participants ... great pioneers of various methods: Dr. Josef Roetzer, Drs. John and Lyn Billings, Dr. Thomas Hilgers and Dr. Anna Cappella, together with the leaders of different international movements promoting these methods, such as Dr. Claude Lanctot." Highlights of papers given by individual members follow.


Dr. Roetzer of Voecklabruck, Austria, reported that it was a Catholic priest, Fr. Wilhelm Hillebrand, a pastor in the Diocese of Aachen, Germany, who had initiated the method of NFP which utilizes the temperature shift; in 1929-1930, with the help of his brother Hubert who was a doctor, he investigated the temperature measurement to determine the fertile and infertile days, as a way of helping women to live in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church. He advised that women use not only the temperature sign but other additional indications as well to ascertain the fertile and infertile times of the cycle. The system of monitoring the temperature in combination with other signs is now called the Sympto-Thermal Method (STM), and is used extensively, often with modifications codified by competing systems.

Dr. Roetzer has taught Austrian couples continuously since 1950, and has featured in his system a modified version of the Holt formula of "3 higher temperature points which follow 6 lower points," thereby indicating the completion of ovulation and the beginning of the infertile phase. The temperature shift is monitored in combination with the Peak Day mucus sign, and optionally with other signs. With the help of his daughter Elizabeth he has already accumulated records of over 200,000 charts of cycles in his office. He reported almost casually at the Summit meeting that when couples follow this quite simple formula "it is biologically impossible for a pregnancy to occur [from intercourse], beginning in the evening of the 3rd higher [temperature] reading." In other words, the record as indicated in his office data is 100% perfect in this part of the cycle: no single pregnancy is listed as having occurred from intercourse on the third evening of the high temperature thus defined, or thereafter until the end of the cycle about ten days later.

During the earlier part of the cycle and preceding ovulation, his prospective study of 16,091 months of exposure among 592 women showed a minimal uninvited pregnancy rate, a Pearl Index of 0.9. This is 99.1% perfect (reported at the NFP congress in Hong Kong in 1983). [The data indicating 99.1% and 100% reliability respectively exceeds the highest expectations of Pill usage.]

Dr. Roetzer, who is notorious for his thoroughness in teaching, has trained 600 couples in Austria, German, Switzerland, and Italy, who now teach the method to thousands of couples. His work has influenced NFP teaching greatly in Europe, the USA and throughout the world.

An interesting development occurred at the Rome Summit when the inventor of a two year old electronic device to facilitate natural family planning sat down to compare notes with Dr. Roetzer. Mr. Kinji Nishimura of Japan, inventor of the L Sophia device, together with Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, conferred with Dr. Roetzer to plan possible future cooperation. The formulas of the finely tuned automatic device, whose results are favorably demonstrated in Japan, and the exquisitely honed formulas of Dr. Roetzer, proven over forty years in Europe, were compared. The automated computer-assisted device has a highly accurate thermometer, exceeding the possibilities of mercury thermometers. The readings enter automatically into an integrated mini-computer; using the temperature and other cycle data it then calculates and displays the fertile and infertile times of each cycle as it develops. 45,000 recent users in Japan appear to be well satisfied. The two experts decided to explore the possibility of canonizing the Roetzer regulations into the chips of an alternative L Sophia device. Time will tell whether this can be accomplished. [Addition, July 2000: Mr. Nishimura thereafter incorporated the mucus sign into the device in addition to the temperature sign and other cycle indications. Sales in Japan now exceed half a million units.]


Charismatic teachers of NFP, Dr. John Billings and wife Dr. Lyn, provided a scientific explanation of the function of cervical mucus in the process of reproduction. They also lifted the curtain on their horizon-spanning globe trotting apostolate to which they have generously and strenuously devoted their lives, he since 1953, she joining the work in 1965. It can be said that no single couple have taught NFP to as many people on the six continents as this inspiring team, whose book, The Billings Method, has sold over 1,000,000 copies. Thanks in part to the simplicity of monitoring the cervical mucus, without need of a thermometer, the original Billings Method has become a household word in the NFP world; its use is widespread not only in tropical and developing countries, but everywhere. The original teaching has inspired a number of modified systems. The mucus method effortlessly demolishes pretensions of scientists, of uninformed clergy, and of reluctant laity, who still claim that NFP is for elite couples only, out of reach of ordinary grassroots couples. Excuses are vanishing. Theoretically at least, the NFP Hound of Heaven is now within sight of its reluctant quarry:

Naked I wait Thy love's uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou has hewn from me.
And smitten me to my knee; I am defenseless utterly.

As the Billings couple stated in their presentation: "The method works its own goodness in everyone, even in those whom human judgment might dismiss as most unlikely to succeed."


Thomas Hilgers, M.D., Director of Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, explained his pioneer work in standardizing the teaching and use of natural family planning. At the Institute they teach an appreciation of God's plan as read in the human body and psyche: "We strongly believe that natural family planning is a system of knowing and understanding one's fertility and infertility so that the couple can make decisions with regard to the use of those days to either achieve or avoid pregnancy according to their own wishes." Together with technical knowledge to achieve an informed choice, the Institute aims to provide couples with "the opportunity to go beyond family planning to improved reproductive and gynecologic health along with enhancement and enrichment of their marriage relationship." Wherever in the USA one consults a natural family planning teaching center, one is liable to find an affable and competent teacher there, trained by none other than Dr. Hilgers and the staff of his Institute.


Gentle Dr. Anna Cappella, Professor at Rome's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, observed that "Studies carried out in this last decade have definitively confirmed the effectiveness of the most modern Natural Methods of Fertility Regulation and their validity in allowing the couple an authentic Responsible Procreation. The effectiveness rate reported in different studies shows it to be similar to that related for the contraceptive methods currently used." Dr. Cappella organizes international NFP conferences hosted by her university which stands next to the Gemelli Medical Center to which an ambulance brought the Pope after the near fatal shooting. It is not unusual that the Pope makes an appearance at the international NFP conventions organized by Dr. Cappella, to give words of encouragement.


Claude A. Lanctot, M.D., is Executive Director of the International Federation for Family Life Promotion (IFFLP) which was founded in Washington D.C. in 1974. Most of the Summit experts are members. Dr. Lanctot announced that IFFLP now operates in 73 countries via 102 organizations. The Federation, which has a working relationship with WHO and maintains regular contacts with UNFPA, UNICEF and with Church groups, is an umbrella organization for NFP activities worldwide, and provides liaison between member institutes as well as with governments.

Dr. Lanctot is sometimes in eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation with petty government officials who attempt to tie ideological strings to public funds made available for NFP services. Officials sometimes decree that recipients of funds allocated for the teaching of NFP must work as one integrated team with teachers of contraception, and must refer inquirers about contraception to related agencies. Is it morally permissible to receive funds with such strings attached? Circumstances are not always comparable. Some groups had stood on high moral ground and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than to give doubtful appearances of moral compromise.


William N. Corey, father of eight, spoke on behalf of Couple to Couple, the large provider of NFP teaching with headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. There is something we need even more than funding, said Mr. Corey, and that is more clients of NFP, more couples sent to us by pastors and teachers. The number of couples coming to our sessions at parishes is decreasing rather than increasing, he said.

Mr. Corey also spoke about breastfeeding which C.L. promotes: "Ecological breastfeeding spaces babies on the average of two years apart, and the incontrovertible evidence that it provides the best emotional and physical health care for the baby" indicates that NFP programs ought to promote ecological breastfeeding as part of a package program. Mr. Corey was speaking on behalf of John Kippley, President of C.L., who was unable to attend because of an infection.


Bishop James McHugh explained that the National Conference of Bishops in the USA had established the Diocesan Development Program (DDP) for Natural Family Planning in 1982 with the aid of a grant from the Knights of Columbus. The Program is directed toward helping each diocese initiate a comprehensive NFP program by coordinating the efforts of already existing NFP provider groups and integrating NFP services into all diocesan-sponsored educational, health care, and social services, and to expand NFP programs.

The results of a questionnaire made among clients of the Program in 1987 indicted that couples find the Church teaching on family planning to be important, that couples continue to use NFP, that it is being used effectively, and that satisfaction of users is quite high. "These findings demonstrated the need for an increased pastoral role in the development and on-going operation of the diocesan NFP programs. This commitment was deemed necessary if NFP programs are to move from their present periphery into the mainstream of marriage and family life pastoral programs."

An important step made by D.D.P. was the establishment of the National Standards for teacher competence and for accurate presentation of the Church's teachings on marriage. A Task Force assists the dioceses to decide its programs and training in the light of these Standards, and to certify NFP teachers.

Between 1987 and 1990 the D.D.P. collected data from 56 dioceses, which indicate that reporting dioceses teach an average of 129 women per year through their programs. [If this figure is extrapolated to the 186 dioceses, including Eastern Rites, in which D.D.P. programs are operating, this would tally to a total of about 24,000 women taught per year by D.D.P. programs, not a small number. However, the number of Catholic marriages listed in the OFFICIAL CATHOLIC DIRECTORY for 1990 is 15 times higher - 341,356; the NFP clients taught by D.D.P. sponsorship therefore constitute about 7% of the number of Catholic marriages. We must keep in mind, however, that organizations other than D.D.P. also teach NFP in the USA.]


Dr. Hanna Ceransha-Goszcynska told about the vast network of the church in Poland for family life and NFP education. "Thanks to the great Polish cardinals, Stefan Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla, pastoral care of the family is a great priority.... In Poland every couple, before marriage, must finish an obligatory pre-marriage preparation course... Through these courses the great majority of the young Polish couples have the opportunity to learn about the natural methods." She thanked many of the experts at the Summit for having come to Poland to update them with teaching methods, and for the printed works now translated into Polish.

Dr. Wanda Poltawska, long-time secretary to the future Pope in Krakow, Directress of the Institute of Theology of the Family in Krakow, provided information about the advanced training in NFP and family theology which the Institute provides to young priests and doctors. From previous contacts the present writer happens to know that Cardinal Wojtyla made it a point to appear at Sunday sessions of the Institute, and pour coffee for young priests and doctors in attendance.

Space does not permit a report on the many other presentations, including those of the theologians and philosophers, rich in scientific content and human wisdom. At the end Cardinal Trujillo thanked the assembled experts for their contributions and cooperation, and spoke about continued close collaboration in the future.


At the Papal Audience on 11 December the Pope showed his obvious joy at once more meeting so many of the experts in NFP whom he knew well from previous contacts. He said in part that the difference between contraception and recourse to the natural methods is "much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality (cf. n. 16, Familiaris Consortio). The Church, which has a duty to teach God's plan for the transmission of life, does not fail to stand by couples at a time when they must decide about what means are to be used to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities..." He added that women are liberated from abuse by adopting NFP: "These methods ... liberate the person, above all women, from recourse to pharmaceutical or other forms of interference in the natural processes connected with the transmission of life." It is known that the Pope himself is well acquainted with the various NFP approaches.


To the plaintive question "Watchman, how much longer the night?" Isaiah replied that, though morning once broke, night had descended once more: "Morning has come, and again the night. If you will ask, ask; come back again" (Is 21:11-12).

Since the early 1960's an enormous part of the human race has capitulated to the blandishments of the Pill, of theological dissent, and media exploitation of titillating sex attraction. In the economy of grace and salvation, this likely blocks out in a wholesale manner the normal expectations of grace from God which ought to bear fruit in families and conjugal life. Pills, IUD's, condoms, injectables, sterilization, abortion, divorce, family violence appear to dominate the scene, whereas chastity appears to be elbowed off-stage.

Rome has spoken that contraception is always evil, and that natural family planning can be licit, but if the figures presented above by Dr. Jennings are anywhere near correct, couples who practice contraception now far outnumber the minority who follow the discipline of natural family planning. Indeed, the statistics estimated for 1985, tabulated in Studies in Family Planning, November-December 1988, would indicate that about 400 million out of 850 to 880 million married couples of reproductive age in the world use family planning of some kind; 340 million couples are reported to be using contraception (sterilization, pills, injectables, IUD's, condoms, or spermicides). Another 58 million use "traditional methods" meaning here mostly withdrawal. And 16 million use "rhythm" [some form of natural family planning]. In addition, the IPPF estimated in 1974 that there are up to 55 million abortions per year. The figures indicate, therefore, that among those who use some kind of family planning, 96% use contraception, and 4% use NFP; in addition, couples kill over 50 million of their offspring by abortion. Truly we say: "Watchman? how much longer the night?" [Note: the estimate given by Jennings cited earlier that 7% use NFP are of a later date and different populations are involved.]

When Christ began His career of preaching, His message was simple: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Mt 3:2). The watchword for today is: "Be chaste, for the kingdom is near." It is no secret that the hearts of many fathers are not turned to model chastity for wife and children; for example, fathers cringe from supporting their sons through the tensions associated with the mastering of chastity; and from supporting the wife through the struggle of insisting on licit sexual relations only. When husbands yield to blandishments like Adam, and wives yield to deception like Eve, chastity disappears into the darkness of night.

The situation is compounded if bishops and pastors likewise cringe from intruding on social currents with iron-ribbed structures supporting chastity. Pope John Paul II had noted in the presence of the Bishops at the Los Angeles Meeting, 16 September 1987, that "a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to" or "are selective in their adherence to" Church teachings on "sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage ... (and) abortion... It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a 'good Catholic' and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere" (Pastoral Visit to The United States, Ignatius Press, p. 92). But to date the Bishops are not promulgating with power a message to their flocks which would respond to the Pope's challenge; a message which would state without compromise that: "Those who are on the Pill, are sterilized, are divorced and remarried, etc., should kindly refrain from receiving Holy Communion without previous repentance, reform, and confession."

Even the revered Synod of Bishops which met in Rome in 1983 practically side-stepped the issue of contraception in their treatment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It may be that this "hot potato" was too hot for the Bishops to handle.

Pontifical Universities in Rome itself, under the assumed scrutiny of their Grand Chancellor - a Cardinal or Superior General - are known to treat Humanae Vitae with Olympian detachment. A morals text book which gives more space to the dissent of Haering and Curran and their Lilliputian army than to Peter who has been entrusted with the keys of the Church, is being used there to educate the future priests, bishops, and religious superiors of the Church. This text Christian Ethics cites without refutation, for example, the now withdrawn statement of the Austrian Bishops that artificial contraceptives are not necessarily gravely sinful (page 476). If the future leaders of the Church are being educated in such manner in Rome, then indeed we must ask: "Watchman, how much longer the night?"

In Familiaris Consortio n. 33 the Pope speaks about the "absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it." What he teaches in Rome and on his pastoral itineraries is not yet taken up with the evident and equal courage by bishops throughout the world, and by pastors, and by superiors of religious orders and congregations.

As Bishop McHugh stated at the recent Summit, a greater commitment to the NFP apostolate is necessary "if NFP programs are to move from their present position on the periphery into the mainstream of marriage and family life pastoral programs."

For the present, darkness attempts to swallow the light; but as in the poem of Francis Thomson, God pursues the human race with great love and unremitting effort; hopefully we await capture by His embrace:

Still with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Come on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat -
"Naught shelters thee, who will not shelter Me."
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea...
"Ah, fondest blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me."