[Note: This final installment of my examination of Humanae Vitae comes on the 45th anniversary of the encyclical’s release to the public, July 29, 1968.]
Forty-five years after Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae surveys show that it has been overwhelming ignored or rejected by most Catholics, especially in the West. Study after study has shown that Catholics are no different than their Protestant or non-believing counterparts when it comes to issues of sexual morality. Just recently a poll found that 50% of US Catholics (55% of white US Catholics) support abortion on demand in “all or most” cases. According to a 2012 Gallup poll 82% of US Catholics responded that artificial birth control was morally acceptable. Does it even matter what or why the Church teaches as it does about contraception if so many don’t seem to care?
Yes it does! Although I have no empirical evidence to support it, I suspect that the majority of Catholics approving of and practicing contraception do not truly know or understand the Church’s position. Consider, when was the last time you heard a homily about contraception? What did your parish do for National Natural Family Planning Week? How much emphasis is placed on the Church’s teaching, NFP, or theology of the body for couples during marriage preparation classes?
I believe there are three main reasons for submitting to the wisdom of the Church on this subject: it’s true, we’re called, and the reality of sin.
My wife and I have been married for twenty years. While we’ve had our ups and downs like any other couple, we are proud to say that we have never used artificial contraception. We have successfully used NFP to plan and space the births of our children. After our first two girls were born we knew that we could not at that time responsibly have any more children. My wife had gone through two very difficult pregnancies including bed rest and preterm labor. She was dealing with an auto-immune disorder that left her with chronic pain and fatigue. We were also struggling financially as I worked for the Church and she stayed home to raise our girls. Still we continuously sought God’s will regarding our family. As the years past her health and our finances improved to the point that we had no good reason not to be open to more children. After prayerful consideration we were able to use NFP to try for more kids. Our third daughter was born ten years after our second and since then we’ve added two more girls and a boy after losing one child to a miscarriage.
While some may look at our larger than average family and see that as a failure of NFP they would be wrong. We have an attitude that embraces love and life. We do not see our children as burdens or inconveniences. They are not accidents, but sought after gifts from God; and we are entrusted with raising and returning them to him.
Humanae Vitae is worth following because it is true. Paul VI promised fruitfulness that would improve the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. Following the Church’s teaching goes well beyond just the means of birth control—artificial or natural—to an invitation of allowing God to become an intimate and involved member of your family. It draws our attention to the fact that marriage is bigger than the love between husband and wife because it is a sign of the love of God within the Trinity and the love of Jesus for his Church. It’s no wonder then that couples practicing NFP have a divorce rate under 5% and are much more likely to be active members of their church and more faithful in holding to other teachings of the Church.
In the beginning, God commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply”. We are called to allow our love to be fruitful and life-giving. Love cannot be contained it must burst forth. Likewise we are made in God’s image and that image is also an eternal, selfless, life-giving love. We should strive to be imitators of Christ and he held nothing back, but poured out all of himself into his bride, the Church, so that she could conceive the new resurrection life he offered.
St. Paul commands us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom 12:1) As mentioned above too few Catholics stand out and resist being conformed to the world. We have allowed the world to form us in many areas, but perhaps none so strongly as our sexuality. The Church must pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds to hear and see the truth of this teaching and to be changed by it. The stakes cannot be higher.
Not to sound too harsh, but we are robbing God of children and contracepting ourselves out of existence. Many in the West bemoan the closing or consolidating of parishes, the lack of vocations to the priesthood or religious life, and lack of support for Catholic school. Yet, we fail to understand the connection to wide-spread acceptance of contraception and the contraceptive mindset that views children either as a virus to be avoided or as accessories to compliment the modern marriage (as long as the limit is kept at 1-2 kids). LifeSiteNews.com featured the sad story of Fr. Timothy Sauppe of Illinois who had to close his parish school and who clearly saw the connection to the contraceptive generation.
The final reason for obeying Church teaching regarding contraception comes down to how the Catechism touches on the subject:
“In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil.” (CCC #2370, emphasis added)
In other words, it’s a sin, and a serious one at that. What else does the Church consider “intrinsically evil”? Murder. Abortion. Euthanasia. Theft. Lying. Fornication. Adultery. Blasphemy.
This is not good company to keep.
What we do with our bodies matters! Contraception is ultimately a spiritual issue because it affects our souls. The Church takes such a strong stance on sexual sins not because she views sexuality as dirty, but precisely because she views it as holy. God teaches us through the Church that our truest fulfillment comes when we treat ourselves and others in the way he created us to be. Far from weighing us down, faithfulness to this teaching brings liberty.
We must learn to understand and accept God’s law as something positive rather than a list of Thou Shalt Nots. Consider how Pope Francis explains this in his encyclical Lumen Fidei when discussing the Decalogue (Ten Commandments):
“The Decalogue is not a set of negative commands, but concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others. Faith thus professes the love of God, origin and upholder of all things, and lets itself be guided by this love in order to journey towards the fullness of communion with God. The Decalogue appears as the path of gratitude, the response of love, made possible because in faith we are receptive to the experience of God’s transforming love for us.” (Lumen Fidei #46)