A look at ‘Humanae Vitae’ 50 years later
Third in a series on the anniversary
Many people sincerely struggle to understand the moral difference between contraception and natural family planning. If a married couple has a legitimate reason to avoid pregnancy, they wonder, does it really matter what means they choose to accomplish this goal? Yet in everyday life, they can easily see how the means we choose to accomplish a good goal matter enormously from a moral point of view. For example, if a person wants to raise money for a good cause, they can either hold a bake sale or rob a bank!
Although it may be more difficult to see at first glance, “Humanae Vitae” teaches that there is also an enormous difference between using contraception or sterilization to avoid pregnancy, and abstaining from sex during the fertile time in a woman’s cycle to accomplish the same goal. Referring to this difference, Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Familiaris consortio,” in 1981: “[I]t is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”
One of the central insights of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is that the human body has the capacity to express love. We express love through our bodies in many ways as human beings, of course. But there is one way of expressing love through our bodies that images the inner life of the Holy Trinity and makes it possible for us to participate in the creative love of God. Think about the fact that every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, we profess our faith in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life.” How beautiful that He who is literally the Love “personified” between the Father and the Son should be the One who enables the love of husband and wife — expressed through the sexual embrace — to become “personified” in the gift of their child.
From this vantage point, it is easier to see that when it comes to human sexuality, we are standing on holy ground. God is present here, in a mysterious but real way, and like Moses who approached the burning bush on Mount Horeb, we remove the sandals from our feet in profound reverence.
This reverence is the foundation of the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (No. 11). This means that if a married couple discerns that it would not be responsible to bring a child into their family in their present circumstances, they should refrain from expressing their love for each other in the sexual embrace during those days when doing so could result in a pregnancy. In this way, the couple respects the intimate link between the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of sexuality and does nothing on their own initiative to separate what God has joined. Learning to identify the fertile and infertile days in a woman’s monthly cycle and using this information either to achieve or to avoid pregnancy is what natural family planning is all about.
St. John Paul II deepened and broadened the underpinning of this central teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” For him, NFP is not only an expression of the reverence due to God as the Lord and giver of life. It also safeguards the meaning of sex as a sign and expression of total, mutual self-giving in marriage. The gift of self that I make to my spouse in the sexual embrace is supposed to encompass all of me, including the gift of my fertility. And the gift of self that my spouse makes to me is supposed to encompass all of them.
This sense that sex should be about giving all of oneself is not reserved for people who are “religious” — it is something that resonates deeply in the human heart. Consider the refrain of John Legend’s ballad “All of Me,” dedicated to his wife, Chrissy, which topped the charts in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia in 2014: “‘Cause all of me/ Loves all of you/ Love your curves and all your edges/ All your perfect imperfections/ Give your all to me/ I’ll give my all to you/ You’re my end and my beginning/ Even when I lose I’m winning/ ’Cause I give you all, all of me/ And you give me all, all of you.”
From this point of view, it becomes easier to see how contraception and sterilization contradict the meaning of sex as a sign and expression of total self-giving. If one spouse deliberately withholds their fertility from the other, they are not giving themselves totally to him or her in the very act which is supposed to express most profoundly my complete gift of self. “Thus the innate language that expresses the total, reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other,” Pope John Paul II reflected. “This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.”
In the next article, we will begin to consider the fallout that Pope Paul VI predicted would occur if the practice of contraception became commonplace.
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