This paper outlines (A) the reasons for the lack of acceptance among Catholics of the basic principles of HV concerning “natural contraception” (in HV’s Roman Catholic terminology: postponing pregnancy). We propose (B) a concrete solution to overcome the resistance, to allow for responsible parenthood, and to implement globally the most viable NFP model: the symptothermy . This is not only for Catholics but for all people, irrespective of religion, and also for the secular population, atheist or not, who have a true ecological concern. The positive aspects of pregnancy achievement due to NFP are not controversial and will not be developed in this paper. We will not question the correctness of the Church’s teachings about marriage, love and natural cycles, which, instead of being learned and respected, are destroyed by contraception. There is wide consensus about these positive points so that we will not dwell on them; however, enlightened people still continue to discount these since the issues surrounding effective methods for postponing pregnancy remain obscure.
Short analysis of the past and present situation
In the last ten years, several pedophilia scandals among priests and other members of the Church have been reported, contributing to the discreditation of the abstinence doctrine of the Church and the exemplarity of Church members in sexual matters. HV should be seen now in the larger context of current sexual disturbances such as pornography, which was not properly addressed in HV.
(A) When HV was released in the summer of 1968, the May student rebellion in Paris had just begun to popularize the contraceptive pill as well as to “sanctify” abortion laws. Both became emblematic for a “new sexual freedom” among wide ranges of population. The right for abortion preceded the efforts of abortion prevention! This “right” does not provide a proper account of the social complexities; the resulting unmerciful attitude is equally as detrimental as the opposite we encounter now: strategies to ban abortion laws without providing viable abortion prevention measures, such as competent training in NFP! This preventing capacity of NFP knowledge has never been acknowledged and developed by the Church whether it be for women’s empowerment and health, or for postponing sexual contacts of teens, or for proposing an ecologically responsible alternative to synthetic contraception. You cannot plausibly preach against abortion without an effective symptothermy; you cannot give rules without the tools to integrate the rules!
Before May ’68, the Catholic NFP method failures had created a disastrous image for the Church. This traumatism still haunts Church members when I confront them with this issue and the Catholic press is disinterested in this topic. Most Catholic couples abandoned the ineffective Rhythm, Temperature-Only, and the fastidious Billings method, and carried on with condoms and the fashionable hormonal contraception. That’s where we still are today. The exact opposite of what HV encouraged: to elucidate the methods and to teach them on a large-scale basis. Even worse: the average Catholic is not even informed about effective family planning. There are no NFP brochures in church foyers! General ignorance is the greatest challenge today, among Catholics and non-Catholics, especially because it is inappropriate to inform any woman, irrespective of her contraceptive status, that she is ignoring her cycle. This calling out may at least serve to spark curiosity in unprejudiced women to discover a natural alternative. It would make them reluctant to accept detrimental side effects of medical devices. The sobering reality is that dogmatic feminism and contraception have alienated women from their bodies and the gender ideologies that dominate the female intellectual scene fail to take notice!
HV is a vibrant call to improve these methods and to make them more user-friendly. What has been done ever since? While the student rebellion in Paris was taking place, the first complete symptothermal method developed by Rötzer, the first effective symptothermy, was already available but the Church never popularized it. Why? Instead of endorsing this method with a central pontifical office, several different NFP methods popped up all over the globe created by different Catholic and non-faith-oriented associations. The result is a tremendous cacophony among NFP schools provoking ridicule among gynecologists across the globe: “Dear Madam, you really want to have an unwanted pregnancy using these outdated methods? Only German women are disciplined enough to practice them.” Even worse: Most of the Catholic methods competed for recognition in Rome, such as the Billings and “dissident” Billings groups, the Couple to Couple League, the French CLER, etc., and later the German, Rötzer-based, Sensiplan method. In the end, all these lobbies were and are still adamant about their achievements and reluctant to carry out honest comparisons. When they meet at congresses they carefully avoid these topics. At the same time, they do not make serious efforts to disseminate their knowledge. Therefore, the improvement and release of a proper symptothermal method, the two key recommendations of HV, are still missing.
A new beginning is possible: but only if the will to go ahead and tackle the future is present! 50 years after the publication of HV, no significant progress has been made. The truth put forth here may be, save angelic intervention, the reason for the rejection of my paper.
The Pontifical Family Council has never developed any symptothermal know-how over the last 50 years. In order to compensate for this inaction, the Magisterium was open to accepting all the methods (that have been competing against each other) as long as they were taught in the spirit of the abstinence method and backed up by proper HV quotations. One main reason for the failure to promote the methods is the lack of a standardized symptothermal knowledge, and the failure to popularize such knowledge, as recommended by the HV. This knowledge must be made available not only to Catholics but to all Christians as well as to other religions, and the large secular populations who have a strong ecological concern. Regrettably, instead of implementing these strategies of standardization and dissemination, the many schools with their various methods have restricted their communicative efforts to insiders, becoming sectarian, and thereby totally neglected the world, including Catholics in general: there still is no appropriate information to be found on the shelves of church welcome centers! As long as NFP schools blend the natural, biological processes of the cycle with theological considerations, non-Catholics will continue to reject the method and NFP will remain a well-kept secret on the fringe. This is the disaster that has been going on for the last 50 years. So how can the HV “bring blessings both on the world and on the Church” in the future?
The female cycle is based upon the same biological processes all over the world in all women. It does not work like a man-made machine or artificial intelligence, it is a subtle and grandiose symphony regulated by multiple hormones. It is also impacted by psychosomatic factors and environmental influences, such as light exposure during the night, nutrition, medical trends, unhealthy lifestyles etc. Today, it is common for girls to start using synthetic hormones as young as 14 years of age. Women who discontinue long-term hormonal birth control because of detrimental side effects, new ecological concerns or a more holistic conscience, all of a sudden discover their damaged cycles and their problematic fertility status. Their damaged bodies make it much more difficult for them to learn the method. Second: young couples nowadays travel abundantly for work, leisure and studies; for multiple reasons, women tend to think about having their first child in their late thirties. This common scenario has to be taken into account for the pastoral work addressed below (point B. 3).
B. Solutions. Three stages to make the symptothermy known
All the social changes mentioned above significantly complicate the task to establish a general, effective tutorial and a new, state-of-the-art method. Before teaching such a method, we have to first unbundle the theological reasons of HV, involving the Catholic Church, from the observational possibilities open to every woman, regardless of her spiritual orientation, which are based on biology. In a second step, after this unbundling, once we have this general method at hand, we can better understand how the cycle observations and the new couple relationship can be reunited from an anthropological point of view within the Catholic doctrine. Again: The first move is to separate theology and cycle observation for anthropological reasons; in a second move, anthropological reasons can reunite these two dimensions. Only within this reflective equilibrium among ethical and practical issues, among universal social laws and the biological essentials, further explained thereafter, can the Church openly and joyfully disseminate the best symptothermal method.
In light of what has been expounded above, the currently non-existing Pontifical Symptothermal Office, or its non-Catholic equivalent, would be able to begin worldwide dissemination following three successive steps:
1) Methodological improvements: The very first step, as already mentioned, is to follow HV’s recommendation to improve the most viable symptothermy, to make it user-friendlier for everyone, on the Internet and mobile apps. This is what the SymptoTherm Foundation has achieved without external help since 2006 with its worldwide first cycle app for mobiles, improved in 2008 on sympto.org in seven languages. Test it to determine if I am right. According to the American FACTS app comparison study of 2016, sympto is the #1 symptothermal method in app format. What about non-symptothermal (FAM) methods? Should we shun them? There is a way to include Billings-like or Temperature-Only methods, although they are less effective, yet educational for beginners and non-sexually active teens, as well as more convenient for experts (who want to simplify their observations). sympto.org has integrated all of these into one original synthesis. In other words: a separate Billings or Billings-like method, or a separate Temperature-Only method are no longer needed, much less various symptothermal methods! As with Newtonian physics, you just need one theory, methodologically the best.
What about methods that combine temperature observations with LH monitor results? Certainly, this endeavor marks a positive trend to modernize old-fashioned NFP. The modernization, however, should not be implemented by adding medical products women have to consume (and buy continuously) and blindly rely on. The true modernization lies in the development of tutorials and educational devices designed to assist women in learning, alone or under the guidance of a counselor, how to make proper observations and to become independent from medical products. In natural conception regulation, you should not mix convenient product consumption with more or less demanding self-awareness training and empowerment of the woman and the couple. There are ways for women to improve Peak Day determination if needed. But if women trust a monitor to solve this difficulty, they will never correctly learn how to identify their Peak Day. These medical crutches should be avoided when direct observation skill is at stake and sufficient; the observing woman remains the last resort that cannot be replaced by a machine. Such an educational device may include any type of tutorials; you define and openly show the minimum data required for optimal effectiveness. Misguiding women by telling them that the more information they introduce, the better, is typical for the consumption paradigm. A tutorial program should outline how to make sound observations and enable the learner to identify questionable observations. It must prevent the learner from entering incorrect observations. Of course, a woman is able to chart fake observations, purposely outsmarting the program, but this is a conscious choice!
There is a common agreement among NFP organizations to ban the hazardous calendar methods, which enjoy an unfortunate renaissance promoted by the WHO in Africa! Hundreds of ineffective cycle apps exist, based on variants of the Rhythm method, claiming to be “magic technology” (Glow) while increasing the confusion and disastrous misinformation among women. These constitute now the biggest hurdle for serious methods to gain confidence with users who seek a sound natural alternative for postponing pregnancy.
This symptothermal standard has to integrate some vital elements such as the Döring-Rötzer day in order to enable the cross-check in the beginning of the fertile window. It also has to implement the cross-check at the end of the fertile window, based on Peak Day and the occurrence of an adequate temperature rise. This standard must integrate the Sensiplan method in order to be able to publicly cite on its behalf the German reference study of 2007! “Natural methods” usually refer to this study, but this is inaccurate and cheating of the facts.
2) Communication and marketing of the method: Once you have a user-friendly, effective and scientifically approved method as well as trained competent counselors you can and must promote what we call the Gospel of the body. Missionary work is the basic task for any Christian: NFP is a mission for Christ. Knowledge of the female cycle belongs to everyone regardless of their religious convictions. Therefore, we can step into the succession of St. Paul when he left Jewish communities and turned to Gentiles to announce the Gospel. St. Paul did not keep the Gospel captive for Jews: neither should the Church keep the symptothermal method exclusively catholic. It is obvious that symptothermal knowledge, initially developed by the Church and eventually, hopefully, dispatched worldwide by it, will durably refresh its structures, enhance its image and appeal to young generations with unresolved questions of sexuality that remain.
Nobody can reasonably argue against the general utility of this knowledge: announcing the Gospel of the body will pave the road for announcing Christ’s Gospel in the future. There are multiple difficulties in this task especially as the consumption paradigm is not easily replaced by the learning paradigm: it is easy to promise women empowerment but hard to change their habits if they are addicted to solutions offered by consumption. This is the true difficulty of the symptothermy that was and still is largely underestimated by the Church representatives.
In the past and still now, there remains a detrimental fallacy about the following point: Some Church tenants advocate that the NFP method should not be too effective in order to avoid a likely surfacing of a « contraceptive mentality » among couples, meaning that the more effective the method, the less children couples will have. This argument is devoid of any facts and proofs. On sympto.org we can show facts and figures that prove the opposite: the more the method is reliable, the more the couple opens up to life and to children. This fallacy was used in the past as an excuse for some Church members not to develop better methods. In other words: the lack of sound methods was excused by the (imaginary) temptation for couples that effectiveness would hamper the wish to have children. This argument is clearly devoid of any HV foundations; HV does not mention the possibility of giving rise to a “contraceptive mentality” related to effectiveness.
3) Pastoral approach: The symptothermal method does not just reveal a highly developed technique. In this respect, the Aristotelian-Tomistic view of nature is correct: appreciating the wonders of nature implies ethical commitments for protection and respect. Sympto is foremost a tool for women and couples, and, like any tool, can be misused. But once the validity of this tool is internalized, it provides couples with a new consciousness of life and the creation: as couples integrate this tool and knowledge into their daily reality, the spiritual aspect enters their life on its own. The spirituality must not be Christian. But the method creates a platform where all religions can agree to learn the basics of human fertility. Symptothermy is an essential element of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.
A part from being clearly contraceptive in the sense of HV, the condom is primarily a medical product, which, like other medical crutches, is not required to practice symptothermy for postponing pregnancy. The thermometer is admittedly also a medical product, I concur, but it is first mainly used for other purposes and not specifically for conception regulation. Second, the way temperature recordings are handled in the symptothermal method demands that the woman submit to a learning process so that she can distinguish good temperatures from questionable ones. Temperature apps such as Natural Cycles, which ask women to enter as many temperatures as possible, day after day throughout the cycle, are perverting the conscious symptothermal temperature recordings into blind medical product consumption. Within the concept and the common use of a medical product, questionable temperatures are supposed to be statistically smoothened by secret algorithms; “magic technology” is supposed to “know” which temperatures are accurate! They are not, as required by the symptothermal way, controlled by the user’s ability to question, with experience the results and put into brackets disturbed temperatures of the past (and only retrospectively, with adequate temporal distance)!
From a pastoral point of view, preaching against the condom is counterproductive although the condom is clearly a form of contraception and not a means of conception regulation. Why? Before couples can fully integrate the symptothermal method, they must try it. And before they can try it, they have to be informed and taught correctly. In most cases you have to convince them to discontinue the pill and other contraception first. For some, this is a difficult passage as the contraceptive hormones have made women dependent, sometimes even addicted. After initial hesitations and a new fertility awareness, couples become confident with the method and are willing to try it. At that stage, the couple will a) open up to life and b) diminish condom use. From an anthropological point of view – this argument has not been stressed by HV – it is nonsensical to forbid the condom, an unattractive device already strongly disliked by all men. The Church accepts the condom use for drug addicts, and to protect prostitutes from STD, and for people with various illnesses (Licht der Welt, Pope Benedict XVI, p. 146, Herder): why not show mercy and tolerate it as a transitional or provisional measure for vulnerable couples who learn the symptothermal method? In this respect, HV has not outlined a proper pastoral way and still maintains a Vatican-I mentality: it establishes and enforces rules without providing tools supported by rules to assist couples in implementing the rules. The HV has to be complemented by preventive measures against pornography and teenager sexuality.
HV has not failed: the people who should have implemented it have. The sexual disorientation has drastically increased among young men and women. Fertility issues have dramatically risen. The Catholic press is still ashamed to discuss symptothermal methods openly and routinely. There is certainly a lot of good work done by the Catholic sexual education, most of the literature is excellent but no large-scale preventive measures have been tested by dissemination of an appropriate symptothermal method. Especially in an age of sexual disorientation and exposure to sexual abuse, the preventive effect of symptothermal knowledge against porn consumption cannot be overemphasized. It is dismaying to point out that the Church was the first, and with the exception of a few orthodox movements, the only spiritual body that showed genuine interest in understanding the female cycle and fertility. No other religion shares this concern, neither Protestants nor Evangelicals: they have never tried to decipher human fertility and its significance for the couple and society!
How can the Church promote now the viable methods? We hope that this know-how will be dispersed within the offices of the Pontifical Council of Family. These specialists could free the symptothermy from its exile. But this would not suffice, since non-Catholics are very adamant about and critical towards messages released by the Vatican. The solution is for the Church, in addition to its efforts, to support a non-religious NGO Foundation to pursue this goal. The preventive aspect of this work will gain more credibility when dispatched by a neutral Foundation.
Harri Wettstein, 1950, Zürich
H.W., M.A. philosophy Heidelberg and MBA Lausanne, made his doctoral Habilitation degree in 1995 at university of Lausanne in theology and social science about end of life ethics. His Leben- und Sterbenkönnen was edited three times and had a concrete impact on the new end-of-life laws in the State of Vaud in Switzerland. In 1999, at the age of 49, he met Christine Bourgeois who introduced him to the symptothermal method by Rötzer and with whom he created the leading system for cycle observation, the Complete Manual as well as the sympto apps. He also wrote a seminal book about sexuality for “young and not so young couples” Sandra et Timmy, Une autre sexualité, racontée aux jeunes et moins jeunes, homes et femmes” (German 2017: Geheimcode des Körpers: Eine Aufklärung wieder gesellschaftliche Sexlügen). He deeply regrets that the symptothermal knowledge was not accessible for him as a student. He also writes in French and published among other titles Le jeûne pour la vie: un guide pour le jeûne chrétien de longue durée (1999, re-edited on Kindle 2014). He is the founder of the fasting group network who fasts 1 week during Lent in Catholic and Protestant congregations. He is a Catholic convert from Protestantism.