The John J. Billings Memorial Lecture
Openness to Life and the Billings Ovulation Method®: Reflections on the Synod on the Family and its impact on our work.
12 May 2016, Zagreb, Croatia
Timeline to the Synod on the Family
On 8th October 2013, Pope Francis announced that in October 2014 there would be an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on topics related to the family and evangelization. The purpose of this first part of the Synod process was to “define the ‘status quaestionis’, the current situation, and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner. It was to thoroughly examine and analyse the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.” [In this context “particular Churches” refers to the Church in each place, which is why the head of the Bishops’ Conferences in each country was the person chosen to participate in the Extraordinary Synod.]
The Preparatory Document was released in November 2013, outlining the purpose of both the Extraordinary and Ordinary General Assemblies (that is, the first and second Synod gatherings). It provided a basic catechesis on the Gospel of the Family, and requested input from the world’s bishops on the current state of pastoral care for marriages and families.
A letter was sent from the Synod Secretariat to Bishops’ Conferences around the world with a series of questions to which they were asked to respond. They were also asked to canvass widely the opinions of their people on these topics. In many countries this resulted in the process being opened up to the faithful to offer comments, though the time-frame allowed was necessarily short, and somewhat difficult, coinciding as it did with Christmas of 2013! However the bishops were generally overwhelmed by the volume of responses they received – this was clearly a topic of great importance to people within and outside the Church. In addition, the Synod Secretariat wrote to other groups involved in an apostolate
to the family inviting them to respond. WOOMB International was one of the associations of the faithful to receive this invitation and we responded at length, as will be described later.
In June 2014 the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, was published containing the results of the consultation. This document provided a substantive reflection on the major challenges facing the family today and outlined the topics to be discussed at the Extraordinary General Assembly in October 2014.
Constant Teaching of the Church on the Family
Revelation, in Holy Scripture, and the Tradition of the Church sets out an unchanging vision of marriage and family.
From the Book of Genesis:
God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.” [Gen1:27-28] This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body. [Gen 2:24]
The teaching of Our Saviour Jesus Christ:
They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide. [Matt 19:6]
The writings of St Paul:
Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her, to make her holy. [Eph 5:25]
From the Desert Fathers:
United in the flesh, one in spirit, they urge each other on by the goad of their mutual love. For marriage does not remove God, but brings all closer to Him, for it is God Himself who draws us to it. [Gregory of Nazianzus]
St Thomas Aquinas:
Since by marriage certain persons are directed to one begetting and upbringing of children, and again to one family life, it is clear that in matrimony there is a joining in respect of which we speak of husband and wife; and this joining, through being directed to some one thing, is matrimony; while the joining together of bodies and minds is a result of matrimony. [Summa Theologica II-II, 154, 44, 1]
Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, devotes an entire chapter to promoting the dignity of marriage and the family (GS 47-52). This document defined marriage as a “community of life and love”, stating that the true love between husband and wife implies a “mutual gift of self” and includes and integrates the sexual and affective aspects, according to the diving plan.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church:
By transmitted human life to their descendants, man and woman as spouses and parents co-operate in a unique way with the Creator’s work. [CCC372]
Pope St Paul VI in Humanae Vitae
Pope St John Paul II in Familiaris Consortion
Pope Benedixt XVI in Deus Caritas Est and in Caritas in Veritate
Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei
Though expressed differently in different centuries, there can be no doubt that the Catholic Church has always upheld the sanctity of Marriage and the goodness, truth and beauty of the family.
In response to the 1980 Synod on the Family, the Holy See presented a Charter of Rights of the Family on 22nd October 1983, the first four points of which are:
A. The rights of the person, even though they are expressed as rights of the individual, have a fundamental social dimension which finds an innate and vital expression in the family;
B. the family is based on marriage, that intimate union of life in complementarity between a man and a woman which is constituted in the freely contracted and publicly expressed indissoluble bond of matrimony and is open to the transmission of life;
C. marriage is the natural institution to which the mission of transmitting life is exclusively entrusted;
D. the family, a natural society, exists prior to the State or any other community, and possesses inherent rights which are inalienable;
Thus the 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization was based on a long-held and unbroken vision of marriage and the family.
Pastoral Challenges of the Family in Today’s World
Coming from this standpoint, the Synod reflected on the particular challenges to the family faced in different societies and communities. There was general agreement that the institution of marriage and the family is under threat in many parts of the world particularly in developed nations. This was less apparent in Asia and Africa, but sadly even these communities are quickly catching up with the excesses and aberrations that are faced in the west. In addition African bishops spoke of the difficulty of integrating ancient traditions of polygamy with the Christian view of marriage being between one man and one woman, exclusively, for life.
It was acknowledged that the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is not widely understood, even by the faithful. There is a perception that Church teaching is more about what must not be done, than about the goodness and joy that flows from a love lived in all its fullness and fruitfulness. It was understood that the underlying reasons for the difficulty in accepting Church teaching stemmed from the pervasive and invasive new technologies, the influence of the mass media, the hedonistic culture, relativism, materialism, individualism, the growing secularism, the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals, the fragility of interpersonal relationships, a culture which rejects making permanent choices because it is conditioned by uncertainty and transiency – a veritable “liquid society” and one with a “throw away mentality which seeks instant gratification – values reinforced by the so-called “culture of waste” and “culture of the moment” as frequently noted by Pope Francis.
It was noted that the concept of natural law today is highly problematic if not completely incomprehensible – very few responses and observations demonstrated an adequate, popular understanding of natural law. The adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally”. People tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions and the idea of autonomy in human freedom. There is not the understanding of anthropological concepts being tied to an objective order in the nature of things and every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. The traditional view of natural law is
perceived as an outdated legacy to which scientific research, evolution, biology and neuroscience pose a serious challenge – it is just not “scientific”.
Particular difficulties enumerated included:
– human rights
– being understood only as the rights of the individual, with no attendant concept of responsibility;
– extensive practice of divorce, cohabitation, contraception, procedures of artificial procreation, “blended” families with children from different partners, and same-sex unions
– relationship difficulties and lack of communication – intergenerational conflict, lack of an experience of love, lack of a father-figure
– violence and abuse
– dependence, the media and social networks
– addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and video games, pornography
– impact of work and poverty on the family, migration and the struggle for subsistence
– consumerism and individualism – careerism and a competitive spirit
– family life, faith and ethics are relegated to the private sphere – governments and corporations increasingly ignore the needs of families and the importance of marriage
– the weight of societal expectations
– the impact of war
– problems of isolation and loneliness
– the transmission of the faith to children by parents who are too busy and preoccupied and lacking in understanding themselves, and schools which see it as a very low priority in the face of the plethora of other subjects to be covered.
Submission of WOOMB International to the Extraordinary Synod
WOOMB International’s submission to the Extraordinary Synod was in two parts – the letter which we sent directly to the Synod Secretariat in response to the questionnaire sent out in late 2013 and my intervention on the floor of the Synod when, along with other participants, I was given four minutes to address the Holy Father, Cardinals, Bishops and others present.
In our letter we addressed the particular issues raised and explained that in our belief and experience the Billings Ovulation Method® offers solutions to many of the difficulties faced. We stated that though few married couples have more than a hazy idea of the beauty and truth of the Church’s teaching on the family, those who are faithful to the Magisterium are very pleased to learn the Billings Ovulation Method® and find that there is a simple, practical, inexpensive and universally applicable way of living their conjugal relationship according to
Church teaching, whilst also enjoying the confidence of the reliability and scientific veracity of the Method and the wonderful benefits that it brings to their relationship of enhanced communication and loving cooperation in the divine plan.
We went on to explain that, perhaps more importantly “in the context of evangelisation” is the change we see wrought in the relationships of couples who do not come to the Billings Ovulation Method® out of obedience to Church teaching. Couples who may even have no interest in what the Catholic Church has to say about marriage and family, but who find that the greater knowledge and understanding of how their bodies work, together with the gentle discipline of the Method, required for it to work effectively, also leads them to respect a faith that advocates such practices. These people also learn to cherish and protect the wonderful gift of their fertility. A man sees his wife in a new light when he understands the intricate workings of her reproductive system. He wants only the best for the woman he loves and is anxious that she not do anything that would harm her health. A woman who sees that her husband can accept the need for abstinence from genital intercourse out of respect for her and consideration for their family situation, feels cherished and protected in a way she has not experienced previously.
Our letter stated that perhaps the greatest challenge that teachers of the Billings Ovulation Method® face is the number of couples who come to us with damaged fertility who find they cannot conceive a child. For whatever reason, often due to poor choices in the past, these couples find that when they are ready to have a child it does not happen. Society and the medical profession suggest that the answer lies with IVF or other assisted reproduction techniques and yet the statistics show that less than one third of couples who resort to such procedures will take home a living child. In the process many embryos are destroyed, the couple faces enormous financial costs and the woman endures painful and emotionally draining medical procedures. The Billings Ovulation Method® can help. It has been shown to be of great benefit to couples facing infertility issues, assisting many couples to achieve their desired pregnancy, even some who have previously failed on IVF.
We stated that many of the societal problems, enumerated by the Synod documents, have been faced by teachers of the Billings Ovulation Method® in our clinics – we have practical experience “at the coal face” of dealing with people in these situations. By offering women knowledge about their bodies and reproductive systems that respects the “whole woman”, physical, emotional and spiritual, we help them to understand the truth and beauty of Church teachings on love and life. This is not something learned in a day or a week, but the support and practical advice of a teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method® over time can gently lead couples to grace.
In the intervention that I made on the floor of the Synod I said that “when we open couples to living their marriage as God intended, even if they do not acknowledge Him, we enable the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. What better way to explain to them the meaning of the Natural Law? My husband wishes taxation laws were as easily explained!
I said: “If couples tell you that they have tried but the Method does not work for them, tell them to go back to their teacher, or if they did not learn from a teacher, they should do so now. In more than 30 years of teaching the Billings Ovulation Method I have never found anyone for whom it did not work if they applied themselves to learning and following the guidelines diligently. And do not imagine that married couples cannot make the necessary sacrifices. Marriage and parenthood involves much sacrifice – which we do willingly and lovingly. The very wise priest who prepared my husband and I for marriage said to us, “Marriage is not a 50:50 relationship, it is 100% total giving. He also said, “Love is not a feeling, it is a decision.”
I told the Synod fathers that “in dioceses where the Bishops actively support the
promulgation of natural family planning, good things happen in marriages. Too often in developed nations we get the response from priests that they do not want to upset people and so their people are denied this knowledge. WOOMB International stands ready to assist in meeting the challenge of evangelization of families by empowering women and couples with the knowledge of the great gift of their fertility. As Dr Evelyn Billings said: “This is knowledge of her body that every woman ought to have.”
Discussion/conclusions of the Extraordinary Synod
Notwithstanding the furore in the popular press in October 2014, there was no “earthquake in the Catholic Church”. The Synod Fathers came out strongly in favour of maintaining the centuries old tradition of the Church’s understanding of marriage as being between a man and a woman for the mutual benefit of husband and wife, and the bearing and raising of children – a relationship that is free, faithful, fruitful and forever.
The first and perhaps most encouraging conclusion to be drawn from the Relatio Synodi, the final report, was that there are many wonderful families in the world who are living and loving, struggling and praying to be faithful to the Church’s teaching on marriage and life. These families need to be recognised and supported. They are the mentors for other couples and families of the future. They are the shining lights that reveal the truth of the Gospel of the Family – not some weak and watered-down version of the Natural Law, but the living reality that what Jesus revealed to us by His life, death and resurrection is the only ‘narrow way’ to real joy and sanctification. He invites everyone to “come as you are”, but not to ‘stay as you are’. It is a radical call to conversion. A welcome that invites us all to come on a journey not just to worldly happiness, but to sanctity and the opportunity to be welcomed at the throne of grace for all eternity.
The Relatio Synodi lamented that children are often a “source of contention between parents” and too many are growing up in single-parent or ‘blended’ or even same-sex “families”, which are not families as we understand them. There is increasing domestic violence against women and sexual exploitation of children, pornography and the rise of “street children”. If these factors are not enough to make us despair the document goes on to discuss how the narcissistic and unstable affectivity of today’s young people results not in a desire to build “relationships of self-giving and creative reciprocity” but instead leads to a lack of maturity, commercialization of the body, misuse of the internet and forced prostitution. Couples do not grow and mature, never getting beyond the ‘me’ phase of their relationship leading to disillusionment, instability, relationship breakdown, separation and divorce, with serious consequences for the adults, their children and society as a whole, “weakening its individual and social bonds”.
There has developed an attitude of viewing children not as a gift and the crowning glory of the couple’s love, but as a possession to which they have a right, at any cost, or, conversely, as an inconvenience to be avoided lest they interfere with career aspirations and material wealth. In almost all developed nations the birth rate has fallen below replacement level, but there was more attention at the Synod to speeding up annulments and making concessions to the divorced and remarried of those countries, than to the imperative of reminding couples of the need for generosity in welcoming life and for founding the Christian families of the future.
However, it would be a tragedy if the attention of the Church, like the attention of the secular media, remained focussed on the problems, to the detriment of the many positive and hopeful suggestions contained in the final report for coming to grips with some of the other issues which were discussed. Suggestions such as:
– Proclaiming the Gospel of the Family and evangelizing by means of the joyous testimony of married people and families
– Highlighting the primacy of Grace, which the Spirit provides in the Sacrament of Marriage
– Confronting the crisis of faith which has resulted in parents failing to transmit the faith to their children
– Finding effective, meaningful language to proclaim the Gospel of the Family, not by proclaiming a set of rules, but by espousing values of each individual’s dignity, and the fulfilment of reciprocity, communion and fruitfulness
– Forming families as the Domestic Church sustained by prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture
– A re-stating of Christian marriage as a vocation which is undertaken with due preparation and proper discernment
– Renewal of training of priests and pastoral workers with a greater involvement of families
– The need for evangelization to clearly denounce cultural, social, political and economic factors which prevent authentic family life and lead to discrimination, poverty, exclusion and violence
– A greater effort in preparing those to be married, including the importance of the virtues, of which chastity is invaluable in the genuine growth of love between persons – requiring the witness of faithful families not just in marriage preparation but in preparation for Christian Initiation emphasizing the connection between marriage and the other sacraments
– Accompanying couples in the initial years of marriage – again requiring the
involvement of older couples as well as priests who would remind the newly married of the importance of family spirituality and prayer
– Pastoral care of couples civilly married or living together, by seeking to identify the goodness of their relationships – commitment, fidelity, children – and helping them to come to an understanding that these would be enriched and brought to fulfilment through the sacrament of marriage
– Caring for broken families – treating them with love and respect as we accompany them on the journey out of their brokenness to reconciliation and forgiveness, with particular emphasis on the needs of children who are the innocent victims of such breakdowns
– Pastoral attention towards persons who are same-sex attracted – reminding them of the call to chastity while avoiding any unjust discrimination
– Proclaiming anew that openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love while supporting young families in the struggles of rearing a young family in today’s social and economic climate
– Educating couples in the methods of responsible procreation and supporting those organisations which seek to spread this teaching
– Reminding couples of the fruitfulness of adoption and foster parenting, especially of children with special needs
– Education in affectivity as a path to maturity and ever-deepening acceptance of the other, and an ever-fuller gift of self, by programs to nourish married life and the witness of the lay faithful
– Meeting the challenge of raising children by support and accompaniment for families, and the witness of older couples to the family as a place of growth in the concrete and essential transmission of the virtues which give form to our existence
– Programs for children and young people which are faith-based and age appropriate – research shows that young people who are involved in parish youth groups are less likely to become involved with risk behaviours such as drug taking and sexual experimentation
– A return to Marian devotion – Mary as our model of tenderness, mercy and maternal sensitivity – we need to seek her intercession for our families and Church