The John J. Billings Memorial Lecture
Nature and Grace and the Billings Ovulation Method®
Most Rev Peter J Elliott Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne
Friday May 1st 2009, Melbourne, Australia
The John J. Billings Memorial Lecture
To be invited to deliver the first John J. Billings Memorial Lecture is a great honour. Two years ago, I felt humbled and privileged to be the homilist at Dr John’s funeral Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne. As on that occasion, we remember and celebrate a great man, a wise leader with a generous heart and gentle patience. In developing the most widely-known method of natural fertility awareness, this courageous man worked with Dr. Lyn Billings, his beloved wife who is with us tonight. Undaunted by challenges they have been able to help thousands of couples around the world by offering a reliable and ethical way of understanding and regulating human fertility. You are all part of that great continuing project initiated by Dr John and Dr Lyn Billings. I thank you for your dedication, your sacrifices and commitment.
We also honour and pray for two leaders of this project who this year passed into eternal life, Dr. Anna Cappella, OP, and Dr Kevin Hume. Together with Dr John Billings may they rest in the peace of the risen Christ and receive an eternal reward for their service of life and love.
The theme of this lecture and our international conference is “Nature and Grace and the Billings Ovulation Method”. I hope my reflection can show how John and Lyn Billings and all the men and women they inspired and trained are ministers of life and love, serving the grace of God in the lives of men and women and their families.
To some people that might seem a puzzling even an extraordinary claim. What can a scientific method of natural birth spacing have to do with the grace of God? But I hope to show that this is not so mysterious or extraordinary. Our God works through us, in our human nature, in this case through healing and restoring a central dimension of the natural world, the transmission of human life.
With this topic there is no avoiding an introductory study of doctrine and some theology. In light of that study, I will bring together the Billings Ovulation Method and the grace of God.
Nature and grace – what do we mean by these terms which are used by all Christians?
Nature, natura, refers to what God has given in the created world around us: the nature of things, minerals, plants, the nature of animals and people. In our perspective we focus on the nature of the human person, a unique being created in the image and likeness of God. The nature of people and things is generally understood as unchanging, or at least a stable and relatively predictable, hence capable of careful observation and scientific analysis. The natural cycle of fertility in a woman’s body is a fine example of this.
Grace – gratia, a gift, what comes free, gratis, what is given gratuitously, in this case the free gift of God’s life and love imparted to human beings. Grace is “supernatural”, that is, “above nature” coming directly from God, a divine work through the Holy Spirit, but for us even a sharing in the divine nature.
However, the obvious question arises: how exactly does the grace of God come together with human nature? How does the human person receive grace? Among Christians of all varieties, this has been an ongoing issue since New Testament times – to work out how human nature as part of this created world can receive the grace of God. Moreover, why does our human nature need God’s grace? There are two extreme opposing answers to those questions and a Catholic resolution takes what is best from these extremes.
Error 1. Grace is Separated from Nature
The first extreme view is to see nature and grace as separate zones or compartments, in tension, even conflict. This rests on an interpretation of St Paul, “the flesh versus the spirit”, and St Augustine, particularly his later writings against the heresy of Pelagius. Nature is understood as belonging purely to the material world, the natural order. Grace belongs to the spiritual world, the supernatural order. The danger here is of sliding into what is called “dualism” – sharply separating matter from spirit, body from soul, this world from heaven, the state from the Church, what is secular from what is sacred, what is scientific from what is religious. That dualism is implicit in separating nature from grace.
In this perspective, grace comes from the outside, from beyond us, from God who is totally the Other. Because of original sin we have lost all grace; we are totally depraved and corrupt. We are helpless, for we do not have a free will. The divine image in each of us has been lost. Therefore, to save us, God intervenes in a ruined creation and selects those who will be saved. These elect ones receive an irresistible grace, predestining then for heaven. This is classical Luthern, Calvinist or Jansenist theology.
I smile to myself when I hear elderly Catholic ladies blithely singing “Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me….” The author of the popular hymn was a sinful wretch involved in the slave trade. His conversion to Christ was the work of God’s amazing grace. It was not his work, not his human effort. He sang from his heart, in gratitude.
In that hymn “Amazing Grace” we hear the strong rhetoric of “being saved”, echoing religious revivalism in the evangelical tradition, This is often accompanied by the demand that everyone must undergo a dramatic and decisive conversion experience to receive grace. Without that you cannot be one of the elect, a real Christian predestined for heaven.
Catholicism, interestingly enough, never requires a specific kind of religious experience for anyone. In the Universal Church there is a wide range of religious experiences. Some people undergo a dramatic conversion experience, rescued or surprised by grace. Most others pass through a gradual process of conversion. Some people also have mystical experiences. Grace is at work in many ways. But every practising adult Catholic can recall some decisive moment or moments of conversion, usually associated with returning to our Lord and Saviour through forgiveness in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
A dramatic understanding of grace may sound offensive when exaggerated by fundamentalists. At the same time it has an attractive quality. It does call people to conversion, to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to make a decision for him. Pope Benedict XVI said: “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”1
As St Paul and St Augustine insisted, we are saved by grace, through entering a right relationship with God, saved by faith not by our good deeds. But the Council of Trent, following these great saints, insisted that at the same time we are made inwardly good, justified, by the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, present and at work in us, primarily in Baptism.2
Already I have mentioned two sacraments, and it will be in sacraments that we find the intersection, convergence and union of nature and grace. We will also see that because original sin has obscured our moral understanding, we need help to act rightly, help to follow the Natural Law in daily life and in our relationships with others.
Error 2. Grace is “Natural”
At the opposite extreme we find the error of playing down grace and exaggerating the goodness of human nature. Within liberal Christianity there is this tendency to overlook or redefine grace and to minimise the saving role of God in our lives. Obviously in reaction to the exaltation of grace over nature, grace is regarded as part of the natural creation or just a religious way of understanding or interpreting life in this world.
This was the heresy of Pelagius, refuted by St Augustine one thousand six hundred years ago. Pelagius played down original sin and exaggerated human goodness and free will. He said that grace assists us to follow Christ, encouraging us to do good. But we all have the capacity to do good and good deeds get us to heaven. Jesus Christ is not so much our Redeemer and personal Saviour as a noble example we follow. We are called to imitate Jesus. Popular spirituality in this vein is often Pelagian.
This raises a sensible question – why not imitate Buddha or Ghandi? What is so special about Christ? Once you make Christianity into an ethical system, being moral by human effort, that becomes a very serious question.
Grace in this view is an interpretation of life, usually the better side of life. But once grace is absorbed by nature, understood as human nature at its best, then “grace” becomes just a word. Liberal Christianity abounds with this false understanding of grace. But there are also some conservative Christians, including not a few Catholics, who think that just good deeds get you to heaven, not the saving gift of grace.
However, it is clear as St James points out in his Epistle that good deeds or “good works” are an essential part of Christian life. This is where liberal Christians rightly remind us of the need for active commitment to works of justice, peace, charity, social action to change the world. The Church is in accord with this, teaching that, while we need grace to fulfil the commandments and do good, good works are part of the way we cooperate with God and do help us finally to achieve salvation.
However Christianity is not merely a system of ethics and the Church is not just a social welfare agency. As Pope Benedict has said in his encyclical letter on love: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”3
The Balance, Nature and Grace Converge
Finding the balance between nature and grace is important. I have indicated some good elements at both erroneous extreme views, but their exaggerations can lead us into a rigid fundamentalism, on the one hand, or Jesus-flavoured humanism, on the other.
The Church teaches that we need grace, but we should also see how our human nature is open to grace, that we were created for grace, created to be sons and daughters of God. Our nature as male and female is also oriented towards grace. Therefore grace is not “something” added, that comes to us from the outside, rather grace is the empowering presence and work of Someone, God already in us – a divine image and presence never completely lost by original sin. This is summed up in another area in the teaching that God provides sufficient grace for anyone to be saved, even those who have never known Jesus Christ consciously.
However God was not bound to create anything or anyone. And if we are oriented towards grace this does not mean that we deserve or merit grace. Grace is not something God owes us. Grace remains a free gift. The Church insists on this New Testament principle, proclaimed by St Paul, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.
Eastern Christian insights are also useful here. Grace is understood not so much as “something” we receive but as human nature raised to share in the divine nature, being “divinised”. Grace among Eastern Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, is understood as the indwelling of God the Trinity, the divine life imparted by the Holy Spirit to make us divine. This process will be completed beyond death. As the Third Eucharistic Prayer puts it in the intercession for the dead: “On that day we shall see you, our God as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever…”
The Church and Sacraments
The convergence and interaction between nature and grace is found in Jesus Christ himself. He is God and Man in his Incarnation. His Church, is thus human and divine, and her Sacraments are material acts and signs of the world of nature yet each is a means of grace. Each sacrament extends the Incarnation across time and space. These human and divine acts flow from the saving work of Christ for us on the cross and through his resurrection.
When Mary, who is who “full of grace” said yes, God took human nature in Jesus Christ. Human nature was thus seen by God as good, not rejected by God. But human nature has lost much through original sin and its effects. It is a wounded nature. The human intellect and will are clouded or obscured, therefore we all stand in need of the saving and enlightening grace of God, through the Gospel and baptism, and also in other ways.
The Church is a great sacrament, as the Second Vatican Council teaches.4 Her seven sacraments are the “means of grace”. To develop the theme of this lecture we focus on one of these sacraments, Marriage. Here we see nature and grace converging. Marriage is part of the natural goodness of creation, as the Genesis stories tell us, yet now raised up by Jesus Christ, refashioned by him to become a means of grace, a sacrament.
However, as a natural part of creation marriage was always graced, first because all creation is a gift and God sees his creation as good. The human person in himself or herself is a gift from the Creator. But created as male and female, the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, an image never completely lost by original sin. The man and the woman can become gifts to one other. Their love is reciprocal in marriage.
Marriage establishes a natural community of life and love. But through the sacrament of marriage, the family becomes the domestic Church, a community of grace. The family reveals the inseparable interaction of nature and grace – in the love of husband and wife, in their capacity to transmit and nurture life. When human beings get this right, we see how nature and grace can help us understand what we are doing when we promote, teach or practise a natural method of fertility awareness. We are helping couples to get it right, we are serving nature through grace.
Linking Nature, Grace and the Method
What then has grace to do with a “method” of recognising and regulating human fertility? Already I have anticipated the answer by taking up marriage as a means of grace, a sacramental life of covenant grace. Whatever is natural in creation can become a means of grace. Human sexuality and the cycle of fertility God has inscribed in the body of every woman are good elements in creation. So these can become a means of grace. There is also something wonderfully good in being a man or being a woman, as the Eden creation stories tell us. Grace builds on this goodness in nature. Grace is at the heart of the Good News of Christ, how we are to live, infused by the virtues of faith, hope and love.
However, after the Second Vatican Council some theologians played down grace or they tended to identify grace with nature. They even redefined original sin. This trend influenced catechetics, badly. But the Council itself did not modify grace and original sin. This reminds us that we need to follow Pope Benedict’s wise guidance and interpret Vatican II only in light of the whole continuous tradition of Councils and Popes that preceded it, that is, according to the “hermeneutic of continuity”.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern world, Gaudium et Spes reflects a certain optimism about human nature, yet it presents original sin in a strong way, as an inner division in every human person.5 That inner division cries out for healing, for the restoration of unity, for grace, hence enlightenment to know what is right and act rightly.
In this perspective, we can better appreciate the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. The tearing apart of love from life, of unity from procreation, was at the heart of Pope Paul’s teaching against contraception in Humanae Vitae.6 In light of that we can see that the contraceptive enterprise, indeed every act of contraception, recapitulates the inner division of original sin, the disruption of human nature. Couples no longer are co-operators with the Creator God but conspirators against the divine plan, as were our first parents in their fall from grace.
The Servant of God Pope John Paul II underlined this in Familiaris Consortio. But he also taught in Familiaris Consorti, that when the couple accept the natural cycle and “enter” it, then they can benefit from the cycle and they become ministers of life and love, cooperating with the Creator in the task of procreation without manipulation or alteration.7
Entering the cycle, accepting it through a natural method, is an act of faith and trust in the Creator God. Can this be a purely “natural” act? No – it is a choice and an act graced by God. No matter what level of religious faith that couple may have, when they trust in God, even implicitly, God will work in them. Am I suggesting that God’s grace can work in hidden ways even beyond the sacraments? Indeed I am.
Men and woman take up what God has inscribed in the body of every woman, that is, part of his wondrous creation. God looks on creation as sees it as good and he blesses them as he blessed the first humans. He imparts grace and they can minister grace to one another.
However men and women only become ministers of grace to one another when they respect the unity of life-giving and love-giving. To achieve this, they need someone to bring them enlightenment, a moral way of spacing births according to Natural Law. These teachers of a natural method for spacing childbirths also become ministers of grace.
At times our dedicated teachers are surprised because God’s grace has, as it were, arrived there before them. I recall the story of members of an African tribe that, on first learning of the Billings Ovulation Method®, said something like this: “Oh, we knew that anyway. That has always been part of women’s wisdom among our people.” Then in New Guinea, when a teacher of natural method nervously told the men in the village that they would have to practise some abstinence, they were offended and replied, “Do you think we are animals, that we cannot do that?”
Inspired by Pope John Paul II and his sharp contrast between cooperating with God or conspiring against God, we recognise a recovery of God’s original plan in the practice and teaching of natural methods. Whenever we offer these ways to couples, we help them to remove the obstacles to grace set up by contraception. Developing the work of the late Fr. Paul Quay SJ, I have argued that grace is impeded when we misuse nature in contraception.8 This might explain so much spiritual torpor and indifference in families of the Church whenever contraception is tolerated by being left to an elastic conscience.
This is why there is a close causal relationship between natural methods and good marriages. Natural methods serve the nuptial meaning of the body. Natural methods help couples discover or recover a sacramental understanding of their marriage. The self-giving love of their sexuality mirrors the generous self-giving and fruitful love of Jesus Christ for us, for his bride the living Church.
At the beginning of his encyclical on love, the Holy Father proclaimed that “We have come to believe in God’s love”9 (1 John 4:16). Another way of putting this is: “We have put our trust in love”, the motto chosen by Dr John Billings for teaching and promoting the Ovulation Method. Divine love, caritas or agape, is the supreme grace, the infused virtue working with faith and hope, poured into our hearts to heal and guide us, to animate us to serve others.
Towards Better Language
When we speak of natural methods, we need to find language that respects this convergence of nature and grace. I am not arguing for specifically religious language, but let me suggest that we should avoid speaking of “natural family planning”. That implies human control, and veers off in the self-sufficient Pelagian direction, which discounts grace and exults human effort. Nor is it prudent to speak of “controlling ones fertility”, which raises much the same problem as “birth control”. Yet it may be useful to describe a natural method as giving back to a woman the control of her fertility that is denied her by contraceptives.
The term “the natural regulation of fertility” is reasonable, because the emphasis seems falls on “natural”. However, it may be better to speak of postponing or achieving a pregnancy and of spacing births. Natural fertility awareness is good ecology of the body, and that may offer another useful perspective. I would favour the natural spacing of births as a description of natural methods to achieve or postpone child birth.
Are the Natural Methods “Religious”?
Let me conclude with another matter. We insist that the natural methods are not “religious”. We say that the methods are “scientific”. This is a good argument we use against people who tell lies about the methods, or to encourage people to trust in the efficacy of the methods. However, in terms of grace working through people, any natural method of discerning fertility can be very religious.
When the method is used for the right reasons, for good reasons with the right intention, then grace and nature converge. This is “religious” in every sense. God is working through people who cooperate with the divine plan for life and love. Moreover God is working not only through the husband and wife, but through those who assist them as secondary ministers of life. The gift of this convergence of nature and grace is a new person, the gift of the child, welcomed when the transmission of human life becomes a deeply personal and truly spiritual endeavour.
Therefore, I hope that in the years ahead, long after we have moved beyond this natural world, people will recognise our times as a decisive moment. We need to seize this moment, to grasp the opportunity of this era when the culture of life engages in a struggle with the culture of death. That is what John Billings would have wanted, indeed, within the Communion of Saints that is what he wants now. By ourselves we can achieve little, but with God’s amazing grace all things are possible. God is patiently at work in those he calls and sends, in the marriages of men and women and in those who assist them. All in their own ways can be ministers of God’s life and love.
Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. Between 1987 and 1997 he was an Official of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He is the Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne.
1 Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Sunday April 24, 2005.
2 See, Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Chapter VII.
3 Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, 1
4 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 1.
5 See, Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 13.
6 Cf, Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter, Humanae Vitae, 12..
7 Cf, Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, 32.
8 See, Peter J. Elliott, What God Has Joined, the Sacramentality of Marriage, Alba House/St Paul Publications 1990, pp.212-218.
9 Cf. Deus Caritas Est, 1.