This year the question of religious liberty has emerged as a central issue far beyond what any of us would have imagined just a couple of years ago. I am grateful to all of our pastors who promoted the US bishops' call for the "Fortnight for Freedom" and have continued to educate our people on this very important challenge to us at this time, and for all of our people who have been actively engaged in advocating for this God-given and constitutional right of ours.
Of course, it is the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that all employer-provided insurance coverage include contraception, with only the narrowest of exceptions for religious organizations, that has brought this issue to the fore with fever-pitch intensity. This, though, is only the latest and most blatant challenge in the area of freedom of the exercise of religion and of conscience.
Surveys that ask people their opinion on whether insurance providers should include contraception in their coverage are missing the point. We would certainly hear different results if, instead, the pollsters asked: "Who should decide for a religious organization what its mission is, the religious organization itself or the government?"; "Who should define for a religious organization the people to whom it is to extend health, education and social services, the religious organization itself or the government?"; "Who should define for a religious organization who its members are, the religious organization itself or the government?"
While the leadership of faith communities throughout the country has rightly kept the focus on religious liberty and freedom of conscience, nonetheless, the HHS mandate has put the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood and the legitimate regulation of birth front and center.
Another question lurking in the background in this whole debate is this: Why would the government require, for the sake of women's health, insurance coverage of a medication the World Health Organization classifies as a Class 1 carcinogen? Yet, this is exactly what the WHO has done after dozens of studies over a period of many years have demonstrated a link between hormonal contraceptives and increased risk of breast and cervical cancer (as well as heart disease) in women (cf. www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/ageing/cocs_hrt_statement.pdf).
This is just the starting point — i.e., physical health — to understanding the wisdom of the Church's teaching in this area. In accordance with the principle of human ecology so well articulated by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on the Church's Social Teaching, "Charity in Truth," all of the various dimensions of the meaning of conjugal love in marriage are interrelated, each one affecting all the others: the physical, the emotional, the psychological, the sociological, the economic, the environmental, the relational, the moral, the spiritual, and the theological and mystical. If any one of these is corrupted, it will impoverish all of the others.
This HHS mandate controversy, then, calls us to take advantage of this moment to educate our people on all the various aspects of the Church's teaching that, for grave reasons, a married couple may have recourse to the infertile periods of the woman's cycle in order to delay the begetting of new offspring. Sadly, there is much ignorance about natural family planning, even among medical professionals, and many people make very serious decisions about their own lives and those of others out of this ignorance.
We are sometimes even mocked for our belief by those who do not understand it, and, likely, don't want to, despite the fact that the physical practice of NFP is thoroughly based on science. We will, then, seize this opportunity in The Catholic Voice by publishing a series of articles, beginning with this issue, about the multi-faceted reality of Natural Family Planning and the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood, authored by people with expertise in these respective areas pertaining to this teaching of the Church.
I would just add here that the proof is in the pudding: NFP couples report greater satisfaction in their marital relationship, and have an extremely low divorce rate (one study showed a rate below 2 percent, and the rate can be even lower for couples who also practice their faith together).
Thus, it supports sustainability in the marital relationship. It is also sustainable in the sense that it doesn't cost anything once the couple is trained (which also means that no one is making any money off of it).
When learned and practiced correctly, it is as reliable as, or even more so than, any artificial means. And that, perhaps, is its greatest advantage: is it not artificial, but 100 percent natural.
It is a strange irony that in a culture nearly obsessed with going green and eating organic, it would promote women ingesting up to 20 times the normal level of hormones into their system. NFP, on the other hand, is 100 percent organic, and 98 percent-plus sustainable.
It is time for us to dispel the myths about NFP. That's a tall order in the hyper-sexualized culture in which we live.
Nonetheless, I invite all of our readers — especially those feeling resistance — to set aside the intense emotional reactions which this teaching often elicits, and instead to read and ponder the articles in this series with an open mind and a serene and objective judgment. Those who do so will discover that the Church does, indeed, have great wisdom in her teaching.
How could it be otherwise, if Christ founded the Church to keep us in the truth?