Recently I heard from someone planning a 40th year conference on Humanae Vitae that Humanae Vitae is considered passé — a document of a previous generation; the current generation is the Theology of the Body Generation.
Count me as a huge fan of the theology of the body. I certainly marvel at the enthusiastic reception given to it and the stories of the lives it has transformed.
Yet, there may still be reasons to pay some attention to Humanae Vitae. For one thing, it is short! Translations of the theology of the body are nearly 400 pages long and the shorter versions attempting to make it intelligible are not that much shorter.
I know of one Protestant minister who gave Humanae Vitae three consecutive readings and then announced that he wanted to belong to a church that had such a teaching. The next Easter, he and about a dozen family members became Catholics.
I heard him tell this story when he was exhorting a room full of priests to preach Humanae Vitae. He promised that it would bring people in to, rather than chase people out of, the Church.
Humanae Vitae needs to be preached in whatever persuasive form the presenter can devise.
I have heard two young pastors give several homilies that have utilized Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body or spoken to the evil of contraception. They were homilies very well received by the congregation. And even more so by me: I had to physically refrain myself from doing cartwheels — or some middle-aged equivalent — down the aisle.
In my moral theology classes at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, I require the seminarians to give homilies that include reference to some controversial moral issue. Every class experiences some intense discomfort when we begin this process, I think in large part because we have never heard “same-sex unions,” “premarital sex,” “cohabitation,” “in vitro fertilization,” “pornography” or “contraception” mentioned from the pulpit.
I try to instruct the seminarians how to introduce these topics in a gentle fashion with full sympathy for the lack of instruction (or poor instruction) that parishioners may have had and full sympathy for the difficulties in resisting the lure of the culture to sin. The seminarians are often appropriately sensitive in their homilies and also inspiringly passionate about the issues.
They have seen the direct harm done by sexual immorality, and also know how difficult it is for those who are given to sexual immorality to advance spiritually. I have come to realize that it is not the manner of presentation that is jarring; it is the very fact the morality is being mentioned from the pulpit.
It wasn’t always thus.
In her book Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler ably demonstrates that in the first half of the last century there was an amazing, concerted effort by bishops and priests to educate Catholics about the Church’s teaching on contraception and that Catholics complied at an impressive rate, apparently quite happily so. This passage presents an amazing picture:
“Many laity admired their Church’s increasingly lonely defense of a procreative sexual ethic. Many shared their clergy’s anxieties when it came to emancipated views of sex. And a great many Catholics responded with a visceral surge of tribal loyalty when public proponents of birth control attacked the Catholic Church. The story was one of idealism, too, especially after the Second World War, when the teaching was increasingly presented in personalist terms and in a context of national prosperity. Young Catholics, then, especially the best educated, were among the teaching’s most fervent proponents, with birthrates exceeding the burgeoning national average. Aspiring to domestic sanctity, these young idealists won the admiration of numerous priests, who were thereby confirmed in their own commitment to a near-heroic sexual discipline. Undergirding it all was a devotional ethos that was at once hostile to sex and almost opulently sensual” (pages 4-5).
I see something of that now. I know many well-educated young Catholic couples who understand and embrace the Church’s teaching on contraception. Their witness is inspiring young priests to see the beauty of the teaching; to understand that although very difficult for some and not so difficult for others, it is a path to holiness for all.
We are also seeing evidence of a renewed interest in this topic by the U.S. bishops, and many individual bishops.
Those Catholics who know that their Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and exists to help us grown in love of Christ and his Father, are eager to learn what we need to grow in that love.
I am confident we will see a greater desire of Catholics to embrace Church teachings in all respects, on contraception included.
And as fewer Catholics contracept, more will be better evangelizers and eventually we may succeed not only in transforming ourselves but the culture as well.
Janet Smith is the
Michael J. McGivney chair of life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.