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A Love Letter for the Ages

BY Carla Coon

August 23-29, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/23/98 at 2:00 PM

 

A mother of eight who has lived according to Humanae Vitae urges Catholics to share the wisdom and beauty of Pope Paul VI's controversial 1968 encyclical.

It's vacation time, and as I sit with our 4-month-old baby and watch our other seven children play, I marvel at our happiness and automatically think about human life. This is what God designed — family life. The model of father, mother, and children. I suspect if more people understood a certain love letter written three decades ago, there might be more happy families living human life as God designed. That love letter, written by Paul VI, was Of Human Life, Humanae Vitae.

Primed for Truth

Indeed, Humanae Vitae had a cold reception in 1968, but I wonder if the message might be better received today. Society has lived these past 30 years in rebellion, open rebellion, to the beautiful truth of human life. Contraceptives are considered socially responsible for a world mired in pre-marital sex. Abortion is claiming millions of preborn innocents, sterilizations are common, test-tube babies ordinary, and the practice of freezing tiny human beings for selfish, and even experimental purposes, is fast becoming old news. Surrogate parenthood gone bad is tearing at the hearts of misled couples who turned to science to fill their empty arms. The numbers of fatherless children and poverty-stricken single mothers swell, while families with a missing parent account for perhaps half of all households.

We've lived with the rebellion, and its foul odor and bitter taste are now being recognized. The complete disregard of divine design and purpose in human life have brought us babies in trash cans, divorce rates that make marriage a 50/50 gamble, skyrocketing teen pregnancy and drug use, suicide where so-called doctors “assist,” pornography, violence, dirty language, and base standards. The list goes on. With these rotten fruits so visible, so certainly a consequence of our total disdain for truth, society is ready. The moment is now to teach and to preach the Gospel of Life again.

The young are our hope. Recent polls surprise me with young people's responses to questions about our society. More teens as an age group are against abortion than adults (Zogby, International Poll, '98). Nearly half of teens believe sex outside of marriage is “always wrong” (New York Times/CBS Poll, Jan. '98). It makes sense. They're growing up in this mess and their gut tells them that things are less than perfect.

A Rocky History

It's the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Among other things, Pope Paul's wonderful statement taught against contraception, abortion, and limiting the size of one's family without serious reason. Forget that when the document came out it was decried by some, praised by few, and largely ignored by everyone else. Forget about all the Sunday sermons where opportunities to expound this truth were wasted. Forget about the dissident theologians who openly taught against it. Forget about the religious educators, priests, nuns, and bishops who neglected their sacred duty to teach these truths. Forget those who neglected their duty to self in not searching to fully understand why the Church teaches what she teaches, especially if they intellectually disagreed with it. Forget the bitterness a lay person feels for the betrayal shown her by all these people in not honestly passing on the faith in its entirety. Forget, forget, forget!

Humanae Vitae was written specifically to address many trouble spots for the modern faithful. From the start Pope Paul acknowledged the difficulties of married persons in the most serious duty of transmitting human life. He also acknowledged changing times, population fears, economic stress, and the role of working women. He recognized “stupendous progress in the scientific and medical realm of man's control and knowledge of the human body.” Then he bravely asked the tough question of whether the time had not come for man “to entrust to his reason and his will, rather than to the biological rhythms of his organism, the task of regulating birth.”(3) Then the Holy Father humbly reminded us of the teaching authority of the Church, who teaches according to God's will.

Understanding Sex

The Church's teaching on contraception is clearly misunderstood by many. On the surface, the practice of artificial birth control would seem almost harmless, except for the aspect of contraceptives as abortifacients. Humanae Vitae lays out a flawless framework explaining the meaning of human sexuality — the divine purpose for designing sex, if you will. Only with a full understanding of human sexuality can contraception be seen for what it is.

Pope Paul explains the purpose of conjugal love, telling us sex is both “pro-creative” and “unitive”(12). The unitive quality, with it's physical and spiritual aspects, unites the man and the woman, helping the two become one. The pro-creative aspect is ordained by God to generate children within the loving embrace of a family. The two aspects of sexual union (unity and begetting children) are meant to be inseparable.

True sexual love is of the spirit and the flesh. It is “intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, in such a way that husband and wife become one only heart and one only soul.” (9) There is total sharing, holding nothing back, free of selfish motives. So, as Pope Paul concludes, this love is total (or should be).

Spiritually and physically we are created and designed to live in truth and love. Thinking of our spiritual selves as made for living in truth and love is in some ways easy — it seems to make sense. And seeing the physical as being designed for love is easy when we experience, for example, the warmth of hugs and kisses — the feeling of love experienced in the sense of touch. But thinking of the physical as being designed for truth is more difficult because we so often separate our physical self from the spiritual realm. Yet, the physical human aspect of love is indeed made for truth.

It is a lie to have relations with anybody, in or out of marriage (of course out of marriage constitutes a lie on several levels), while using contraceptives, because you are not whole and are not giving completely. You are withholding a precious part of your physical self. You are withholding the capacity, the nature to procreate. (This is different when your body itself lacks this capacity. In that case you are still living truthfully, still abiding by the natural law.) Contraceptives are dishonest because every time you use them and engage in sex you misuse that act which was designed for the purpose of uniting husband and wife in truth and love.

Unselfish Love

We are reminded that conjugal love is by its very nature “ordained toward begetting and educating children” (Gaudium et Spes 50), and that children are a gift, substantially contributing to the welfare of their parents. When you willfully deny God the citizens of heaven he has intended for you and your spouse, you betray God's loving plan. When you do this you actually harm yourself, for these children are for your good, too. Some say having a large family is a ticket to heaven. Maybe for some. Certainly, one virtue, unselfishness, is refined in accepting many children.

One of the most difficult things to change about the contraceptive mentality concerns the Church's condoning a couple's use of the natural rhythmic cycle of a woman's body to avoid conceiving a child, but only for serious reasons. Many people have a hard time understanding why, if it is ok to avoid children the one way, it is not legitimate to achieve the same end with artificial means. Pope Paul addresses this seeming inconsistency, first by telling us that the Church is “the first to recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which closely associates the rational creature with his Creator.” But he goes on to say that any such intervention must respect the order established by God. (16)

Then after mentioning how a couple has to have “grave motives” to warrant spacing births (health, psychological, economic), he explains how it is justifiable to take advantage of infertile periods to express mutual love, but that artificial means are always illicit even if the reasons for obstructing the natural process of conception are grave. Very simply Pope Paul points out that in one case a couple is taking advantage of a natural state, whereas in the other case a couple is “impeding the natural process.” (16) In both cases the couples are avoiding conception for legitimate reasons (at least in the example), but only one method is honest because the natural order dictates that no children will be conceived during infertile periods. This also explains why couples can continue to have relations even when there is no chance of procreation.

Living the Message

Marriage represents the union of Christ and his bride, the Church, therefore any dishonesty in that union, such as infidelity or contraceptives, is not only a sin against that union, but a blemish even on the union of Christ and his Church. We are one body — one body in Christ. So while teaching against contraception is tough, what we say should be governed by truth and what is right. Allowing a married couple to continue in ignorance of the sin of contraception hurts them and hurts the Church. It is the right time now to roll up our sleeves and teach about human life in full. It's time to relearn and to give full consent of the will to the mind of the Church in humble acceptance of her loving instruction. It is time to teach and to preach the message of human life. It's time to live the message, to try to live up to the ideals, and to move forward with the greatest confidence in the truth of it all. It is time for our beloved bishops and priests to “be not afraid, “ to preach the fullness of Christ's message given through his vicar Paul VI and repeated through his vicar John Paul II. This is and always has been a message of love, of life, of the sacredness of human life according to God's plan.

Carla Coon writes from New York.