Revisiting ‘Humanae Vitae’ reveals lessons mostly forgotten

Father John A. Kiley

Continued from last week’s column

Unless there is a problem with impotency, a husband is always fertile. Men are capable of engendering children from their teenage years until death.

Women, however, are ordinarily fertile only on certain days of a monthly cycle. And as science develops, this fertile period can be determined with ever-increasing accuracy. Temperature, fluids and the calendar are traditional female indicators of fertility and infertility which a couple may employ to regulate births. The uninformed will dismiss reliance on this cycle of fertility/infertility as the old “rhythm” system of the 1930s and ’40s. But there is nothing antiquated about Natural Family Planning. And as time goes on and the secular world takes a second — or even first — look at the natural regulation of births, this God-given disposition in women will become even more meaningful and manageable.

Undeniably, God’s design of love was portrayed most graphically and most lovingly through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus denied himself, handed himself over to the Father’s will, sacrificed himself on Calvary but then was raised up gloriously from the tomb to sit triumphant at the Father’s right hand. This is the Paschal Mystery. This is the very mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

In the sexual life of a married couple, this Paschal Mystery can be lived out even in the intimacy of their marriage bed. A couple has every right to enjoy those honeymoon periods when they give themselves to each other in romantic, tender and even passionate love. The popular notion nowadays is that the honeymoon should describe all conjugal relations. But abandonment to such ardor is the soap opera depiction of love. God’s plan of love differs from Hollywood’s portrait. God has built periods of restraint, interludes of discipline, times of sacrifice, into his design of love. The Christian couple who periodically deny themselves full intercourse in order to respect life confronts what marriage, sex and love really concern. To understand married love simply as pleasure is to miss the sacramental and paschal significance of matrimony. To be productive, to be full, to be spiritually and physically rewarding, marriage must include the cross of Jesus Christ.

Periodic abstinence gently introduces the cross of Christ into the Christian bedroom. The couple who does integrate this periodic self-discipline into their married life will appreciate their return to full marital relations all the more. A new honeymoon will follow these periods of restraint. For Christians, Easter always follows Good Friday.

Pope Paul recalls that Catholic theology, relying on Genesis, has always taught that married love must be pro-creative — it must be open to new life. Catholic theology, again relying on Genesis, has always taught that married love must be unitive — there must be spiritual and physical intimacy between the couple. Artificial birth control destroys both the pro-creative and unitive aspects of married life. It frustrates pro-creative new life through mechanical or chemical means. It destroys unitive intimacy by dividing the couple: the condom places all responsibility on the husband; the pill or diaphragm places all responsibility on the wife. By passing responsibility to one or the other, artificial birth control is blatant sexism, dividing a couple instead of drawing them together in mutual restraint. By being faithful to both the pro-creative and unitive aspects of married life, a couple acknowledges that they are “the ministers of God’s plan, not the arbiters of their own designs.” God’s plan, not their own convenience, is always primary.

Humanae Vitae wisely viewed the intimacies of a Christian couple in the wider context of world society. The authentic regulation of births among believers will demand education in chastity, consideration of population changes, monitoring scientific improvements, good example from other married couples, frequent confession, and wise medical support. Humanae Vitae also insisted that the clergy “… expound the church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity. …” — a woefully neglected challenge from Pope Paul VI. The self-mastery needed for periodic continence matures the individual; the mutuality demanded by periodic continence develops the couple. Thus the cross of Christ, as always, enriches every human enterprise and every human life.