Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of the encyclical Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church over two millennia. What is sad is that the document rarely gets discussed on its own merits. It is usually employed by those arguing against the spectre of creeping papal infallibility, which, according to such arguments, began at Vatican I and was reinforced, that is, strengthened by the Second Vatican Council, particularly in number twenty-five of Lumen Gentium.
It is important to put aside all such juridical arguments and to seek the truth in order to make a judgment about how to live. I do not have the time or energy to do this at present. I have written on this topic (see Marriage and the Gift of Life: Some Diaconal Observations) and preached on it several times. To that end, there is a very good article available for free on the First Things website, by Mary Eberstat, entitled The Vindication of Humane Vitae, which is well worth your time. In her article she ignores all the secondary issues and gets to the heart of the matter. It does not matter, for example, that Pope Paul rejected the recommendation of the majority of the Papal Commission, set up by his predecessor, Bl. John XXIII. What matters is fidelity to the truth, which is fidelity to the Lord. That issue is dealt with in number six:
"However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church."To wit: it is one thing to recommend that the church alter its teaching in the light of human advancement, as with, say, usury. It is a another thing entirely to make a recommendation that is at odds with the natural, that is, the moral law, which is inscribed in nature and, if we seek to be discerning, on our hearts. The fact that we can deny comatose people food while making their passing comfortable and that many people are in favor of doing this does not make it right. In other words, just because technology enables us to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Such an anti-ethic is yet another human attempt to play God, which is the original sin.
What caused the whole discussion to begin was the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960. What was unique about this method at the time was that it dispensed with the need for blocking methods, like condoms, or withdrawal prior to ejaculation, both of which are immoral. In other words, by using the Pill the act could be completed without the risk of pregnancy. What was not known, even in 1968, is that the so-called Pill often and unpredictably acts as an abortifacient. In other words, it does not always prevent conception, but sometimes causes a very early term abortion after conception, an outcome not under the control of the user. So, apart from the question about the morality of contraception, which constitutes the heart of the matter, at least as regards the Pill, there are other grave issues at stake. All this before getting to the long-term health effects that use of the Pill cause in women who employ this method of contraception.
Humanae Vitae, oddly enough, is a very progressive document, not a reactionary one. It does far more than reiterate the ban on artificial contraception, or respond to new arguments in favor of reversing the constant teaching of the church. Again, it is not a matter of pointing to issues on which the church’s position has evolved and changed, like on slavery, usury, the death penalty, etc. Rather, it is a question about this particular issue on a matter that gets right at what it means to be human. Sexuality is qualitatively different from charging interest on a loan, or the other issues, which have to be understood in the context of the times. To wit: the purpose of sex touches directly the question of our humanity.
"The question of human procreation, like every other question which touches human life, involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects" (par. 7).Humanae Vitae recognizes that in addition to having a procreative dimension, sexual intercourse also has a unitive dimension (HV par. 12). In other words, there is a value for married couples to engage such intimate relations, not completely divorced from but in addition to having children. The separation of sex from procreation is the most disastrous consequence of the contraceptive mindset. Sex has become recreation, not procreation. Pregnancy is now what goes wrong when engaging in sex. This is borderline insanity, that is, a denial of reality.
It is also important to note, especially for those of us who practice Natural Family Planning, which is not the rhythm method, that it is not merely an acceptable form of contraception. In marriage vows, we promise to receive children lovingly from God. We do not promise to accept every possible child we are physically capable of having, nor any set number of children. Nonetheless, as St. Thomas teaches us, love is profuse. Anyway, the church does not oppose birth control, that is, the number and spacing of children. The constant tradition of the church opposes contraception, which is not to be conflated and identified with birth control. Once again it becomes, to a certain extent, another case of ends and means. To wit: we always adhere to the principle that ends do not justify means; we may never do evil that good may come of it.
In number ten Humane Vitae teaches that husbands and wives need to arrive at a "full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood". Therefore, taking into account the "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time" (underlining mine). "From this it follows," Pope Paul wrote, "that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out" (HV 10).
If you find yourself feeling recoiling from and being challenged by this teaching, it is important to note what Pope John Paul II wrote regarding the church's missionary activity: "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience" (Redemptoris Missio par. 39). I would note that Giussani's criterion applies here, too, what corresponds to your heart, what leads you to destiny? Both of these precepts are predicated on consciences properly formed, that is, a sincere desire to be happy, to reach our destination, to fulfill the end for which we are created and redeemed, which is not self-gratification that leads to isolation and emptiness that ultimately results in desolation. In other words, do not desecrate the sanctuary of conscience by "using freedom as a pretext for evil" (1 Pet. 2,16).
The church also teaches that the best birth control is self-control. Self-control is in short supply in our country these days and not just with regard to sex.
"In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife"(HV par. 18).Pope Paul also pointed to the societal consequences of the widespread use of contraceptives, this is the focus of Eberstat's article:
1) Marital infidelity will increase
2) There will be a general lowering of moral standards that will profoundly influence young people
3) Women will be reduced and objectified
4) Governments will coercively impose the use of these technical means
I find these predictions more than fulfilled. One of the worst afflictions in the U.S. and the West generally is confusion about the nature and purpose of sex, this is as true for married couples as it is for single people. This confusion goes to the heart of who we are and who we are made to be. It is an impediment, an obstacle, to destiny. These four predictions are truly prophetic and not because Paul VI accurately predicted the future. Anybody with half a brain could deduce the results of the widepread and encouraged use of easily obtainable and easy-to-use contraceptives. However, it takes a prophet to remind us that when we prefer anything to God, like sexual pleasure, that thing becomes for us a god and this is idolatry. It is the role of the prophet to denounce false gods. The prophetic nature of HV, therefore, lies in Pope Paul VI's courage, which he demonstrated frequently, as with Populorum Progresso, in the face of hostility, to speak the truth to power in love. In this he truly demonstrated heroic virtue and for this reason, in my mind, he is blessed. HV does not mark the low ebb of his pontificate, but its high point, thus demonstrating that worldy success is not a Gospel category.
I encourage you to read both HV and Eberstat.