50 years after Humanae Vitae

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Later Pastoral Experiences

After the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope John Paul II personalised Humanae Vitae in Familiaris Consortio 28-35. Benefiting from the woman’s cycle, couples cooperate with God as ministers of life, open to the divine plan. The Holy Father promoted the truly interpersonal way of the natural regulation of fertility (FC 32).

In the early years of my priesthood in Melbourne, I came to know Dr John and Dr Lyn Billings. I soon became one the chaplains to the Ovulation Method circle and became active in the successful secondary school programs.  In 1984 John Billings invited me to accompany him with Dr Kevin Hume to a conference on Humanae Vitae being held in Rome at the new John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. During a discussion at that conference, with some trepidation, I stood up and expressed my views in favour of the infallibility of the encyclical.

Doctors Evelyn and John Billings. The Australian couple pioneered natural methods of spacing pregnancies based on the observable signs of fertility in a woman’s cycle. Their still little-known work has grown remarkably throughout the world – not least for its exceptional accuracy as well as its recognition that femininity is not a medical condition that requires constant medical treatment. Among the Billings Movement’s greatest adherents have been non-Christian couples seeking natural alternatives and countries such as China and India where population is a constant issue.

Several years earlier, I had already encountered opposition in the Australian Catholic Theological Association for presuming to express that opinion. Later, working in Rome, I was effectively expelled from that association, this time for not supporting a theologian who rejected the physical Resurrection of Our Lord.  But in Rome the atmosphere at that conference was very different to the mentality that unfortunately had infected Australian theological circles.  Archbishop, later Cardinal, Edouard Gagnon offered to supervise my doctoral thesis, proposing the sacramentality of marriage as its theme. Therefore, I was able to return to Rome later that year to commence studies at the Institute, which in turn led to service in the Pontifical Council for the Family, 1987-1997.

Working in the Pontifical Council for the Family

In the years of Vatican service in the Pontifical Council for the Family, I came to appreciate the luminous teaching of Humanae Vitae more deeply, by meeting men and women who promoted and served it. A celibate priest finds that his vocation is enriched by learning from the personal experiences of so many couples who follow the papal teachings, who live those teachings day by day, and that is not always easy, a path of courage, mutual understanding and sacrifice.

A priest also discovers the insights of families in mutual-support movements. I found that the truth of life and love was further elucidated at interesting conferences and through new projects related to the natural regulation of childbirth.  For example in Washington DC, Dr Hann Klaus, taught a natural method to Afro-American prostitutes. They soon came to understood their sexuality in terms of fertility and this helped freed them from exploitation. Dr Klaus also developed sexuality education for young people in a natural fertility perspective, known as Teen-Star.

Swiss Guards march in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Christmas Day, 2017. Working for several years in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, the-then Mons Elliott came to appreciate the luminous teachings of Humanae Vitae even more deeply. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

In many different cultures, women really took control of their fertility, not by claiming some spurious right to abortion, as we have heard in Ireland, but by appreciating the truth and beauty of the natural cycles inscribed in their bodies. In Latin America awareness of the natural cycle has equipped poor women to overcome the macho-culture of sexually-demanding male partners. In this regard, the work of Dr Anna Cappella OP in African nations and beyond was a great example to us in Rome.

There were some unforgettable moments. One day, the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo set up two portraits in the corridor of our offices: Pope Paul VI, “the Pope of Humanae Vitae” and Pope John Paul II, “the Pope of Evangelium Vitae”. To me, that gesture captured what Pope Benedict XVI describes as the “hermeneutic of continuity”, here applied to the strong and consistent papal teaching on love and life.

Pope John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. The successor to St Pope Paul VI picked up, in a sense, where his predecessor left off with Humanae Vitae, focusing strongly throughout his own pontificate on the divine significance of marriage, sex and human life. For St John Paul II, our gender is the visible sign that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Photo: CNS, Chris Niedenthal

I also recall Cardinal Lopez Trujillo choosing that beautiful and accurate expression, the authentic alternative to describe the natural spacing of childbirths. His words capture two pastoral principles: 1. that the natural methods embody the truth of the human person, an authentic understanding of fertility, and 2. that these scientifically sound methods offer a real alternative to the “easy” but deceptive and damaging ways of artificial contraception or sterilisation.

After I returned to Australia in 1997, over meals in their home in Kew, Dr John and Dr Lyn Billings recounted their work to promote the Ovulation Method throughout China. This fascinating story will be told one day. Many journeys, often under difficult conditions, took them to the most far-flung provinces of China. The natural methods offer a way through the ethical issues raised by the One Child Policy, and Chinese people are open to what is natural. I alluded to the gratitude of the women of China when I had the honour to preach at Dr. John Billings’ funeral in 2007, and to celebrate the funeral Mass for his beloved wife, Dr. Lyn in 2013.