The legacy of ‘Humanae Vitae' - Catholic Courier
(CNS photo by Paul Haring)

(CNS photo by Paul Haring)

The legacy of ‘Humanae Vitae’

In this issue:

The legacy of ‘Humanae Vitae’ at 50 years
Church teachings on ‘responsible parenthood’
Non-Catholics discover ‘Humanae Vitae’
Food for Thought

In a nutshell

Fifty years after its promulgation, the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” has been labeled “prophetic.”

Pope Paul VI understood that the quality of marital and parental love has social consequences.

Among other topics, the encyclical spells out the church’s teaching on responsible parenthood.

It beautifully states that the love between a man and a woman can be an act of co-creation with God and an image of divine love.

The legacy of ‘Humanae Vitae’ at 50 years

By Helen Alvare/Catholic News Service

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” 50 years on, is how reports of its imminent death were continually exaggerated. Very few brave souls would have predicted in 1968 that the document would ever enjoy enthusiastic support from more than a few female Catholic intellectuals and the Catholic “woman in the pew,” even while it remains contested both in the church and in the world.

Rather, given the widespread acceptance of and hopes associated with contraception, most believed that the church would either alter this teaching or that it would be quietly ignored and the furor die down.

To understand the surprising survival of “Humanae Vitae,” it is important to understand what the “pill” was promising to the world. “Humanae Vitae” was written just eight years after the pill was made publicly available. Many predicted that the pill could end poverty and “overpopulation” by dramatically reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies.

It also promised to improve marriages and free women to take advantage of the new opportunities outside the home that were opening up for them. Its manufacturer, G.D. Searle, delivered it to doctors with a paperweight of a naked, gold-painted, bare-breasted woman — Andromeda — with her head up, breaking free from her chains. On her back was the word “unfettered.”

Furthermore, during the 1960s and continuing to today, men and women were increasingly inclined to believe that human progress could be measured by the pace of new technology. So the church’s position in “Humanae Vitae” was characterized as a fear of progress and science, alongside distaste for sex and for women’s freedom.

But over time, as the sexual revolution played out and contraception failed to live up to its billing, fair observers began to note a positive or prophetic thing or two about “Humanae Vitae,” along with its surprisingly accurate read of human nature.

For one thing, “Humanae Vitae” took sex seriously, far more seriously than the contemporary world, for all its talk about sex. It called sex “noble and worthy.” It also spoke positively, even upliftingly, about the bond between men and women. It grasped the importance of this bond for their own happiness and for their coming to understand and model to the world what faithful, permanent, fruitful love could look like.

In other words, their love could provide the couple themselves and the world some understanding — a glimpse — of how God loves us and how we are to love one another. And to do so in a very Catholic way, involving the body as well as the mind and heart.

“Humanae Vitae” was increasingly labeled “prophetic.” Pope Paul VI understood, long before sophisticated social measures could (and did) prove him right, that the quality of marital and parental love has social consequences. These consequences would manifest themselves first in the basic cell of society, the family and from there radiate out into the world.

Today we know and can measure what this pope already intuited: that robbing sex of its full meaning would lead to a great deal of sex without commitment, without even love. That children would suffer the loss of their parents’ stable marriages. And that women would become sexual instruments and find themselves all too often in what we now call #MeToo predicaments.

In addition to its other prophecies, “Humanae Vitae” correctly predicted that countries would give in to temptations to take “harsher measures” to promote contraception among people it did not wish to procreate.

This has occurred not only in China and India, but also in the U.S., albeit here with a friendly face; poorer women here are “incentivized” to use free contraception, especially if they will use the so-called long-acting varieties that require a doctor’s help to remove.

At the same time, Pope Paul VI anticipated that couples resorting to natural methods of family planning would achieve an important degree of tranquility and peace. Their marriages would be strengthened, and their sensitivity to one another’s hopes and feelings improved.

This is indeed the kind of testimony one hears from couples practicing natural family planning. It is also the kind of testimony that attracts non-Catholics toward the Catholic vision of marriage and parenting, and even to conversion into the faith.

Pope Paul IV foresaw as well that contraception would provoke an increasing desire to achieve technological dominion over the human body. It would encourage us to forget that we did not design or make ourselves and that we are not each “master of the sources of life” but rather the “minister(s) of a design established by the Creator.”

Our bodies would become mere matter for our manipulation. This has reached perhaps its logical limit with contemporary demands for easy access to surgery to transform human bodies into the opposite sex.

It would be naive to predict that “Humanae Vitae” will achieve enthusiastic consensus in our lifetime. Too many “isms” mitigate against this possibility: materialism, scientism and sexism, among others. Not to mention the valorization of sex as a self-focused, identity- and happiness-maximizing exercise.

But because “Humanae Vitae” got human nature right, wherever people are debating the ethics of human sexual relationships, they will have to grapple with “Humanae Vitae” and to give this bruised and battered document its due.

(Alvare is professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.)

What does the church teach about ‘responsible parenthood’?

By Anna Capizzi/Catholic News Service

The Catholic Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood is often overlooked, or simply unknown.

Pope Francis memorably countered popular misconceptions about the church’s sexual teaching in 2015 aboard a flight when he bluntly said, “Some people believe that — pardon my language, in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits.”

“No. Responsible parenthood,” he added.

The pope was “pushing back against that misperception. The church doesn’t say, ‘Have as many children as possible or you’re not really Catholic.’ What the church calls couples to is responsible parenthood,” explained John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Key to understanding the term “responsible parenthood” is Section 10 of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” Grabowski said.

The section reads, “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”

To illustrate what might or might not constitute as “serious reasons,” Grabowski used three examples.

A couple not acting prudently or generously is one who says, “We will not have children or we will not have more children until we have a seven-figure retirement fund or until we have a third vacation home,” Grabowski said.

Financial situations can be considered, Grabowski later added, “but as Pope Francis says, people who are poor or in poorer countries have an easier time recognizing a child as gift than wealthy people in wealthy countries oftentimes.”

As an example of a “prudent and just” reason, Grabowski referred to a couple he counseled over the years with a son “who is profoundly autistic and rather than institutionalizing that child, they’ve decided that they’re going to keep their child in their home and be his full-time caregivers, providers, parents.”

“They’re generously open to God’s gift to them and accepting the challenge of having a child with those needs. But they realize that they are maxed out in terms of their parental resources” and feel “they can’t take on more children.” Grabowski explained.

Other “serious reasons” for not having children or more children could be health concerns.

Grabowski spoke of a woman, a mother, who told him that she was in remission from melanoma. Her doctors told her that if she became pregnant, the hormonal changes could trigger a relapse and any treatment might jeopardize the life of her child.

“After studying and praying, she decided to learn a version of natural family planning, be disciplined in using it” and 15 years later, is cancer-free with the same number of children, Grabowski recounted.

While most couples may not have face such extreme circumstances, responsible parenthood necessitates a “well-formed conscience and the exercise of prudence to say this is a just or a serious reason why, at this point of time, we should not try to have another child or be open to the gift of a child,” Grabowski said.

He recommends couples form their consciences by studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, church documents such as “Humanae Vitae” and St. John Paul II’s theology of the body.

“It requires not just discernment, what is God calling us to, but dialogue between the couple. What do we think together that God’s calling us to do in our situation?”

And responsible parenthood extends beyond simply deciding whether or not to have children.

“Here we can go all the way back to St. Augustine,” Grabowski said. St. Augustine sees three goods in marriage: the good of fidelity, the good of indissoluble unity and the good of offspring.

For Augustine, the good of offspring is more than just having children, “it’s raising them to know, to love and serve God,” Grabowski said. “It’s forming them in love and helping them to grow to be able to know God’s call to them.”

(Capizzi is the special projects editor at Catholic News Service.)

How a non-Catholic couple discovered ‘Humanae Vitae’

By Amber Lapp/Catholic News Service

I stood at the desk in my college apartment, holding a box of birth control pills. As I read the instructions, the lengthy list of side effects made me hesitate.

I had friends who experienced weight gain, mood swings, loss of libido and even depression after taking hormonal birth control, and seeing the disclaimers in print brought those stories to mind.

But I was recently engaged and with the wedding months away, my fiance David and I were beginning to think about life after the wedding. I was 21, he 22, and we were getting married just a couple of weeks after college graduation. We had student debt and the high cost of living in New York City to deal with, so though we both hoped for many children in the future, we thought it wise to delay pregnancy for a couple of years until we were able to find a modicum of financial stability.

We were not yet Catholic at the time, but in a public policy class (of all places) we had been introduced to the Catholic views on artificial contraception.

I was not convinced, but was intrigued.

What struck me as particularly beautiful was the idea that the love between a man and a woman could be an act of co-creation with God and an image of divine love.

As Pope Paul VI wrote in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” husband and wife are called to “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.”

It was with this in mind that I stood holding the pills, when I noticed a chart in the instruction booklet comparing effectiveness rates of various methods. The chart included a measurement for fertility awareness methods, and I was surprised to see that the “perfect use” effectiveness rate was very similar to that of the pill I was about to take.

So I talked with David and Googled “where to learn natural family planning.” A phone number at the Archdiocese of New York popped up. We attended an information session about the Creighton model fertility care system and then training meetings with a nurse who worked with us until we felt confident in the method.

Two years after that when we discerned that it was at last a responsible time to become parents, we were ecstatic to become pregnant the first month we “tried.” After serious pregnancy complications and almost 36 hours of labor, we held in our arms the baby boy who was the fruit of our love.

The experience of becoming parents reminded us of the theology we first heard in public policy class. Just as a child comes from the love of a man and a woman, so the Holy Spirit proceeds from the eternal exchange of love between the Father and the Son. Never before did the mysterious life of the Trinity seem so real and close and wonderful.

But one night when our son was just a few weeks old I lay in bed, terrified at the thought of having more children because of the health complications, but saddened by the possibility of not having the large family we had hoped for.

I couldn’t sleep, so I turned to David and asked him to read to me. He grabbed a book on our nightstand, “The Way, Furrow, The Forge,” a collection of quotes from St. Josemaria Escriva. He opened randomly to a page and read:

“You share in the creative power of God: that is why human love is holy, good and noble. It is a gladness of heart which God — in his loving providence — wants others freely to give up. Each child that God grants you is a wonderful blessing from him: Don’t be afraid of children!”

It was the reminder I needed at that moment. We indeed share in the creative power of God. And that gives us the courage to enter parenthood not from a place of fear, but of love.

(Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and the mother of three, soon to be four.)

Food for Thought

For information on natural family planning, visit the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

To learn about the sympto-thermal method, visit the Couple to Couple League’s website.

To learn about the Billings Ovulation Method and take online classes, click here.

To learn the Creighton Model and find fertility care centers, click here.

To read about NFP methods that use hormonal tests (sympto-hormonal) like the Marquette method, click here.

To watch a video series on marital love and responsible parenthood, available in Spanish and English, click here.

For a summary of Catholic teaching on the moral prohibition of some assisted reproductive technologies, click here.

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