A look at ‘Humanae Vitae’ 50 years later
Last in a series on the anniversary
In stark contrast to the dramatic rise in divorce that followed the diffusion of contraception in American society, the evidence that has emerged in the 50 years since “Humanae Vitae” was issued indicates that couples who practice natural family planning rarely divorce. While there may be many reasons for this, there can be no doubt that one significant factor is that NFP fosters the very virtues that make for happy and fulfilling marriages. St. John Paul II made this point in his apostolic exhortation on the family in 1981: “The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is, the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self-control. … In this context, the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitute the inner soul of sexuality, in its physical dimension also.”
It is easy to see that the successful practice of NFP requires couples to communicate regularly, not only about details involved in using the method, but also about the larger and deeper questions regarding what God is calling them to in their marriage. In a sense, the question comes up every cycle: Are we going to use the fertile period this month to try to conceive, or do we have a serious reason to postpone a pregnancy in our present circumstances?
In “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI laid out the criteria which should guide these conversations and the decisions that flow from them. “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,” he said.
This kind of ongoing, prayerful discernment about God’s plan for the growth of the family, carried out in intimate, honest dialogue with Him and with each other, is at the heart of what married spirituality is supposed to be.
In addition, the periodic abstinence from sexual intimacy that is entailed if a couple is avoiding pregnancy provides them with a monthly “push” to express their love for each other in other ways that can enhance their emotional intimacy and deepen their friendship.
As important and powerful a “love language” as sex is in marriage, it is not the only one, and NFP provides couples with ongoing opportunities to practice speaking their spouse’s primary love language. One husband from Texas confessed that the practice of NFP caused him to realize that his relationship with his wife needed work: “I discovered that I had placed more emphasis on genital intimacy than relational intimacy … Continence does me a favor. It provides me with a ‘rhythmic’ opportunity to make sure it is love and intimacy, not sex, which binds me to my wife … The periodic tension that sometimes comes with continence means we frequently examine our relationship, our needs, our communication, and the quality of our intimacy and affection.”
NFP also fosters reciprocal respect and shared responsibility in marriage. Couples have to work as real partners to observe, record and interpret the biomarkers of fertility each cycle, to apply the rules of the method, and if they are avoiding a pregnancy, to accept the abstinence that is entailed. Here is how one wife, Martha, experienced the self-sacrificing love of her husband during a difficult cycle in which extreme stress delayed ovulation, resulting in a much longer-than-normal period of abstinence: “He began to understand that God was using this time of abstinence to teach him temperance, self-control, and that charity involves acts of sacrifice, not just emotional affection. He could see from my cycle that I was under great stress and he realized that it was his duty to console me and help me through these difficulties. In other words, the chart spoke to him and told him more about his wife than he understood from her words. We survived that difficult cycle, which both of us remember as the turning point in our relationship. Abstinence does make the heart grow fonder. We were sacrificing something important for each other, and we each knew it.”
There are also many spiritual benefits to periodic abstinence if it is approached in the right way. It gives a couple practice in the virtue of self-control that is always part of authentic love. There is no doubt that refraining from sex periodically as a married couple is usually experienced as a sacrifice, and sometimes an enormous one. But how beautiful it can be to generously unite this suffering with Christ’s suffering on the cross, perhaps offering the period of abstinence in a particular cycle for a special intention. In this way, a couple can be spiritually fruitful in union with Christ at a time in their marriage when it would not be responsible for them to be physically fruitful.
Furthermore, the self-control which is practiced in NFP is not an end in itself; it serves the purpose of helping us to truly give ourselves to each other in the marital embrace, rather than simply react to a sensual urge.
This highlights another dimension of responsible parenthood that Pope Paul VI described in “Humanae Vitae”: our reason and will, rather than our instincts and feelings, are what should ultimately guide us in becoming good stewards of the gift of our mutual fertility in marriage. This corresponds to our dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God, with a rational intellect and a free will which enable us to discern and to do what is good in a given situation. As one husband, Jake, put it: “As I now reflect back over our 36 years of marriage, I can see that the practice of NFP has been a freeing experience for me. … Developing self-control in an area of my life that has such strong emotions has encouraged me to strive for self-control in other areas, such as the control of my quick temper and love for eating. … For me, NFP has helped me to get my intellect, will and emotions all lined up in one direction so that I can strive to give myself totally to Ann Marie in the act [of intercourse], and not just be responding to a sensual urge.”
That natural family planning can truly help married couples to lean on God and grow in holiness finds poignant witness in the following words of Katie McGrady, a young wife who, along with her husband, Tommy, blogs at Created and Called into Love: “NFP is a practice within our marriage that allows us – forces us – to grow in faith and remain steadfast in our trust of each other and the Lord. NFP is a daily sacrifice, a weekly struggle, and occasionally a monthly toss-up, but no matter how impractical we may feel it can be, NFP has proven to be a remarkably practical way to practice becoming holy, and for that, we are grateful.”
What G.K. Chesterton once said of Christianity is perhaps particularly true of the teaching of “Humanae Vitae”: It is not that it has been tried and found wanting — rather, it has been found difficult and has not been tried. The Church was right about contraception in 1968, and the past five decades have only served to vindicate the profound and prophetic teaching of soon-to-be-saint Pope Paul VI. On this 50th anniversary, may many more people be inspired to give the life-giving teaching of “Humanae Vitae” a try.
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