Pastoral Reflections on Humanae Vitae

I was working on a project at my college in the summer of 1968 when I walked past the Protestant chaplain’s office on a late July day and heard someone shout: “The Pope came out against birth control!” I didn’t know much about the issue at the time but I remember thinking, “If the Pope’s against it, there’s probably something wrong with it.”

To say Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) was controversial, both inside the Catholic Church and outside it, is an understatement. Many theologians signed statements against it, many parish priests and lay Catholics ignored it and some bishops’ conferences waffled on it. Other Catholics, clerical and lay, came to the Pope’s defense. The Catholic people were divided over birth control.

But, as the old song goes, “The times they are a-changing.” As a parish priest for forty years, I saw engaged and married couples slowly open up to natural methods of family planning. Some did so in reaction to the health risks artificial methods posed to women, others because they respected a method that required the cooperation of both husband and wife. Some couples chose to apply to their fertility a broader “respect nature” commitment seen in such diverse manifestations as eating only organic foods and protecting natural watersheds.

When Pope Paul said that every conjugal act should be open to new life, he wasn’t giving a new teaching. The Church had always seen that a fundamental purpose of marriage was to bring forth children and that acts that positively prevented conception were wrong. But Pope Paul framed the issue differently. He called spouses “the ministers of life, not the lords of the sources of life.” As ministers of life, they cooperate with God in creating new human beings, not only to fill the earth but to populate heaven. That raises procreation to a higher than biological level.

Then Pope Paul showed how contraception not only violated the procreative dimension of the sexual union but its unitive (love-giving) dimension as well. As the Second Vatican Council taught, marriage was “a communion of life and love” between the spouses. Their love should be a total gift of self from one to the other, including in their sexual union. The use of contraceptives, however, holds back that complete sharing, even if both agree to it and have no qualms of conscience about it. Contraception means not giving all of yourself to the other.

In Humanae Vitae the Pope made clear that married couples may have good reasons to limit the size of their families: the number of children they already had, limited economic resources, health issues, to name a few. He called on scientists to develop good natural means of family planning to help couples. As a sign of God’s providence, at the very time the Pope was contemplating the birth control issue, doctors were discovering new, more effective natural methods that enabled couples to know when women were in their fertile phase and when they were not. Those methods do not forcibly separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the sexual union, as contraception does. A couple simply abstains from sexual relations in the woman’s fertile phase, if a conception is inopportune, and resumes when conception is not possible. When having relations during the infertile phase, the couple is not withholding anything; all that they have available they share. It should be said that natural methods can also be used to achieve a pregnancy, because the same information works both ways. This has helped couples having difficulty having children.

We have discovered side benefits in natural family planning. Wives report that their husbands, once accustomed to NFP, are generally more sensitive to them. NFP couples, despite the periods of abstinence, actually have a higher frequency of sexual relations than couples using contraception, according to some studies. And there is little divorce among NFP marriages. When couples decide to do things God’s way, their blessings increase.

As global warming is showing us how the misuse of technology can harm nature and bring about dire consequences, it’s time for Catholics to reconsider the traditional teaching of the Church about marriage, procreation and birth control. It is a wisdom not of this world but it is applicable to this world. God wants us to be with Him for all eternity. To married couples He gives the privilege of cooperating with Him in creating new human beings to be raised with love. There can be serious reasons for couples to postpone, even indefinitely, having further children but the emphasis should be on generosity in fulfilling God’s plan with trust in His providence. That was the positive teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humane Vitae, a teaching our world needs today as much as ever.

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