Humanae Vitae: The Reason My Wife and I Returned to the Church
Personal reflections on the goodness of Church teaching.
When I recently read about the new assault within the Church on Pope Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on contraception, I was deeply disturbed. Humanae Vitae told the truth about contraception and all its negative impacts on people and society. It was precisely because we read Humanae Vitae that my wife, Margaret, I and became “reverts” to the Catholic Church after being away for almost 20 years. Margaret and I were both raised Catholic and attended Catholic grammar schools, high schools and young people’s retreats. But by 1980, when we met in graduate school, we had essentially left the Church.
Still, there was enough “Catholic” in us that when we decided to get married, we got married in the Church. Before our wedding, we did the pre-Cana weekend, where we heard a talk on natural family planning (NFP), and Margaret said, “That’s what I’m doing!” We went to a NFP class, and she came away very confused. She couldn’t make head or tails of the information she had been given. It seemed almost incomprehensible.
I’ll be quite honest with you: I was relieved! NFP relies on periods of abstinence to avoid conception, and I wasn’t at all interested in abstinence — I was getting married!
Margaret had received the “standard freshman talk” on the pill in college and was totally opposed to the idea of pumping her healthy body full of hormones. So when we were married in 1982, to avoid pregnancy, we began using barrier methods, which, honestly, felt more like a barrier to intimacy.
Two years into our marriage, Margaret was diagnosed with endometriosis, and the doctors wanted to put her on hormones. She told the doctor, “Wait a minute! I was just reading I could have a baby and that would take care of this.” And the doctor said, “Yes, but you don’t want to do that.” Well, she did. We stopped using contraception, and three weeks later, she was pregnant.
After our first son was born, Margaret breast-fed and didn’t have a period for 14 months. When she finally realized she hadn’t been fertile all that time, but we’d been using barriers to prevent pregnancy when we didn’t need to, she was upset. She told me, “I’m not doing that again!”
So I agreed to have Margaret look into natural methods.
Margaret found that there were two local NFP classes available: One was taught by Planned Parenthood, and the other was presented by the Catholic Church. She spoke with her midwife about it. Margaret told her, “I’m not going back to the Catholic Church. I left the Church over contraception.” But her midwife reasoned that the Catholic Church’s NFP classes were bound to be more effective than Planned Parenthood’s because the Church doesn’t have abortion as a backup.
So we went to the local Catholic church for a natural family planning class. We ended up practicing NFP for the remaining years of our fertility and found it very effective, as all four of our pregnancies during that time were planned.
We had been using NFP for at least eight years when our former NFP instructor mentioned Humanae Vitae. “What’s that?” we asked. In spite of all our Catholic upbringing and education, we’d never heard of Humanae Vitae.
She was shocked. She said, “You’ve been using NFP for eight years, and you’ve never heard of Humanae Vitae? We have to read it together.”
When we read Pope Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception, we were stunned. Based on our own lives and observations, we knew that Humanae Vitae was right. You didn’t need to be a theologian to see that!
I remember Margaret saying quite emphatically, “This is the truth, and these are the only people saying it. We’re Catholic!” And so back to the Church we went.
I often hear the charge that NFP is just “Catholic contraception.” No way! Humanae Vitae condemns contraception while condoning natural methods — and, from experience, for good reason. Contraception facilitates the death of love, while NFP facilitates the love needed to build a marriage and raise children.
I know from using contraception the negative effects it can have on love. When you take the procreative part out of sex, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of looking at your wife simply as a means of easing your own sexual tensions. That’s dehumanizing. That kills love.
I’ve learned a lot about love through the practice of NFP and through the faith. As Catholics, we believe that God is love. To learn about love, look at God. Look at the cross: Love is self-sacrificing. Christ died for us on the cross so that we might have eternal life in union with him. In marriage, by sacrificing for each other, you know you’re loved and that you love your wife and children.
When practicing abstinence to space children, it leads to very serious discussions with your wife. You can ask every month, “Why are we abstaining?” As a couple, you should talk about all of your various problems and difficulties and look together for options and solutions. It’s through the process of working together through the difficulties of married life and wanting the best for each other and your family that love grows in a marriage and the marriage is built. After experiencing the positive impact of of NFP on our marriage, Margaret and I wanted to share this gift with other couples, which Paul VI encouraged in Humanae Vitae.
So we trained to be NFP instructors and were certified in 1999. Margaret and I teach NFP as a couple to other married and engaged couples.
Why? Because of their mutual fertility, both the husband and wife need to be fully informed about why and how to use NFP, so they can use it effectively.
They both need to be fully on board to experience the marriage-building effects of NFP.
I feel it’s my role in the classes to be supportive of the guys, speaking to them from my experience and saying, “This is very, very important, and you can do it!”
Margaret and I returned to the Catholic Church because Humanae Vitae told the truth. By living our lives according to its precepts, we’ve avoided the damage of contraception and, through NFP, have found our love increasing as we navigate the challenges of married life. Humanae Vitae is right!
Sue Ellen Browder is the author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement.
Margaret and Paul Turano currently teach through Natural Family Planning International, a comprehensive program that teaches all methods of NFP.