Pope Francis on NFP and Birth Rates
“Indeed, the birth of children is the main indicator for measuring the hope of a people…If few are born, it means that there is little hope.” ― Pope Francis
In recent weeks, Our Holy Father has captured global headlines twice with remarks highlighting the beauty of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality, and how that teaching is necessary to combat the nihilism of our modern age.
The first remarks were delivered at the end of April to a conference on natural methods of fertility awareness in Rome. And then, just a few days ago, the Holy Father addressed a conference on birth rates (video of address), in which he decried the various forces of secularism that are preventing families from welcoming new children into the world.
Pope Francis: We Need a ‘Revolution’
At the end of April, leading researchers and advocates of the practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP) met at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart for a conference. The conference was organized to mark seventy years of researching into the so-called “Billings Method” of NFP – one of several possible licit models for understanding the naturally occurring signs of the fertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
In his remarks to this conference, Pope Francis began by praising John and Evelyn Billings – the founders of the Billings Method – for launching a new program of research that fought against the spirit of what he called “contraceptive culture.”
The Holy Father noted that the Billings’ research led to “serious reflection” on a variety of pressing issues. “These include the need for education in the value of the human body,” he said, “an integrated and integral vision of human sexuality, an ability to cherish the fruitfulness of love even when not fertile, the building up of a culture that welcomes life and ways to confront the problem of demographic collapse.”
Pope Francis noted that continued thinking, research, and education on this topic is critical in the midst of a culture that embraces a “relativist and trivialized view of human sexuality.” Of particular importance, he noted, is the need to emphasize “the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act.”
Here, Pope Francis cited Pope St. Paul VI’s famous encyclical Humanae vitae, which reiterated the Church’s long-standing teachings about human nature and new life, reaffirming its opposition to the “contraceptive culture,” its mentality, and the use of artificial contraceptives. In that encyclical, Pope St. Paul VI drew attention to the intrinsic inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality. As Pope St. Paul VI noted, “the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.”
Or, as Pope Francis put it, while the “unitive” aspect of sexuality expresses “the desire of the spouses to be one, a single life,” the procreative “expresses the shared desire to generate life.”
“When these two meanings are consciously affirmed,” the Holy Father added, “the generosity of love is born and strengthened in the hearts of the spouses, disposing them to welcome new life.” However, when one or the other is abandoned, then “the experience of sexuality is impoverished, reduced to sensations that soon become self-referential.” In other words, when either the procreative or unitive meanings of sexuality are ignored, sex becomes fundamentally selfish.
Pope Francis suggested that, in the face of the degradation of sexuality in the modern world that followed the sexual revolution “and the breakdown of taboos,” we are in need of a “revolution in our thinking.” “We need,” he added, “to discover the beauty of human sexuality by once again turning to the great book of nature, learning to respect the value of the body and the generation of life, with a view to authentic experiences of conjugal love.”
One of the many advantages of natural methods of fertility awareness, noted Pope Francis, is that those who practice these licit methods never lose sight of the inseparability of precreation from the unitive aspect of sexuality. However, one of many negative consequences of the separation of these two elements in the modern world has been the growth of profoundly inhuman and inhumane “alternative” fertility technologies.
The Holy Father decried the fact that with these new reproductive technologies, procreation is no longer the natural outcome of the loving embrace of husband and wife, but rather uses “artificial” means that have produced all manner of grave evils. “[I]t is wrong,” he said, “to create test tube embryos and then suppress them, to trade in gametes and to resort to the practice of surrogate parenthood” (see Donum vitae).
Plummeting Birth Rates Inspire a Call for Courage
Just a few days after his remarks to the WOOMB conference, Pope Francis appeared on a stage with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, at a conference on birth rates. As I have written in recent months, birth rates all over the world are plummeting far below replacement levels. Nowhere is this truer than in Italy.
Sadly, this nation, with its venerable history of a strong Catholic faith, and its cultural identity based upon the importance of family, is already beginning to implode demographically. In just two generations, Italy has gone from a nation known for its large, rambunctious, multi-generational families, to one in which children are rare, and the elderly are dying at twice the rate as children are being born.
This gap between births and deaths is so astounding that some people, most prominently Elon Musk, have suggested that Italy’s future as a nation is at risk, especially since history suggests that it is extremely difficult to reverse such rapid birth rate collapse.
Both Prime Minister Meloni and Pope Francis took the opportunity to decry this state of affairs, and to call Italy and other developed nations back to a saner outlook, in which new life is welcomed and treasured.
“We want to give Italians back a country where being fathers and mothers is a socially recognized value and not a private matter,” Meloni stated at the conference. “A nation where having a child is a beautiful thing, which does not take anything away from you and does not prevent you from anything and which gives you a lot. For decades, the dominant culture has told us otherwise, I think it’s time to reverse the trend.”
Just as Pope Francis has called for a “revolution” to counter the values of the sexual revolution, so also Prime Minister Meloni noted that in the modern world “talking about motherhood and families is a revolutionary act.” Meloni emphasized that “natality is the priority of our action so that Italy returns to have hope in the future,” noting that her government has created an agency devoted to addressing the “crisis” of Italy’s demographic winter.
For his part, Pope Francis noted that falling birth rates are a sign of an underlying spiritual disease in society. “The challenge of natality is a matter of hope,” noted the Holy Father, “which is not illusion or vague optimism. It is a concrete virtue. It is an attitude of life. It is nourished by commitment, and it grows when we are participants and involved in giving meaning.”
The Holy Father noted that young people live in a world in which it seems as if “starting a family has turned into a titanic effort, rather than being a shared value that everyone recognizes and supports.” One result, he noted, is that people have gravitated towards keeping pets, rather than welcoming children. However, he argued that that the correct response is to cultivate the virtue of “courage.”
Pope Francis likewise called for concrete action to encourage couples to welcome children. “A change of mentality is needed,” he said. “The family is not part of the problem, but part of its solution. And so, I ask myself: Is there anyone who knows how to look ahead with the courage to bet on families, children, young people?”
We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realize their family dream and are forced to lower the bar of desire, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, and jealously guarding leisure time.
The strength and clarity of the Holy Father’s remarks on the issues of natural methods of fertility awareness and demographic collapse are extremely welcome. In these latest remarks, the Holy Father has drawn the world’s attention to the deep wisdom captured in the Catholic Church’s teachings on human dignity, conjugal love, and human sexuality.
To the world, the Church’s condemnations of the “wonderful” new contraceptive technologies invented and sold to billions in the 20th century seems pure foolishness. Who in their right mind would not welcome the human race’s newfound control over sexuality, allowing people to enjoy all the pleasures of sexual intercourse without any of the consequences?
However, as Pope St. Paul VI prophetically foretold in Humanae vitae, all of this unfettered “freedom” came with startling long-term costs. The world, so bedazzled by the technical brilliance of the Pill, and so allured by all the pleasure it promised, could not see further than the front of its nose. The Church, however, with all her collected wisdom, could see into the depths of the problem of human sexuality, and see far into the future.
As Pope Francis rightly emphasized in his remarks, sexuality unmoored from purpose and vocation becomes “self-referential.” When lived wholistically, sexuality is self-transcendent, drawing a person outside of himself: first, drawing him towards his spouse, and then towards the children that are begotten through their union, and then through their children to the totality of human society. Contrary to the slogans of the sexual revolutionaries, sex is not a purely “private” affair. It has vast, multi-generational consequences.
But cut off from the moral wisdom of the Church, the modern world ensured that the marital embrace was no longer an act that enlarged the person, but rather simply cast the person back inwards, into the cramped spaces of the individual ego. The result for the individual has been a crisis of loneliness, leading to a breakdown in marriage and family life, and for society a demographic collapse that poses an enormous threat to the health of many nations.
As the Holy Father noted in his remarks to the natural methods of fertility awareness conference, “At the root of the current demographic crisis is, along with various social and cultural factors, an imbalance in the view of sexuality.” That is, we have separated the unitive and the procreative aspects of sexuality. Not only has this separation led to a collapse in procreation, but it has also led to a collapse in authentic love between husbands and wives. Instead, men and women use one another for fleeting pleasure, without any sense of responsibility or self-transcendent purpose to lend meaning to their escapades.
The strength of natural methods of fertility awareness (like the Creighton Model FertilityCare™ System and Billings) is that these methods use cutting edge modern science, but in a way that respects both nature and the moral law, thus helping “couples make informed and ethically sound decisions that are more respectful of the person and his or her dignity,” said Pope Francis. Thus, the natural methods of fertility awareness, “helps couples to be more conscious of their marital vocation and to bear witness to the Gospel values of human sexuality.”
It is encouraging to the many faithful Catholics who have labored over the decades to develop natural methods of fertility awareness, and then to create programs to educate Catholics in those methods, to have such strong support from our Holy Father. As collapsing birth rates all over the world attest, our society is desperately in need of the Church’s wisdom on sexuality, to call us back to a view of sexuality that is rooted in love and responsibility.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.