On Humanae Vitae, the Church is Right and the Wijngaards Institute is Wrong

When I became Catholic, I went searching for answers to the elusive question of contraception — and found them in the impressive writings of Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Pius XII.

Official portrait of Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968.
Official portrait of Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968. (photo: Register Files)

Last week, I learned that a UK-based group of Catholic scholars is suggesting that Humanae Vitae got it wrong when it comes to artificial birth control. The Wijngaards Institute is proposing, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, that the Catholic Church allow for the use of modern artificial contraception.

Who said being Catholic isn’t interesting?

Funnily enough, the wholesale rejection of birth control was not terribly hard for me to accept, as a formerly-contracepting convert. This was, I admit, largely because the pill had made me sick (and a little bit crazy) early on in my marriage. Plus, over time, I had begun to question this whole mentality of “kids are burdensome intruders on a marriage and must therefore be severely limited, at all costs”. That line of thinking, so prevalent among couples in my generation (I’m 35 years old), just didn’t square with the fact that married sexuality is, well, naturally ordered towards procreation. So when I went digging for answers to the elusive question of how men and women ought to approach family planning, I was more than a little impressed by the writings of not only Pope Paul VI, but also Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Pius XII. What they said and wrote both affirmed and reflected what had become my own experience. Their words were imbued with the dignity, beauty, and partnership of marriage. Clearly these were men who held women and mothers in high esteem, and who emphasized equality between spouses.

And, there was the unique ring of truth.   

I had seen in my own marriage how children were a blessing to us, in spite of all the sacrifices and hard work. We fought less, were forced by sheer and utter necessity to find common ground, and came to love and respect one another all the more. I saw how siblings were a true gift to one another (particularly when I considered how my adopted children had lost so much so early in life), how the home had become a training ground for life and for virtue, and how being open to children necessitated a deep faith rooted in hope and love. Though I’d never envisioned myself having a large family, there I was. How grateful I was for the Catholic Church, which stood alone in proclaiming the truth about who I was created to be as a woman.  

Of course, I realize that much of what I’ve shared here is purely anecdotal. And I am more than happy to leave the heavy theological and scholarly lifting to people much smarter than I — no doubt a rebuttal of sorts is in the works already. But I wanted to speak out when I read Mary McAleese’s position, that “good, decent, faith-filled men and women are infantilised and robbed”, by Humanae Vitae, of their “God-given right and obligation to make sensible adult decisions in the best interests of their health, their relationships and their children”. Because from where I sit, making “sensible adult decisions” is not inherently incompatible with a generous and responsible parenthood. Nor is reproductive health, or a strong marriage. You can (potentially) have all of those things without modern birth control.

It will certainly look different for everyone — not all couples will go on to conceive several children, for any number of reasons — but what our families all ought to have in common is a deference to God’s perfect design, and an embracing of the whole human person. The Wijngaards Institute’s Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives is about so much more than simply opening up new possibilities for the spacing of children. To me, it appears to be not only an undermining of the Church’s authority on this matter, but also a subtle shift in the way we conceptualize love between spouses. In any case, it’s an opportunity to brush up on what our faith teaches, and why. (Think the Catechism, writings by the popes, and two of my favorite books of all time: Love and Responsibility, and Covenanted Happiness.) Then, as we look towards the golden anniversary of the incredibly prophetic Humanae Vitae, we will not grow weary of running this race, or of standing for love in a time of confusion.