Take another look at the true meaning of ‘Humanae Vitae’

Father John A. Kiley

One area of life that would seem to be exempt from the cross, at least in the popular imagination, is sexual relations.

Greatly influenced by the fashionable media as well as by one’s own romantic notions, sexual relations between spouses would seem to be far removed from the sacrifice, discipline and restraint that are essential to the Christian life. Still, the cross, in fact the full Paschal mystery of death and Resurrection, is just as essential in the marriage bed as in one’s prayer life, one’s family life, one’s community life.

July 25, 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s insightful but neglected instruction on the transmission of life, Humanae Vitae. Damned with faint praise by some European hierarchies and vilified with defiant protests by some American theologians, Humanae Vitae has frankly been ignored by clergy and laity alike. The prohibition of all forms of artificial contraception is, for the most part, all that is recalled from Pope Paul’s courageous and even heroic presentation. The celebration of the natural cycle of fertility and infertility that is at the heart of Pope Paul’s teaching remains largely untaught and, it might be boldly added, largely disregarded. The dynamic of the so-called sexual revolution, supported by the media and driven by desire, was picking up steam in 1968 and led from free love to recreational sex and now to same-sex marriage. Pope Paul’s wise and thorough treatise on conjugal love held little appeal for a generation of laity being introduced to “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” and it had equally small attraction for a generation of clergy recently introduced to the relaxing “spirit of Vatican II.” Humanae Vitae was a document whose time had not come.

The Vatican first addressed the issue of family planning in the 1860s (yes, 1860s) by acknowledging a natural cycle of fertility and infertility. In later years, popes Pius XI and Pius XII followed suit by insisting that nothing unnatural or artificial could interfere with a couple’s reproductive cycle. As the medical and pharmaceutical industries grew more precise during the 20th century, the variety of artificial contraceptives grew as well. The celebrated “pill” was a truly revolutionary contribution to the birth control debate. But while science was being refined, economics was also in the picture. Before 1900, probably 50 percent of babies born did not grow to maturity. Infant mortality was nature’s sad birth control. Happily, this situation has certainly changed. In an agricultural society and during the industrial revolution, large families were an asset — all the more hands to work on the farm or slave at the mill. With child labor laws, many children became a liability, not an asset. Today, parents support their children well in their 20s. Large families were also a form of social security in the past — those maiden aunts who stayed home and cared for elderly parents, ailing siblings or abundant newborns. Certainly they are a dying, if not already dead, breed. Women, of course, always worked and worked hard either on the farm or in cottage industries. But for most of history women did not work away from home. Again, the 20th century witnessed a great departure from this traditional practice.

In the mid-20th century sincere, practicing Catholics as well as other persons of good will had legitimate concerns about family planning — either the spacing or the delaying for worthy reasons of births. Their question was how to do this planning legitimately, that is, within God’s design for marital love. And this is truly Pope Paul’s great contribution to the family planning discussion — God does have a design for love. Pope Paul wrote, “Marriage is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love.” In God’s plan, sexual intercourse is not the happy but haphazard congress of two individuals. In God’s mind, sexual intercourse brings a married couple together to express their exclusive and enduring love for one another and to manifest their concern for new life. Both love and life must always enter into the picture. Consider specifically Pope Paul’s terse summation regarding life, “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”

Sexual intercourse must always, always, be respectful of life — life already at hand, life desired now, or life to be welcomed in the future. To dismiss these considerations of life from the mind of the couple is the great evil of artificial birth control and a great disservice to the marital and spiritual life of the couple.

To be continued next week