Today marks the 50th anniversary of the controversial and often misunderstood Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae. It was issued by Bl. Paul VI in response to a call for the Church to change teaching which had been consistent and foundational for almost 2000 years. All Christian churches adhered to this teaching until 1930 when the Anglican Church at the Lambeth conference opened the door to change within very limited pastoral circumstances and unwittingly releasing the floodgates of sweeping change. This document was released at a time of profound social and cultural upheaval. Even within the Church there were many who expected that the Holy Father would simply get “with the times” and break with Tradition. Instead, Paul VI sent shockwaves world-wide when he declared that the Church could not change essential truth and reality concerning human life and love as it was the Church’s role only to be the “guardian and interpreter” of the truth. There were still a few in the Christian world who fully approved of the Pope’s approach, notably Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras.
Unfortunately, within the Catholic communion instead of ushering in an era of peace after this confirmation of the Churches position Humanae Vitae was like a spark in a powder keg igniting a reaction ranging from quiet dissatisfaction, and muddling of the truth to outright dissent. Five decades later the prophetic voice of Bl. Paul VI continues to speak, perhaps with even greater force as the predictions he made about the widespread acceptance of contraception have come to pass with frightening precision. Several generations have been caught in the mire, with many of the faithful failing to attain the blessings that come with this life affirming vision of human life and getting caught in the fallout–the delusion of “control”.
At the outset, Humanae Vitae was read as a condemnation of “artificial birth control” leaving Catholic couples to resort to far less reliable natural family planning (NFP), often interpreted as a calendar or rhythm method, affectionately referred to as “Vatican roulette”. When modern scientific natural methods were developed based on an accurate understanding of human physiology, they could not compete with the multinational pharmaceuticals who had a huge stake in hormonal and mechanical methods of contraception. Besides, despite having comparable rates of success at preventing pregnancy, NFP still required periods of abstinence during the fertile times, unlike these contraceptive methods. NFP requires couples to grow in the virtue of self-control and chastity, fairly unpopular concepts and tough to sell to a market that was increasingly equating sex with pleasure rather than couple unity and family building (babies). This was a slow process and most people did not really see this coming, but the results of this disintegration of the sexual embrace are stunningly clear in 2018. Sadly, many people have grown up with a concept of sexuality derived from the ‘contraceptive mentality’– “what-ever makes me happy in the moment”– and thus have never really known anything else than the distortions that go along with unbridled sexual licence—hook-up culture; #me too; reluctance to commit as marriage seems less and less relevant; gender and sexual confusion, etc. Despite all this the desire for true lifelong love persists but its attainment seeming far beyond the reach of many young people.
There remain those that will argue there is no difference between the reasonable, responsible use of natural methods of family planning and contraception. Humanae Vitae makes it clear that while the short-term result may be the same—avoidance of pregnancy—the method of simply choosing to not engage in genital sexual activity during the fertile times is quite different than deliberately rendering the sexual act always sterile. Likewise, the relational and societal effects will eventually be felt—again maybe not right away but definitely generationally as young people have vice and reductionism facilitated by contraception, trumping virtue, respect and awe of God in their decision making.
In my own life the effects of choosing NFP were fairly immediate and tangible. I initially opted for “the pill” like most of my generation at the recommendation of my family, medical health professionals and even with the blessing of some in the Church who told me it was up to my conscience. Fortunately for me my body did not like the side effects I experienced while on it and I very shortly opted for NFP. My husband heartily agreed as a convert to Catholicism he was ready to be “all in” and as an Engineer the science of NFP was readily apparent to him. I was not ready to be pregnant – but after going to confession (as my adverse physical reaction to the drug seemed to awaken my conscience) and learning the SERENA Sympto Thermal method of NFP we embarked on an adventure that, although we did not conceive for 4 years (by choice), brought us closer together than I ever thought possible. If I had to sum it up in one word it would be trust—I was able to trust my whole self—fertility and all to my husband and we shared an intimacy without any barriers to protect ourselves from the other. Has our relationship been problem free or “perfect”—certainly not—but this foundation of trust coupled with our mutual giving of ourselves over to God’s mercy and forgiveness has seen us through many challenges including welcoming six children into the world and doing our best to raise them to know, love and follow Christ and the teachings of His Church. NFP really did allow us to learn to entrust “ourselves, each other and our whole life to Christ our God” despite our wounds, imperfections and problems.
By the way, we deliberately and consciously chose to have a big family. Many of our friends who also practiced NFP chose to have smaller families. That is the beauty of it. The Church deliberately leaves that decision with the man and woman who must make their choices and do their best to live out their family life based in their personal circumstances. At the same time as proclaiming our personal freedom, the Church also fearlessly celebrates the blessing of children and goodness of a generous love.
Happy Anniversary Humanae Vitae. Thank-you Bl. Paul VI for being faithful to the truth, pray for us that we might lovingly and courageously proclaim it.