The Church exists to lead us to happiness. Yet the world sees the Church as one of the primary obstacles to self-fulfillment. This conflict comes from two opposing views of what makes us happy. The Church points to self-giving love as the path (other-focused), while the world holds to the fulfillment of our desires (self-focused). The flashpoint of these opposing views centers on sexuality — either as a gift or an itch. And the battle has entered the Church.
When Jesus founded the Church, he gave us a blueprint of our mission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Church’s message is good news because it liberates our minds and desires from our selfish inclinations. The truth given to the Church by Christ fulfills and completes the order of the created world, inscribed within it by its Creator. The Gospel and the natural law bear common testimony to the will of God, which leads us to happiness.
The Church is the guardian of the natural law, a moral order that arises from the inherent purpose of our nature as body-soul unities. We have been created in the image of God, a reality reflected even by the human body.
Pope St. John Paul II taught in his theology of the body that we must recognize the truth written into our very beings: “Man and woman are called to express that mysterious language of their bodies in all the truth which is proper to it” (Aug. 22, 1984). The body, including our sexuality, has a truth that we must recognize and respect.
This year will see a prolonged family feud about the relevance and applicability of the Church’s teaching on contraception. Fifty years ago, Pope Blessed Paul VI issued a prophetic affirmation of the natural law and the Church’s timeless teaching in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). At the heart of the encyclical, we find the message that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (11).
This teaching does not come from an outmoded moral code, but the recognition of what sexuality is in itself: an expression of the unity and fruitfulness of married love. To contend for the legitimacy of contraception would entail a move from truth to unreality — a shift from the Church’s mission to a lie.
As we encounter hostility on the topic of contraception, from outside and even within the Church, we will have to ask ourselves: Are we ashamed of the truth of the Church’s teaching on contraception? Do we think contraception really will help people to be happy?
These questions stand at the heart of the battle for the legacy of Humanae Vitae. Are we willing to stand for the truth, or will we accommodate the lies surrounding sexuality that dominate our culture?
Humanae Vitae recognizes that couples, while respecting the nature of the marital act, may “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (10).
Many ask how practicing natural family planning differs from contraception. It comes down to the key moral principle that “the end does not justify the means” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1753). A good intention to defer pregnancy for a legitimate cause does not justify the use of means that are “intrinsically wrong” and that distort the natural ordering of the act (Humanae Vitae, 14).
I have found that very many people indeed hold that a good end can justify the means. It seems that even some prominent Churchmen agree.
A newly appointed member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Father Maurizio Chiodi, recently argued at a conference at the Gregorian University that “in situations when natural methods are impossible or unfeasible, other forms of responsibility need to be found. There are circumstances — I refer to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8 — that, precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.”
The title of Father Chiodi’s lecture itself, “Rereading Humanae Vitae (1968) in Light of Amoris Laetitia (2016)” points us to the nature of the present attack on Humanae Vitae.
Some would like to use Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), to justify actions, like contraception, that are by their very nature and object “intrinsically wrong” (Humanae Vitae, 14). Pope St. John Paul II already foresaw the foundation of this strategy, in allowing conscience to interpret and arbitrate the teaching of the Church, and warned us against it:
“A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the magisterium and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept” (Veritatis Splendor, 56).
To allow conscience to trump the moral law, rather than apply it, undermines the moral life itself, descending into individualism and relativism.
Thankfully, the Catechism stands against this distortion:
“It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object, such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (1756).
Both Popes Paul and John Paul II definitively taught that contraception falls into this category of an intrinsically evil action.
The Church cannot cave in to the predominate relativism of our time. We have fallen into unreality about who we are as men and women and what will make us happy.
If the Church does not stand for the truth, who will? We must speak the truth in love, rather than affirming positions that lead people away from true happiness. In fact, the Gospel holds the antidote to the world’s misery, and we can’t hide it under a bushel basket! The Church can never lie to her people or to the world, but must answer the summons of the Master to teach what he has commanded.
The interpretation of Humanae Vitae comes down to whether or not we are willing to be honest about who we are as Catholics. We belong to the Body of Christ, having put on the mind of Christ, and have accepted his word above our own.
Jesus has given us the mission to share his Good News, rather than our own concerns and opinions. If we have faith in Christ and accept our Catholic identity, then we must teach and observe honestly and truthfully all that he has commanded us. God offers us the truth, and living it offers the only true path to happiness.
R. Jared Staudt, Ph.D., works in the Office of Evangelization
and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver.