WASHINGTON — Meg Kilgannon was a Presbyterian when she was introduced to Pope Paul VI’s groundbreaking encyclical Humanae Vitae during marriage preparation with her Catholic fiancé.
“I was immediately struck by the beauty of the Church’s teaching: The great gift of marriage is the couple’s creative cooperation with God,” Kilgannon told the Register.
As the Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), Catholic theologians, natural family planning specialists and physicians have witnessed a profound disconnect between a cultural tendency to view a woman’s fertility as a threat to her life plans and a medical problem to be controlled with drugs and Pope Paul VI’s insistence that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
In turn, according to Catholic theologians, these dueling approaches reflect two radically different judgments about the goodness of creation, including the gift of procreation. And — as witnessed by transformative encounters with Humanae Vitae such as Kilgannon’s — if the Church hopes to advance the adoption of its teaching on contraception, it must situate its message within a catechesis on creation that fosters a trust in God’s plan for spousal love, revealed in salvation history and clarified by modern popes.
A Catholic now, Kilgannon was so inspired by the Church’s teaching on contraception that she became a “fertility care provider,” teaching the Creighton model of natural family planning in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and assisting engaged couples preparing for marriage.
To her dismay, however, many clients struggle to understand how Catholic teaching on contraception will fortify their marriage.
The women she works with are often under pressure to prioritize their careers and delay plans to have children. Many question a family planning method that requires a woman to chart her cycle and periodically abstain from sex, as the Church allows when there are serious, unselfish reasons for delaying children, because they are accustomed to treating their bodies “like machines,” she said.
“Their sexual and reproductive lives have been segregated,” she said, from the practice of their cradle faith.
The Virginia-based NFP instructor’s experience is anything but unique. A 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 66% of U.S. Catholics believed it is “not sinful” to use contraception, whereas only 17% believed it is. And even among those who attend Mass at least once a week, 57% said it wasn’t sinful, compared to 31% who said it was.
Clearly, this means that much more needs to be done to communicate Church teaching regarding contraception to Catholics and to persuade them that these teachings are the path to fulfillment and happiness, not an obstacle.
Even more fundamentally, according to Catholic experts who spoke with the Register, they need to understand the goodness of the human person, having been created in the image and likeness of God, within the context of the goodness of all creation.
“The goodness of creation is a central teaching of the Church,” Jesuit Father Peter Ryan, a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told the Register. “In Genesis, God created the world and the human person and found them to be ‘very good.’”
Building on this, he said, “In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI teaches that one of God’s great gifts” is for married couples “to cooperate with him to bring new human beings into existence.”
Paul further explained in his seventh and last encyclical that the “inseparable connection” between the marital act and openness to children was “established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break.”
“Before the Fall, God tells the first people to be ‘fruitful and multiply,’ and we are told that it is ‘good’ for them to do this, that fertility is part of the goodness of creation,” Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, told the Register.
“If human beings are good and possess intrinsic dignity,” he said, “that which advances and celebrates human procreation is also good.”
New and Deeper Reflection
In the period following the Second World War, however, the Western world comprehensively turned its back on this vision of God-given marital fruitfulness. International population-control campaigns gained traction at this time, amid dire predictions of an overpopulation crisis, and in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of oral contraceptives.
By the mid-1960s, the sexual revolution was now fully underway, promoting a permissive understanding of sexuality in which the pursuit of pleasure took priority ahead of marrying and having children.
Christian unity on the immorality of contraception had already begun to fracture three decades earlier, when the Anglican Communion approved it in some circumstances at its 1930 Lambeth Conference.
It was against this changed societal backdrop that Paul VI circulated Humanae Vitae July 25, 1968.
“Humanae Vitae sought, as the encyclical put it, to initiate a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the Church’s moral teaching on marriage in the light of the challenge posed by chemical contraception and, I would add, biotechnology more generally,” Michael Hanby, an associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.
“I think it is important not to view Humanae Vitae in isolation, but to see, as Pope Benedict XVI said, that it launches a whole new tradition of magisterial teaching, especially during the pontificate of John Paul II. In many ways, we have yet to catch up with that.”
John Paul II and Benedict XVI
In his “theology of the body,” based on discourses at his weekly general audiences during the first five years of his papacy, John Paul examined the first three books of Genesis to recommunicate a fundamental truth the Church has defended across the centuries — the inalienable dignity of the human person, the imago dei, who is called to communion through his physical body.
In the theology of the body, “John Paul takes us back to Genesis, encouraging us to see creation with God’s eyes,” said moral theologian Pia de Solenni, the chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, California, and the theological adviser to Bishop Kevin Vann.
Further, she explained that the Church’s teaching on sin “doesn’t make sense unless we understand the goodness for which we are created and the goodness of the human person.”
Pope Benedict XVI also took up these themes in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Solenni told the Register. In Part I of that 2005 encyclical, subtitled “The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History,” Benedict noted the “vast semantic range” of the word “love,” encompassing such things as love between friends, neighbors, parents and children, and of God.
“Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness,” he stated.
“You can’t read that encyclical without being moved by the truth that God is love and we have been made in his image and likeness,” Solenni said.
A Skeptical World
This body of recent papal teaching, according to de Solenni, is a pastoral response to an “upside-down world” overturned by religious skepticism.
Doubts about the existence of a loving God are “intimately and intrinsically connected” to the culture’s view of sex, marriage and procreation, said Hanby.
For Catholic scholars like Hanby and de Solenni, the evidence of this truth is impossible to ignore: the rapid decline in marriage and fertility rates, matched by the promotion of same-sex “marriage” and the more recent campaign to separate gender identity from biological sex.
Buffeted by these powerful secular currents, based on a relativized and individualistic conception of sexuality, Catholics are increasingly tempted to devise their own system of sexual ethics.
“Instead of being concerned with what is really true, what God has revealed, there is a tendency to find comfort and solace in the expectation that no matter what we do, everything will turn out okay,” Patrick Lee, a professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told the Register.
And on a practical level, the skeptical response accorded Humanae Vitae by many Catholics is reinforced by the medical community’s routine promotion of artificial contraception.
“A medical student told me, ‘Pregnancy is one of the most curable diseases in America,’” Dr. Lynn Keenan, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco-Fresno and president of the California Association of Natural Family Planning, told the Register.
Keenan’s experience underscores the challenge and promise for Catholic leaders, physicians, educators and parents who seek to bring the rich teaching affirmed by Humanae Vitae to a new generation. Meg Kilgannon, for one, would like to see Catholic teachers become enthusiastic supporters of the Church’s teaching on contraception.
“What would it mean if diocesan schools offered instruction in NFP to all staff as part of health coverage — from teachers, to church support staff, to janitorial staff?” asked Kilgannon.
Collaborating With God
When Catholics reverence the gift of fertility this way, by living out their sexuality within marriage with an openness to the possibility of life — even at those times when this proves very challenging — they are affirming the goodness of creation and serving as God’s collaborators.
Catholics may dismiss the Church’s ban on contraception as an “arbitrary rule,” Lee noted.
“But what the Church teaches about marriage ... tells us about who we are and what our communion with God should be,” he said.
“We may not see that in a moment of crisis. But even if we can’t see it, we should have faith … that it is helping us to cooperate with the building up of the Kingdom.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.