If the social teachings of the Catholic Church are sometimes considered its best kept secret, meaning that most Catholics do not know about them, or Church leaders have not made them known enough for members to live by them, what is its second best kept secret?
Not the scandals—sexual, financial or political—for these have occupied enough media space and air time. Not the hidden saintly lives worth emulating, for they come into the light sooner or later and gain following. Not the enormous wealth of the institution vis à vis the chosen poverty of those who wish to follow Jesus to the letter, for these sharp contrasts are obvious.
The Church’s “second best kept secret”—as those who wish to see it popularized and practiced impatiently call it—is the natural family planning (NFP) method. Second best kept secret because in spite of its supposed efficacy, not many know about it. Second best kept secret because those who should be advocating it (those fulminating against the recently passed Reproductive Health Law) are spending their energy badmouthing the RH advocates instead of buckling down to work to promote NFP. They are losing by default.
NFP is one of many means to plan family sizes or space births that the Catholic Church approves of, all the rest—contraceptives, abortion, vasectomy and tubal ligation—being anathema.
Two weeks ago I attended the daylong “Orientation to Population and Development” which tackled “challenges to the Filipino family today.” Among the event’s objectives was for participants to gain insight from the experiences in NFP of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro (CDO) and to engage Church people in a dialogue of faith on population and development issues. Also on the agenda was to explore areas of collaboration among Church and people’s groups in working for the wellbeing of Filipino families.
The organizers were from the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (Urban Missionaries, Women and Gender Concerns, and Center for Migrant Concerns) in partnership with the Philippine Center for Population and Development (PCPD). The gathering was an exercise in listening.
I came because I wanted to listen to CDO’s Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, the main speaker, who tackled pastoral perspectives on population and development and also shared his archdiocese’s experience in working with the PCPD. Yes, the PCPD, which does not hew to the Church’s blanket policy against artificial contraception but which includes NFP among the methods it supports—thus the PCPD-CDO archdiocese collaboration on NFP. Strange bedfellows? Not at all.
Just as enlightening was the talk of San Carlos University’s Dr. Socorro Gultiano who showed whether or not a country’s population is related to development. Felicitas C. Rixhon, executive director of PCPD, assured its support for NFP, as proven in the CDO archdiocese’s experience, but not NFP alone.
“Yes” to something. This is what Ledesma stressed in his talk, a departure from the nonstop “no” from anti-RH Law advocates who should be loudly saying “yes” to NFP.
Ledesma presented the three felt needs of couples in his archdiocese: They want family planning for family size and spacing; they prefer NFP plus adequate information on fertility awareness and NFP; they want to choose from among NFP methods to suit their own preferences.
In his paper titled “Promoting Natural Family Planning—Whose Move?” Ledesma said his pastoral experience included links with local government units and national government agencies over the past six years. Based on this, he has come up with recommendations for the government’s RH program.
These are: 1) The government, in promoting informed choice, should include NFP in its RH program. 2) In any government orientation on family planning, the first topic should be fertility awareness. 3) The government should provide information on all modern, scientifically tested NFP methods, including the simplified methods. 4) NFP requires values formation. 5) In its concern for maternal health, the government should give adequate information regarding the health risks of various kinds of contraceptives. 6) The government could set up a separate track for NFP promotion and provide support for faith-based organizations and their affiliated groups in promoting the values and methods of NFP.
On No. 2, Ledesma explained that fertility awareness entailed an understanding of human sexuality and nature’s way of regulating births through the fertility cycle of the human body. After the fertility awareness module, couples may be able to decide whether to go natural or use contraceptives. NFP methods are also called fertility-awareness-based methods, he said.
Many family life workers have told Ledesma that women who attended NFP seminars for the first time were not even aware that they had a natural cycle of fertile and infertile periods.
NFP is propoor, Ledesma stressed. “Once learned, there is no cost involved; it is sustainable across generations, with mothers passing on the method to their daughters.”
While speaking, Ledesma would often hold up a string of beads used in the Standard Days Method, supposedly the simplest. I asked if I could take a photo of him holding the beads and he said, sure. I said women would learn the method easily if they strung the beads themselves.
It is the local churches’ role, Ledesma said, to give information on all NFP methods (there are more than five) as a pastoral imperative, and that “proclamation more than denunciation” is the way to go, for Church leaders to be shepherds and companions, to lead with charity and compassion.
“You can’t simply condemn everyone who uses contraceptives,” he said.
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