I find it lamentable that so many people disagree with the conclusion arrived by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae without reading it and seriously engaging the points that he raises, especially in light of the fact that the predictions he made about the societal effects of making the means of birth control cheap and widely available are true, which causes many (including myself) to revere Humanae Vitae as truly prophetic. By prophetic I do mean accurately predicting the future like some kind of divine fortune-teller, but prophetically giving witness, like Jeremiah, to the natural and inevitable consequences of certain courses of action, thus requiring the prophet to tell people things they do not want to hear, often provoking virulent and even violent responses. In writing about the consequences that would naturally follow making methods of contraception cheap and widely available, Paul VI wrote that such a change
could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection (underlining emphasis mine)
On this basis alone dismissing the conclusions arrived at with no consideration for the solid foundation on which the Church's teaching in this regard is based strikes me as truly operating on the basis of preconceptions that either arise from or give rise to an ideology. Pope John Paul II courageously called the ideology to which this perfunctory and absolute rejection is part "the culture of death." It is certainly the culture of self first, the rejection of the kind of self-emptying love that constitutes the very heart of the one vocation to follow Christ, which is what makes marriage a truly Christian vocation. It always bears noting that what JPII proposed as the remedy to the pervasive "culture of death" was not a the "culture of life," but the "culture of love," which implies life and much more. Indeed, for Pope Paul VI to go along with the spirit of the age in this regard would've been an abject dereliction of his duty not only to preserve the depositum fidei, or even to transmit it, but to apply the Gospel, which, given the fallen-ness of the world in which we live, is always deeply and profoundly counter-cultural, to the issues of the day.
Nonetheless, the fact that Humanae Vitae is a very progressive statement about the positive nature of conjugal love gets lost in the political and ideological clamor that any mention of it inevitably enjoins because, as truth tends to do, it convicts consciences. After all, the letter begins with these very pastoral words:
The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.Section 12 of Humanae Vitae is particularly relevant to what I want to convey:
The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings
This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason
One thing that often goes missing, even among those who support the Church's teaching and endeavor to live by it, is that the various methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP) (which no longer includes the so-called rythym method and has not for decades) are not just natural means of contraception. When we teach it in this way the inevitable and understandable response is, "What's the difference between using, say, a barrier method (a diaphragm and condom, being sterilized) and a so-called natural method?" Well, if we are merely proposing NFP as an acceptable method of contraception, it is a distinction without a moral difference. Of course, not only are Christian couples not required to have every child they can possibly have, but that they have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children they bring into the world to the number they can materially support and spiritually and emotionally nurture. It is exactly in charting this course that the Church gives us sound moral guidance, which also leaves room for the wild unpredictability that real loves requires.
Living the Gospel in any aspect is always a matter of the heart, it always encompasses our intentionality, thus making it important not just to do what is right and good, but to do good with the intention of doing good, as a response in freedom. This means recognizing and embracing the inherent sacrifice this normally entails. The self-emptying sacrifices to which marriage calls us are no less and, in fact, are often greater than those that arise from priestly or religious vocations. In this realm the sacrifice takes two forms: parenting and seeking to master our sexual desires by working to develop the virtue of chastity and working towards to real intimacy in marriage, which is more spiritual than physical; enjoying having sex together doesn't seem to pose too great a problem for most couples, but praying together daily certainly seems to present issues. It seems that prayer, not sex, is the final frontier of intimacy!
It is easy to miss what Jesus teaches about marriage in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew because He is also discussing celibacy and continence, becoming a "eunuch" for the kingdom of heaven. After His teaching on the impermissibility of divorce, Jesus' disciples say, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." To which the Lord responds, talking directly about marriage, not celibacy and the continence to which it gives rise- "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given" (verses 3-12- ESV). Of course, marriage as a vocation arises from Christ's teaching. It is a vocation because it is a sacrament. Not all vocations are sacraments, but all sacraments draw us more deeply into the divine life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, enabling us to heed to the one vocation to follow Christ.