Humanae Vitae, Father Maurizio Chiodi, and Natural Family Planning

Almost a month after Fr. Maurizio Chiodi made a controversial presentation at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on December 14, reports reached the internet news media.  As I read the report on LifeSiteNews, I could not help but thinking, “It’s been 52 years but some things are unfortunately the same.”  In 1966, Father Jozef Fuchs, S.J. was a theologian at the Gregorian and was also a member of the papal birth control commission.  In the summer of 1966 I participated in a moral theology course taught by Father Fuchs at the University of San Francisco.  I asked a lot of questions in those classes attended mostly by clergy and religious.  At least one priest appreciated my efforts.  “John, you ask good questions.  Keep it up.”  Apparently Father Fuchs didn’t think so; the next summer he taught the same course but attendance was limited—no laity permitted.

Later that year Fr. Fuchs submitted the majority report which advocated that the Church should accept marital contraception.  Fortunately, they spelled out their reasons, and it was clear that the arguments used for the acceptance for marital contraception cannot say NO to sodomy whether within heterosexual marriage or by same-sex persons.  Five years later, Theological Studies, a generally liberal journal, published my article, “Continued Dissent: Is It Responsible Loyalty?” (March 1971) in which I showed that the decision-making principles of archdissenter Fr. Charles Curran could not say NO even to spouse-swapping.  No one accused me of creating a straw man.  The liberals have long known what is entailed in their acceptance of marital contraception.

Fr. Chiodi, who teaches moral theology at the Northern University in Milan, tries to make two points.  First, he asserts that there are “circumstances—I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8—that precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.”  Amazing.  I thought he would go on to make a sympathy-earning case for a couple with a large family and for whom their particular method of systematic NFP was not “working,” or a couple who had an alleged irrepressible sexual attraction to each other during the fertile time, etc. etc.  But no.  Instead he posits a situation in which “responsibility calls the couple and the family to other forms of welcome and hospitality.”

This is an assertion, not an argument.  The situation he suggests is of the kind described in Humanae Vitae —a couple having “just reasons” for seeking to avoid pregnancy.  I grant there can be situations in which a couple decide that God is not calling them to have more children, but that in no way justifies falsifying the marriage act.  Instead, it provides a reason to practice fertility awareness and systematic natural family planning.  Unfortunately, Fr. Chiodi’s assertions sound like Fr. Jozef Fuchs revisited.

The second major point of his lecture seems to be made in this statement.  “My thought is to take up the anthropological meaning of the norm of Humanae Vitae…  it’s not a matter of abolishing the norm, but of demonstrating its meaning and truth.”  In the LifeSite commentary, Fr. Chiodi sees an anthropology of marriage built on “four fundamental aspects”: the relationship between sexuality and sexual difference; the relationship between human sexuality and the spousal covenant; the relationship between marital communion and generation; and the meaning of responsibility in generation.  In the LifeSiteNews  opinion, that probably means responsible parenthood.

In my opinion, the key item among the four is the second one—the relationship between human sexuality and the spousal covenant.  Here I want to interpret Fr. Chiodi as calling for more emphasis on the meaning of sexual intercourse.  I submit that there is covenantal meaning that God has built into human sexual intercourse.  What makes the human sexual act different from the sexual intercourse of high primates?  The distinctly human difference is that while animals can “have sex,” only human persons can engage in an act that is intended by Almighty God to be a renewal of the faith and love and commitment of their marriage covenant—and which the couple can consciously intend to be such a renewal.

This is illustrated in Sacred Scripture with its condemnation of a number of specific kinds of human sexual acts.  In alphabetical order, adultery, bestiality, contraception, fornication, incest, masturbation, prostitution, rape and sodomy are all condemned.  (I consider the Onan account to condemn both contraception and masturbation.)  Each of these has its specific evil or form of injustice.  But, what is most significant is what they all have in common—none of them is a true marriage act.  About each one of these behaviors, consequentialist questions have been raised.  For example, what’s wrong with adultery or any of the other forms of biblically condemned behaviors if both parties are okay with it and use efficient contraception when doing sex with heterosexual partners?  It is that sort of consequentialist thinking that has led to the current degraded societal sexual morality which has only two criteria—legal age and mutual acceptability.

I submit that the biblical condemnations plus almost 2000 years of Catholic teaching on these matters leads to the conclusion that in God’s plan, sexual intercourse is intended to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant.  That means two things:  Sexual intercourse ought to be exclusively a marriage act.  Then, within marriage, the marriage act ought to be a true marriage act, one that affirms the love and faith and commitment of their marriage covenant, for better and for worse—including the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.  The body language of the contracepted marriage act says, however, “I take you for better but positively NOT for the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.”  It pretends to be what it is not.  It is intrinsically dishonest.

Of great interest to those of us who teach natural family planning is Father Chiodi’s reference to contraception as technology.  Contraceptive behaviors have been with the human race since the beginning of recorded history with some records going back to 3000 BC.  Condoms and withdrawal have been used for centuries.  The development of latex condoms in the 19th century might be considered a form of “technology,” but I suspect that most moderns would think only of the modern developments as “technology.”

Modern technology would perhaps include tubal ligation and vasectomy, but more commonly it would refer to hormonal forms of birth control.  Here I do not use the word “contraception” because the hormonal methods of birth control are not just contraceptive but also have the abortifacient potential of denying implantation of the newly conceived baby.  The hormonal methods are also the ones that can cause blood clots and breast cancer and a whole list of other health problems.

If an atheist would talk about technological contraception without adequately treating of the serious problems with those technologies, that would be unethical.

If a Catholic moral theologian talks about technological contraception without adequately treating of the serious health problems with those technologies, that would also be unethical.  But if he should also say it might be “required” in some cases, that is so strange that it should be unthinkable.  The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is that such “moral theology” is missing one of the key elements of any bio-theology—the scientific facts.

Furthermore, anyone doing any form of moral theology dealing with human sexuality should be required to read Mary Eberstadt’s sociological gem, Adam and Eve after the Pill (Ignatius, 2012).  It is hard to understand how any informed moral theologian, having become aware of the negative sociological effects from the societal acceptance of contraception, could write as Father Chiodi has done.

John F. Kippley
January 11, 2018

10 Responses to “Humanae Vitae, Father Maurizio Chiodi, and Natural Family Planning”

  1. Ann says:

    He does not hold any authority does he? I heard him on television / EWTN and he sounded so far away from the Church’s teaching!

  2. Mary Shivanandan says:

    Thank you, John, for your firm commitment, especially for showing that the marital act is a renewal of the covenant with God and each other.

  3. David Wither says:

    The word technology is used four times in this article. There is even one reference to “modern technology”. However, I would offer that today’s dialogue regarding Humanae Vitae is missing a huge opportunity the Femtech industry is creating. Technology is now providing women with new information based methods of managing their fertility (software, wearable sensors, AI). These changes are a real opportunity to open a new dialogue about HV and God’s plan. The evolving “Femtech” industry is growing rapidly, one report estimated that over 200 million women have download fertility apps. Women are abandoning hormonal methods of birth control (the pill, IUD, patch, etc.) for technology driven knowledge based systems. This is a huge opportunity for the Church to begin a new dialogue about God’s plan for life and love. Further, the apps and wearable sensors will only evolve into a holistic health service providing data and information never before available. For example, the technology (hardware and software) will provide a knowledge based system for the woman to manage her fertility, assist her with getting pregnant, monitor her pregnancy in real time (with constant connectivity to medical support) and the same technology, process and monitoring will transfer to the baby when it is born.

    The companies that are providing these new products and services are experts at using all Social Media components to create an excellent customer experience and build trust in both the product and service with their users. This is an opportunity for our Church to evangelize to young women and couples who struggle with the challenges of NFP. However, for our Church to lead and innovate once again we need to educate our leadership on the fast pace changes that are happening in new world of Fertility Awareness. This is an excellent opportunity for a national project to so each diocese does not have to try and figure things out themselves and create their own program(s). (Written by Dave)

  4. John and Sheila: We wish that new technology would help the cause of Humanae Vitae, but we are doubtful. Have you seen anything in the promotion of apps, etc. that clearly says that chaste abstinence during the fertile time is the “method” of NFP when avoiding pregnancy? We have seen secular advocates of fertility awareness advocate oral sodomy during the fertile time. Another secular book implies recourse to unchaste actions. The internet news recently informed us that a Stockholm hospital filed a complaint with the Swedish Medical authorities against the maker of an app after 37 app-unplanned unborn babies were killed at an abortion mill. Pray for a rebirth of chastity, for a culture of purity and life. Another way to avoid the abstinence problem is with ecological breastfeeding.

  5. David Wither says:

    John and Shelia, you are right on point. There is no message about chastity being preached, this is the opportunity. The new methods of fertility awareness are knowledge based, they give a woman (couple) new information about her cycle. The opportunity is for the Church’s message on chastity and abstinence to appear guiding the couple when the woman’s smartphone screen displays fertility. You are absolutely right about the need to counter the secular message.
    This is an opportunity to change the paradigm of how the Church currently preaches about NFP. I also saw the article about Natural Cycles regarding the unwanted pregnancies. The reality is no method is perfect, I would offer the real effectiveness of current manual NFP methods (as promoted by the Church) is much less than the marketing materials state. Wearable medical technology/sensors, fertility apps and AI are only going to get better because the companies want a share of the contraceptive market which is targeted to grow to over $23 billion in 2020.
    More importantly, young women are much more health conscience and they want the information that allows them to manage their overall health, not just fertility. If they use an app why can’t we work with the developers to provide the right message regarding chastity and abstinence when the smartphone displays the notice of ovulation and that the woman is fertile. But we can only make this kind of catechetical advancement if we let go of our old paradigms.

  6. John Kippley says:

    David, I do not know what you mean by letting go “of our old paradigms.” But I am certain that we cannot depend upon the merchandisers of fertility awareness apps to teach marital chastity.
    For example, at the Natural Cycles website we see its self-description: “An easy to use mobile app as an effective method of contraception. Measure your temperature, enter it into the app and know exactly when you need to use protection.”
    Down its home page a bit: “When do I need to use protection?” “You should use protection [protection in red letters] or abstain on a red day…[red is the app signal for a fertile day].”
    At its store, you can purchase 12 different kinds of condoms.

    Catholic bishops and priests absolutely must preach the good news of Humanae Vitae including its call to chaste abstinence when using systematic NFP to avoid pregnancy.

    Every Catholic-related NFP program must also teach the call to generosity in having children and marital chastity when seeking to avoid pregnancy. And all such programs should be explicit about behaviors that are contraceptive behaviors. I don’t this is the case universally at present.

  7. David Wither says:

    John, I appreciate what you are saying and I in no way disagree with you. I am a practicing Catholic that supports Church teachings. Humanae Vitae calls the Church to work with science. The fertility sensors, the apps and the AI are advancements in science. Yes, some of the companies are going to try and be successful by providing a natural (knowledge based) system as an alternative to the pills, but some are also focusing on helping women conceive. My point about letting go of old paradigms is that we have not had much success bringing young woman to NFP (or into the pews for that matter). So why would the Church not to partner with a company like Ava or OvuSense have their developers build a Catholic version of their app that would work with their sensor and software that would be specifically for Catholics women/couples?

    You could build the catechist right into the app so that the right choices are present to the woman/coupe when the screen displays fertile. This type of approach could be done on a global level and pushed to all diocese for implementation and use. I believe it is a great digital gift from God. It does not change any teaching or doctrine we simply begin to use the automation that the technology offers as a new delivery method. Perhaps we need to realize that almost every woman in the developed countries has a smartphone and spends 2 hours a day on apps. This type of approach would align with what my bishops are saying about having to go out and meet the young people where they are. I am greatly that we have had this opportunity to exchange ideas. I will keep you in my prayers.

  8. Gertrude says:

    Fertility Awareness Methods, many incorporating the use of apps and other new technologies, are certainly gaining popularity as more and more couples decide they don’t want to pollute their bodies with chemicals and foreign bodies. (From what I understand, FAM is really quite popular in many European countries). But like John, I see no evidence that an increase in use of these methods will decrease actual contraceptive activities between spouses (in the form of condoms, mutual masturbation, or oral sex during the fertile time).

    In some ways, FAM offers the “best” of both possible worlds (leaving aside morality, of course). No chemicals and foreign bodies, and no sexual frustration between the couple due to abstinence. From a secular perspective, what’s not to love? And when you are “done” with childbearing, you can toss the technology, delete the apps, and get sterilized. Overall, a rather risk-free and pain-free way of effecting the regulation of birth over the course of a lifetime.

    Catholic-Church approved NFP requiring considerable abstinence for many couples over the course of 2-3 decades doesn’t stand a chance with the general public (not that it really ever has, frankly).

  9. John: Interesting. I wish we had the resources to pursue that endeavor.

  10. John: From a cynical, materialist, and secular perspective, what you write in your first two paragraphs is understandable, but what you say in your third paragraph calls for a response. From the perspective of faith in the Triune God who has a plan for love, marriage and sexuality, your third paragraph is mistaken. The problem that needs to be addressed is the lack of authentic Christian discipleship among many who call themselves Christian. The serious Christian disciple believes that Christ is worth dying for. And if He is worth dying for, He is also worth living for. Christ accepted suffering for our sake. The Christian is called to accept difficulties and even suffering as part of the price of discipleship. Abstinence undertaken as a form of obedience to the Law of Christ becomes a way of making partial atonement for our own sins of sexual immorality; and if you have no such sins, then such suffering becomes a means of uniting your suffering with that of Christ in atonement and reparation for the sins of others. We have had the privilege of seeing atheists, agnostics, and anti-Catholic Christians become Catholics through learning about Christian love as taught by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s teaching on birth control is a real winner, but it needs to be taught in the context of Christian discipleship. Just teaching fertility awareness is horribly inadequate and is open to the practice of the sexual immoralities in paragraph 1 above. Thanks for writing, and pray for Catholic bishops and priests to recognize their very important role is teaching Christian discipleship.

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