In The New York Times obituary on the passing of Dr. John Billings (April 4, 2007), writer Margalit Fox associates the pioneer work of this thoroughly orthodox Catholic physician with “contraception.” She asserts, in the very title of her notice, that Billings was the creator of a “Contraception Method.” In her opening sentence, she claims that he developed a “natural contraceptive method,” and repeats this error three more times.
“Natural contraception,” it should be noted, is an inherently contradictory phrase. The Church has taught clearly, consistently and vigorously for two millennia that contraception goes against the order of nature, that it thwarts the natural relationship that exists between the conjugal act and fertilization.
Dr. Billings and his wife, Lynn, developed a method of ovulation detection that indicates the onset of a woman’s fertile period. This method, known throughout the world as the Billings Method, has proven to be a very reliable way of determining when a woman is or is not apt to conceive. The Times, however, is reiterating a commonly held misconception that there is no moral difference between using a contraceptive to avoid pregnancy and achieving the same end by employing the Billings Method. Yet, there is a profound difference, as the Church teaches, between an immoral act and no act at all. This difference is hardly academic. Indeed, it is one that can be felt on a personal level rather dramatically.
Suppose, for example, that an engaged couple is preparing a list of wedding guests. The couple wants some people to come and others not to come. The traditional approach is to invite those whom you want to be your guests, and not invite those whom you do not. But let us imagine that a particular couple, instead of simply not inviting certain people, sends them a disinvitation: “Dear John and Mary: we are getting married, but we do not want you to come to our wedding. Our ushers have been instructed to escort you to the parking lot if you dare show up. Your presence is not wanted. Stay away. We do not want to see you.”
It is not difficult to appreciate the difference in impact on John’s and Mary’s feelings that receiving such a “disinvitation” would have, compared with their not receiving an invitation. Sending out such a disinvitation could very well ruin whatever vestige of friendship existed between the two parties. The difference between the disinvitation and no invitation is the difference between insult and etiquette, contempt and civility. It is one thing not to invite people; it is quite another to explain to them that their presence is unwanted.
Using contraception is like sending a disinvitation to God, telling him that he should not show up, that his creative act is not only unwanted, but dishonored. But abstaining from intercourse as part of a Natural Family Planning approach does not send any such message. Refraining from intercourse at a time when a couple does not want to conceive sends an altogether different and more tacit message: “We do not invite or invoke your creative act at this time, but we will not insult you by profaning the means you have established to initiate new life by exploiting it for our own purposes while disinviting your presence through contraception. We will abstain rather than profane.”
The New York Times’s careless and not insignificant misrepresentation of the Billings Method reminds us of the indispensable importance of the Catholic Press. We should not depend on The Times for knowledge about our faith. The New York Times may be behind the times on many occasions, but the Church is eternal. Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “Anything that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.