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Humanae Vitae: The Church's Best Kept

BY Janet Smith

May 10, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/10/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Recently a young woman wrote to radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger about the appropriateness of the letter writer and her fiancé holding a housewarming for their jointly owned and shared domicile. The young woman described herself as one who worships in the Catholic Church every Sunday, sings in the choir, and who feels she is a “good person with great moral judgment.” Dr. Laura asked her, “Has something changed, or does the Catholic Church now condone shacking up and fornication?”

The sad thing is this young woman might have virtually no idea what the Catholic Church teaches about these matters or any others. The Church has been woefully ineffective in teaching its doctrines for the last 30 years and this young woman has likely never been instructed in the Church's teaching on sexual morality.

The malaise in the Church can be traced to the issuance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) whose 30th year anniversary is this year. Nearly all of the dissent and poor catechetics that have characterized the Church for the last three decades can be traced to the dissent that accompanied Pope Paul VI's promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968. No Church document had ever received the public and massive resistance from theologians and then laypeople as did Humanae Vitae. Within 24 hours of the encyclical's issuance, Father Charles Curran held a press conference in which he advised Catholics that they were not obliged to adhere to Humanae Vitae because it was based on an inadequate understanding of natural law.

BEFORE THE ENCYCLICAL

The Church's teaching on contraception had never been taught strenuously in Catholic seminaries. Before Humanae Vitae, priests generally adhered to the teaching as did most married couples. The Church opposed contraception, and Catholic couples followed Church teaching. It was relatively easy to do so for centuries since available contraceptives were quite unreliable and it was largely beneficial for couples to have large families.

In the ‘60s much changed. The Pill became available, there were escalated concerns about overpopulation, and women wanted to be more active in the workplace and were thus determined to have smaller families. The Church was badly situated to counteract the temptations that couples had to have recourse to contraception. Priests were untrained to teach and defend the Church's teaching. Even worse, those who taught in the seminaries were either dissenters or were cowed by the dissenters into teaching that couples should be free to follow their consciences about contraception. The Church thus was sadly absent as a force against the sexual revolution; neither priests nor laypeople had been armed with a knowledge of Church teaching on contraception, the chief fuel that allowed the sexual revolution to rage.

In spite of the manifest devastation to our culture by the consequences of the sexual revolution (premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, abortions, divorce, bad marriages, single-parent households, sexual abuse), few dissenting theologians have reconsidered or recanted from their dissent. Recently I received a letter from one rare theologian who had repented of his dissent. He never made clear to me his reasons precisely but the chief motivating factor seemed to be an element of estrangement that he believed the use of contraception for the last 15 years had introduced into his marriage. He lamented that an otherwise happy marriage had been marred by a struggle for control signified by the use of contraception.

It is not insignificant that this individual's repudiation of this dissent was based upon personal experience. When one reads the dissenters’ arguments, they are rooted almost entirely, it seems, in academic debates about what is the object of the moral act or what is the authoritative status of the Church's teaching. Little or nothing is said about the meaning and purpose of sexuality and marriage; little or nothing is said about how contraception impacts upon relationships. The positive benefits of natural family planning (NFP) go unattested entirely. They seem completely unaware of Pope John Paul II's deliberations on sexuality, marriage, and Humanae Vitae.

TESTIMONY TO HUMANAE VITAE

I would like to recommend to dissenters that they lock themselves in a room for several weeks and read a full collection of newsletters from the Couple to Couple League (CCL), that they review the materials of Mercedes Wilson's Family of the Americas and those of Dr. Tom Hilger's Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, and Pope John Paul II's writings—especially Love and Responsibility. Without such information, I question whether they have the information they need to judge the merit of the Church's condemnation of contraception and its promotion of methods of NFP.

A recent testimony published in the CCL newsletter tells a story that I suspect is not so uncommon and one that I also suspect dissenters from Humanae Vitae have never heard. The wife who wrote the article tells of the miserable childhoods she and her husband had. Hers was marked by repeated sexual abuse and neglect; her husband's father was a brutal womanizer who eventually divorced his mother. The couple had been sexually active before marriage and had used contraception for the first seven years of their marriage. They had never used NFP, among other reasons, because they “never heard it promoted at Mass, and we were active church-goers, not infrequent guests.” She notes that “priests gave us conflicting opinions on unnatural birth control.”

Beginning a family initially helped her recover some appreciation for the meaning of sexuality and helped her cope with suicidal thoughts, but it wasn't until she and her husband started using NFP that her life and marriage were transformed. She allows that it may seem implausible that the use of NFP would be so effective in healing the personal wounds of herself and her husband and in improving their marriage immeasurably. Persuasively, she observes, “just as something as simple as not working on the Lord's Day can enrich family life, so can NFP enrich a marriage.”

Years ago, a woman challenged me to stress the “therapeutic” power of NFPmore strenuously. I asked her to explain what she meant. She said that in her view, most women in our culture have been sexually abused in some way, either literally by some family member or neighbor, or they have been exploited by boyfriends, or they have felt sexually inadequate because of the sexual saturation of the media. She said she had been sexually abused by a family member but that her husband's willingness to use NFP had made her feel revered by him. This I have heard countless times from women, that the use of NFP makes them feel that their husbands greatly respect and cherish them and value them for much more than their sexual availability.

Males have also spoken to me of the healing power of NFP. Our culture attempts to turn males into sexual predators. Rather than cultivating the natural propensity of males to protect women and children, our culture serves to suppress that instinct and to give full range to the baser tendency to be sexually self-indulgent and exploitative.

Males in our culture are made to feel sexually deficient if they value chastity and are made to feel super-masculine if they are out of control sexually. The use of NFP assists males in recapturing the sexual self-mastery that promotes their self-esteem and allows them to become truly self-giving attentive spouses to their wives—and they are delighted by the rewards they reap.

The author of the CCLnewsletter article testifies: “[N]othing has improved our sex life like the NFPprogram. It's much more fun now and because it's more fun, it's also more frequent.” She concludes, “I have come to realize that just as Jesus came to save sinners, the NFPmessage should be aimed at those who had sex before marriage, those who were abused, and those with skewed notions of sexuality—not just those couples preparing for marriage and those who already ‘know the way.’”

Most dissenters charge that the Church's teaching on contraception is flawed because it gives undue respect to the pro-creative meaning of the sexual act. They fail to take any notice of Pope John Paul II's claim that contraception violates the unitive meaning of the sexual act as well. He maintains that the act of sexual intercourse is meant to be an act of total self-giving and that those who attempt to thwart the procreative power of the act while still engaging in the act, are not giving completely of themselves to one another.

Pope John Paul II has developed an interesting line of argument where he speaks of the “language of the body.” He claims bodily actions have meanings much as words do and that unless we intend those meanings with our actions we should not perform them any more than we should speak words we don't mean. In both cases, lies are being “spoken.” Sexual union has a well-recognized meaning; it means “I find you attractive”; “I care for you"; “I will try to work for your happiness"; “I wish to have a deep bond with you.”

CONTRACEPTIVE MENTALITY

Sexual intercourse also means “I am prepared to have a baby with you,” (not, “I intend to have a baby with you”). Asexual act open to the possibility of procreation ideally represents the kind of bond to which spouses have committed themselves; it is an act ordained to lifetime commitments, for a child is a lifetime commitment. Contraceptives, however, convey the message that while sexual intercourse is desired, there is no desire for a permanent bond with the other person. The possibility of an everlasting bond has been willfully removed from the very act designed to best express the desire for such a relationship. Contraceptive sex does not express the full meaning of sexual intercourse—it attempts to thwart and deny the life-giving meaning of the sexual act.

Those using contraceptives rarely suspect that the use of contraceptives may be impeding their expression of love and their ability to experience intimacy with their spouses. Couples using NFP regularly speak of it as improving their marriages. It is time for those who have rejected the Church's teaching on contraception to reconsider. The lived experience of many and the articulate analysis of Pope John Paul II should give them pause.

The Catholic Church has the message that can bring healing to the generations deeply wounded by the sexual revolution. The author of the CCL newsletter article and the young woman who wrote to Dr. Laura have been ill served by the failure of bishops, priests, diocesan staff, and laypeople to energetically promote the Church's teaching. Once we embrace the wisdom of Humanae Vitae, we can expect to witness and experience a great surge in the health of individual psyches, in relationships, and in society. And we can expect to deepen our love for a Church so faithful to God's law.

Dr. Janet Smith is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, and founder and chairman of the Millennium Evangelization Project.