Lisa Everett
Family & Pro-Life Office
May 22, 2018 // Special

Was the Church right about contraception?

Lisa Everett
Family & Pro-Life Office

A look at ‘Humanae Vitae’ 50 years later        

Second in a series on the anniversary

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, was a member of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth-rate — better known as the “birth control commission” — that was established in Rome to re-examine the question of contraception in light of developments like the pill. It was a question about which he had already thought long and hard, having published his series of philosophical lectures on the ethics of sexuality at the University of Lublin in a book called “Love and Responsibility,” in Polish, in 1960.

When he was elected pope in 1978, 10 years after “Humanae Vitae” was issued, Pope John Paul II presented to the world his catechesis on human love and sexuality over the course of five years, though his weekly Wednesday audience addresses. This beautiful and profound teaching has come to be called the “theology of the body,” and he developed it largely as a defense and a deepening of the central teaching of “Humanae Vitae”: that the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of sexual intercourse are truly inseparable.                

For St. John Paul II, everything flows from the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. In this sense, any activity of ours as human beings has to align with our identity as persons created in the image and likeness of God. So in order to understand who we are, we need to first understand who God is. The first letter of St. John in the New Testament tells us that God is love. And it tells us that not only that God loves us, which, of course, He does, but that God is love.

This means, for starters, that there must be more than one person in God, because love is a reality that only exists in a relationship — there must be someone who loves and someone who is loved. This brings us right away into the central mystery of our faith: that God lives in Himself a mystery of personal, loving communion that we call the Holy Trinity. In this communion of persons, God the Father is the one who loves, and God the Son is one who is loved. And what is more, the love between them is so perfect, so real, that it is actually another person — the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine had a shorthand way of describing this beautiful inner life of the Holy Trinity: Lover, Loved and Love.                                                             

If we are created in the image and likeness of a God who is not an individual, but rather a loving communion of persons, then we resemble God not only because of the rational mind and free will we have as individual men and women, we also image God more perfectly and profoundly by living in loving communion with one another. God created marriage to be the first, and in a sense, the most fundamental form of living out the personal, loving communion that makes us like God.

Pope John Paul II found in the familiar story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, an ancient affirmation of this truth that man and woman are made for each and meant to be a gift for each other. This call to communion is “written” in a special way into human sexuality, into the very maleness and femaleness of the human body, which are literally designed to fit together, making a man and woman capable of becoming “one flesh.”

Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be the most intimate sign of the mutual gift of self which a man and woman make to one another in marriage. In the sexual embrace, a husband and wife “say” with their bodies in a very private way what they said publicly at the altar on their wedding day: “I accept you completely as the gift from God that you are, and I give myself to you completely in return.” This mutual gift of self which is expressed in sexual union is not meant to end with the couple, but rather, makes them capable of the greatest possible gift: becoming co-creators with God in giving life to a new human person. The communion of love between a husband and wife is meant to mirror the love that exists between the Father and the Son, a love which is literally “personified” in the Holy Spirit.

In a similar way, through the privilege of procreation, God enables the love between a husband and wife to become “personified” in the gift of their child, who is literally the two of them in one flesh, a living reflection of their love and a permanent sign of their unity. And what is more, this new human being bears not only the image and likeness of his or her parents, but above all, the image and likeness of God.                                                

So we see that the love-giving and life-giving meanings of sexual union are intimately linked, like two sides of the same coin, because they mirror the inner life of God who is love. “Humanae Vitae” simply reaffirms that married couples must respect the integrity of this act whenever they choose to engage in it. In the next article, we will consider how contraception and natural family planning involve, as St. John Paul II put it, “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and human sexuality.”

Click here for the third part in the series.

Click here for all six articles in PDF format.

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.