Several years ago, Pope Francis reiterated Catholic teaching against contraception and drew this response from a self-proclaimed Catholic feminist:
“Here was yet another example of the all-male hierarchy completely failing to understand what it is like to be a woman, or to live in a family, or to exercise control over fertility.”
It’s the stock complaint by left-leaning women since Humanae Vitae’s release 50 years ago: Celibate clergy should not make “rules” restricting women’s sexual and reproductive choices. Of course, this perspective misunderstands the Church’s teaching authority: The Church does not conjure up “rules” of morality according to the whims of men. She “faithfully guards and interprets” what has been entrusted to her, “the unshakable teaching of the Church,” wrote Pope Blessed Paul VI, Humanae Vitae’s author.
But feminist critiques speak to a human reality that must be taken into account. Sometimes the messenger matters almost as much as the message. In different times and circumstances, the truth may be heard more easily in the voice of one person instead of another. The feminist critique also alludes to an important pastoral reality: Women’s insights, experiences and struggles must be considered when the Church formulates pastoral plans to foster the faith.
These points come to mind in light of the Humanae Vitae conference held at The Catholic University of America April 4-6. Co-sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, the conference features a strong mix of experienced male and female speakers. A conference organizer noted that speakers were chosen because of their particular expertise, not because of their sex.
I suggest, however, that the two are related here. Men and women look at people and particular problems through different lenses — which shapes decisions about questions to ask, data to collect and how to interpret results.
Communication styles differ, as well. Sexual difference is real, but men and women are complementary. We need each other, and the Church needs our collaboration to amplify the good news of Humanae Vitae.
This is why the work of female specialists, like those speaking at the Humanae Vitae conference, is vital.
On questions of human life, women’s attention to the person leads them to explore new territory and develop fresh insights, perhaps making it more likely the truth will be “heard” by certain audiences. In addition, female experts increasingly respond to specific needs identified in Humanae Vitae, standing out as truth-tellers and problem-solvers.
Humanae Vitae was received poorly in part because many Catholics already had accepted the feminist narrative that women’s equality and happiness require access to contraception, with abortion as a backup. That lie is now embedded in our national psyche (and in Supreme Court jurisprudence).
Catholic women subsequently embraced contraception as a means to “freedom,” with little idea of what they signed up for. Although Pope Paul VI urged priests to teach the truth expressed in Humanae Vitae with “full confidence” and to “omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ,” relatively few did.
Years later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan described the clergy as “gun-shy” about raising Humanae Vitae with Catholics in the pew. Clergy silence, whether rooted in dissent, fear or misguided deference to “women’s experiences,” failed women, and implicitly acquiesced in their exploitation.
Humanae Vitae’s warnings were vindicated fairly quickly.
As contraceptive use increased, moral standards plummeted. Infidelity, divorce, promiscuity and women’s objectification increased. Women took center stage in the contraceptive revolution, first as protagonists pursuing “sexual rights,” and then as victims, disproportionately more likely than men to suffer negative consequences from casual sex, contraception and abortion.
Fast-forward to today. Although many Catholic women still might insist that contraception betters their lives, they have doubts, too. The data validate concerns about depression, infertility, contraception’s side effects and emotional wounds from casual or cohabiting relationships. The bottom line is that women today are generally unhappier than previous generations. They need the truth. And some are ready to hear it, especially when communicated by other women.
Early on, when ecclesial voices fell mute on contraception, Catholic laity, including Janet Smith, Mary Eberstadt and Helen Alvaré, stepped forward as truth-tellers filling the need Pope Paul VI envisioned. These women speak about Humanae Vitae from the vantage points of moral theology, cultural analysis and legal policy, but draw similar conclusions: Humanae Vitae expresses profound truths about the meaning of marital love, and contraception distorts that meaning, causing harm, especially to women and children. Their work is critically important, as the destructiveness of the sexual revolution begs to be addressed.
Guides and Problem-Solvers
Critics of Humanae Vitae often say the Church does not “get” the real-life complexities and challenges of marriage and is, therefore, long on “thou shalt nots” and short on solutions. Pope Paul VI, however, neither sugarcoated the realities of married love nor turned a blind eye to couples’ needs for support. He encouraged Catholics toward spiritual maturity and greater love, made possible through prayer and sacramental grace. Moreover, he appealed directly to clergy, laity, scientists and medical professionals to work within their competencies to provide couples with direct support, spiritual and practical.
Here, too, Catholic women play valuable roles, formulating responses to new cultural challenges (such as gender theory and ideological colonization), innovating and implementing developments in health care, and prioritizing pastoral care.
For example, Margaret McCarthy, professor of theological anthropology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, sees Humanae Vitae as a valuable entry point in analyzing gender theory, which denies sexual difference and deconstructs kinship relationships. (If gender identity is fluid, then one’s identity as a sister, brother, son, or daughter is also in flux.) Her work deepens and extends the Church’s theological understanding of Humanae Vitae.
Teresa Collett, an expert in human sexuality and the law, links the flawed notions of equality that undergird contraception to the global problem of ideological colonization, which justifies contraception and abortion as the means to sustainable development.
Elizabeth Kirk, an adoptive mother and legal authority on adoption, applies Humanae Vitae’s themes of spiritual maturity, fruitfulness and selfless love to the challenges of infertility (12% of women age 15-44 have difficulty conceiving or carrying a child). She highlights Humanae Vitae’s point that “conjugal love expressed fully and faithfully carries with it both of its meanings: It is unifying and fruitful,” whether or not pregnancy results.
Dr. Kathy Raviele develops medical practices that expand Humanae Vitae’s focus from ethical ways to “regulate births” to holistic approaches to supporting women’s health. Dr. Marguerite Duane, a clinical professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the executive director of Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science (FACTS), takes that message to medical schools nationwide, educating medical professionals in “family-planning options free from medical side effects, environmentally safe, and morally acceptable to people of many different faiths.”
And at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, staff specialist Theresa Notare has skillfully (and perseveringly) coordinated, expanded and innovated new pastoral outreaches on fertility awareness.
These faithful daughters of the Church, skilled communicators, bold truth-tellers and problem-solvers, are today’s heralds of Humanae Vitae. Perhaps it is time for feminist critics of the Church to lean in, listen closely and hear, at last, its vital message.
Mary Hasson is the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies
and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum
at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
This piece was updated after posting.