Message Refused: Humanae Vitae, 40 Years Later

 

I know a woman – and, in fairness, I must say that she’s a truly good Catholic woman — who’s slightly bonkers on the subject of birth control. I suppose there are people like that on both sides of this argument, but this woman happens to be bonkers on the pro-contraception side. You can’t help noticing it. Whenever the subject comes up in conversation — and, not infrequently, even when it doesn’t — she lets everybody within earshot know that the Church is flatly wrong about birth control and absolutely, unquestionably, and incontrovertibly must change its position without further delay.

Poor lady. She may be in for a hard time of it in the next several weeks. Today is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception; and although, among those taking note of the occasion, some will undoubtedly join this good Catholic woman in rapping the document and calling for change, many others just as certainly will praise the encyclical as not just true but even prophetically so. Pope Benedict XVI got in the first licks a little while back when he spoke to a group meeting in Rome to celebrate the anniversary.
“What was true yesterday is true also today,” Benedict said. “The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change . . . . The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which all must refer. Any attempt to turn one’s gaze away from this principle is in itself barren and does not produce a future.”
Unfortunately, the gaze-turning of which the Holy Father speaks has been going on for four decades now and gives no sign of being at an end. Birth control is a subject a lot of people just can’t leave alone, including many Catholics who disagree with the Church. Like the woman mentioned above, these folks say they’re absolutely certain contraception is okay, yet they keep bringing it up obsessively as if they weren’t quite sure and needed the approval of the Church to be at peace. Which suggests to me, among other things, that after 40 years, there are still lots of unsettled consciences out there.
Before someone tells me I’m being presumptuous, let me hasten to add that I don’t question anyone’s good faith. God knows about things like that; I surely don’t. My point is not that anyone in particular who goes on and on about how wrong the Church is in this matter is insincere. It’s simply that all these people together manage collectively to give the impression of not being all that sure. And that stands to reason – since, after all, they’re wrong. Those of us who see how wrong they are need to give them a hand.
Ten years after Humanae Vitae appeared, Rev. Charles Curran, the most highly publicized of the American dissenters, made an extremely important point. At the time the document came out, he said, “‘the conservatives’ saw much more clearly than ‘the liberals’ of the day that a change in the teaching on artificial contraception had to recognize that the previous teaching was wrong.” But if the Church was wrong about birth control, then of course the Church could be, and no doubt was, wrong about much else. As Father Curran pointed out in 1978:
Catholic theologians frequently deny the existing teaching of the hierarchical magisterium on such issues as contraception, sterilization, artificial insemination, masturbation, the generic gravity of sexual sins. Newer approaches have recently been taken to the question of homosexuality. [Remember, this was 1978. The dissenters have gone far beyond “newer approaches” since then.] All these questions in the area of medical and sexual morality are being questioned today.
Aside from the reference to the “teaching of the hierarchical magisterium,” a common rhetorical ploy by dissenters indicating their dismissal of doctrine they disagree with as only the teaching of the pope and the bishops in union with him, this was a very honest remark. Since it was made, Father Curran and people like him have moved on from individual moral questions to matters of moral principle and moral methodology. For centuries, the teaching of the Church was based on the conviction that there are absolute, exceptionless moral norms — some actions always and everywhere are wrong in all circumstances.
Now, not a few moral theologians deny that. Adopting relativistic moral theories with names like “proportionalism” and “consequentialism,” they proceed on the assumption that the morality of an action is always determined by circumstances; in the end, nothing can be ruled out in principle before the fact.
Pope John Paul II brushed all that aside in Veritatis Splendor (1995), his admirable encyclical on morality, when he said: “The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.” As any dissenting moral theologian worth his or her salt will be quick to point out, however, that’s only the hierarchical — or, in this case, papal — magisterium talking.
With spectacular timing — good or bad, depending on how you look at it — Humanae Vitae arrived on the scene smack in the middle of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Many Catholics joined that revolution then, and many have joined it since. The consequences of the sexual revolution are clear by now in statistics on things like abortion, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, divorce, and HIV/AIDS.
As for Catholics, in the last four decades, the number of Catholic marriages in the United States — not the rate of marriage, mind you, but the absolute number of marriages — has fallen by half, and this at a time when Catholic population was surging 30 million higher. In one recent survey, more than half the young, unmarried Catholics in the country saw no reason to get married in the Church.
The central Christian metaphor for marriage is in Ephesians, where the relationship of husband and wife is likened to the relationship of Christ to the Church:
No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the church . . . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church (Eph 5:29-32).
It is not a rational argument against contraception but more like an intuition, both moral and aesthetic, to say there’d be something very nearly blasphemous about likening the relationship of Christ and the Church to a contraceptive relationship between a man and woman. As metaphor, it just doesn’t work.
The reason it doesn’t work has to do, among other things, with the fact that contraception depersonalizes the other — it turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self. Sex becomes an essentially solipsistic activity rather than a relational experience of self-communication and mutual giving. This is the kind of thinking John Paul II develops to good effect in his well-known theology of the body.
People like the good Catholic woman who believes so strongly that the Church is wrong about birth control ought to think about it. Forty years after Humanae Vitae, the question is how to get her and the rest to do that.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Eric G.

    Why is it never mentioned in discussions about the Pauline pontificate that Paul VI was w well-documented sodomite?

  • Eric G.

    Why was my comment on Paul VI’s well-documented homosexuality deleted? Would a Catholic forum delete similar comments about the debaucheries of Alexander VI Borgia?

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Let’s keep the discussion for this article focused on Humanae Vitae.

    As the Comments Box paragraph says: Avoid personal attacks. That includes calling a former Vicar of Christ a “sodomite” and “well-documented homosexual.”

    [I’m posting this in response to two comments I just removed.]

  • Eric G.

    Mr. Saint-Paul:

    Is it a “personal attack” to call attention to the debauched and scandalous lifestyle of a Vicar of Christ, especially in light of the Church’s deterioration under and subsequent to him?

  • Joe Marier

    On the individual level, I find that there are certain “hooks” that people are concerned about, that lead them to be open to think about HV. Complications from the Pill, disconnects in marriage, concerns about underpopulation and a sex-obsessed culture, the doctrinal drift in the Protestant churches… HV is really a solution to a problem.

    I really enjoyed a recent, punchy article by Mary Eberstadt in another religious magazine on the subject of HV. Somewhere between that article and the more philosophical language of the Theology of the Body is the way to talk about HV.

  • Howard Kainz

    You are using “birth control” loosely to signify contraception. Humanae Vitae was not against birth control, e.g. NFP, but against specific contraceptive acts. Note that John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor specified the “negative” precepts of the natural law. As I bring out in my recent article, “Sexual Mores, Ethical Theories, and the Overpopulation Myth” in the Heythrop Journal, the reference to the “negative” is of the utmost importance in ethics.

  • Todd

    My assessment is that HV was a naively hopeful, big picture document that bishops, clergy, and catechists found difficult to put Jesus’ “real authority” behind. It had several things working against it, including a moral tradition based on old, disproved “science” dating back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

    We already have the perception that the Church has been tragically wrong in the past, that individual prelates and whole hierarchies have participated in grave moral wrongdoing. The average Catholic doesn’t see a degree of separation between scandal and a claim of infallibility. Note I’m not saying this is a good thing or thatI agree with it; it’s my assessment on how many Catholics think.

    Another bad fruit of HV is that is has been used as a tool against unity. The “bad Catholics are immune from anti-Catholicism” argument voiced here earlier this week would be a prime example of that. Maybe some traditionalists have their sexual ducks in a row. But they are far from paragons of the “one” Church we profess in the Creed.

    The simple fact is this: HV has not been received well at all by the Catholic laity. Three things may be at work, perhaps in some partial combination:

    1. The laity are expressing part or all of the true will of the Holy Spirit and the Church, and so long as contraception doesn’t destroy a human life, HV is indeed all wet.

    2. The teaching is authentic and the dissenting laity are just an ignorant product of an oversexed culture.

    3. The teaching is fine and the laity are okay, but the pope and bishops screwed up in not teaching and communicating fruitfully.

    My own beef with HV and the concept of openness to generativity is that Church teaching doesn’t go far enough in exploring the nature of generativity in couples, either older or infertile, in non-biological ways. For that matter couples with children may not be doing all they can do to express other forms of marital fruitfulness. Too much focus on the biological. Far too little on the sacred.

    Millions of kids unadopted. Lots of marital witness behind closed suburban doors and not in parishes. A scandalous paucity of married saints.

    I can’t escape the conclusion that HV and the sexual morality behind it is an underdeveloped tradition that needs considerably more before it can hope to present the entirety of God’s will for Christians.

  • Joe Marier

    I’m sorry, which scientific tract are you referring to that Humanae Vitae’s moral tradition is based on?

  • Scott Hebert

    she lets everybody within earshot know that the Church is flatly wrong about birth control and absolutely, unquestionably, and incontrovertibly must change its position without further delay.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the textbook definition of heresy? Having your own opinion on certain matters is all well and good, but publicly stating that your view is correct and the Church’s view is incorrect, on such a matter, is heresy, is it not?

    Or is it that this sort of defiance not only be public but published; i.e., trackable?

  • Steve Skojec

    Todd,

    I’m with Joe – I’d like to know what “disproved” science you’re referring to here.

    On this point, however:

    Todd wrote: My own beef with HV and the concept of openness to generativity is that Church teaching doesn’t go far enough in exploring the nature of generativity in couples, either older or infertile, in non-biological ways.

    I think you’ve got something. Looking at this from the other perspective, where I have in the past wondered (before studying the matter more closely) just how on earth NFP is anything more than Catholic contraception. Without the distinctions you make, it’s hard to see a striking, easily-identifiable difference. The average Catholic, not likely to be grounded in philosophy or theology, may never in fact see the difference between, say, an act and a non-act or between the sin of employing an artificial contraceptive device and the sin of indulging a contraceptive mentality in approaching NFP.

    So, while I would disagree that there’s any likelihood to your #1 point, a combination of #’s 2 and 3 is probably quite likely indeed.

  • fr. g

    Strawman argument: “contraception depersonalizes the other — it turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self. Sex becomes an essentially solipsistic activity rather than a relational experience of self-communication and mutual giving.”

    This is simply not true. It is not the experience of couples who use contraception. Its not been shown to be true in any meaningful way. And is never backed up by anything other than fiat.

    In fact, reducing sexuality to “body parts” is more likely to “depersonalize” the other person.

  • Joe Marier

    I get a little tired of people categorically stating what the “experience of couples” is. There is no one collective “experience of couples” that you can use in moral reasoning, because it does not exist.

    Also, that “reducing sex to body parts” argument is hackneyed. It isn’t reductionist to say that the body parts involved matter.

  • Todd

    The medieval notion that the male sperm contained the whole of the unborn child and the female egg was the mere receptacle would be one false fact the Church relied upon. Nature provides a way for men and women to rid themselves of unused sperm and egg, so the arguments against masturbation (in the case of males) would seem to be better hinged on personal indulgence rather than a sexual sin as such.

    I would welcome a person on InsideCatholic who could make a moral case from the Catholic tradition against HV, rather than have Mr Shaw, well-intentioned as he may be, make the chief dissenting argument a second-hand (and admittedly poor) stab at authority.

    I’d also say that a by-their-fruits-you-shall-know-them argument, suggesting that non-contracepting couples somehow have it all over those who do is a waste of time. We are all fallen, sinful human beings. Those of us who are married manage to screw things up in such ways that a comparison of sins, omissions, or practices is not likely to show up in a contraception versus not comparison.

    I agree that the argument that protected marital sex is an abuse of the partner. There are many ways to abuse, as there are to honor. Denying a partner a child is certainly an abuse, but so would many forms of sex without contraception. The matter is one of the heart, of one’s intent, and not necessarily the mechanics of sex.

    I would say that couples open to the Catholic principles of generativity, sacrifice, sacramentality, real presence, and the like have stronger and more fruitful marriages than those who don’t. That pretty much includes and excludes both non- and contracepting couples.

    As an adoption advocate, I’d say that the world’s unadopted millions are an instance of social sin on the part of societies that do not encourage adoption. Here is the opportunity to be generative, fertile or not, for the world’s married couples, especially the Catholic ones. The HV and conservative focus on sex suggests that Church teaching is incomplete on this whole area of family life. The lack of Catholic witness and leadership on adoption would be evidence HV is woefully lacking. It may be that is one of the missing aspects–why this teaching is so controversial and so disruptive of unity.

  • Todd

    An error above. I meant to write: I disagree the use of contraceptives is necessarily an abuse of the spouse.

  • Joe Marier

    As I said above, nobody is trying to reduce it to mechanics. Some seem to have a need to denigrate the mechanics as nearly meaningless, though, and I see that as outside the realm of Catholic thought on what is, after all, one of the sacraments of the Church.

    But, allow me to write, and refute, the argument from Catholic Tradition against Humanae Vitae (and therefore for contraception).

    The argument was made from Aquinas’ principle of double effect. To use Bill Buckley’s formulation, you have to make the distinction between someone pushing an old lady for no reason, and someone pushing an old lady to get her out of the way of a bus about to hit her. You can’t just say that the ends don’t justify the means, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong to push an old lady. That is not Catholic moral tradition.

    Just about everyone accepts that. That is the basis of theories of self defense and Just War, for instance.

    What the “proportionalists” like Richard McCormick, S.J. did was say that double effect applied to sex as well. That if you were married, and you had a proportionate reason to avoid children (such as the population crisis, to use a contemporaneous example), that you could use contraceptives to do so, as long as the totality of the marriage was open to life. But, it would be wrong to use them because you want to have sex outside of marriage without consequence and without concern. Double effect.

    Now, is the argument valid? I’d say no, and happily, I have a magisterial document called Humanae Vitae backing me up on that. Also, I have the fact that double effect applies only when there is no morally better way to solve the problem, So therefore, the argument has to additionally prove that contraception is a morally better solution that total/periodic abstinence in some cases. And that’s when you get into nebulous arguments people contracepting while not feeling its wrong, which proves nothing.

    But, at least I tried.

  • JC

    Todd,
    I don’t see what “flawed Medieval science” has to do with it, other than the concept of “wasted sperm”.
    Paul VI introduces something new in _Humanae Vitae_ that, while patently obvious in Scripture, was never stated overtly by the Church (Pius XI hints at it in _Casti Connubii), but I recently contacted Pontifical Academy for Life on this matter and they confirmed it as an innovation by Paul VI: that sex is unitive. Most people say “duh.” Scripture says “It is not good for man to be alone . . . . The two become one flesh.”
    This is the answer to all objections. To the contraceptor, the Church says, “Marriage is a sacrament; sex is to marriage what Communion is to the life of the Catholic. When you use contraception, you’re interfering in sacramental unity.” The analogy I use is drinking syrup of ipecac before going to Communion or wearing a rain slicker to be baptized.

    To the Providentialist side (to which I happen to lean), this answers *their* objection *against* NFP, which is that it’s “just Catholic birth control”. The traditionalist side is based upon the Thomistic view that procreation is the main purpose of marriage, a view that ought to go out the window with Limbo and Mary inheriting original sin. St. Thomas should be remembered for his personal holiness and not for his very flawed Aristotelian theology.

    Only when we see marriage as a sacramental unity does the teaching of _Humanae Vitae_ stand against all opponents. On the other hand, if the argument is based upon sacramental unity, then it does not hold that contraception violates “Natural Law”, since Natural Law is “what the pagans can know.” However, the pagans *do* know contraception is wrong. Those we would properly call “pagans” generally oppose contraception, as do Muslims, and even some varieties of Hindus.

    You are right on certain points:

    1. Priests and bishops do not adequately teach this teaching.
    2. The Church does not do enough to support families.

    You talk about “closed suburban doors.” When are devout “suburban” Catohlic families supposed to be doing this “work of the Church”? As I recall, the job of priests and religious was to be doing “the work of the Church” while the laity’s job was having kids.

    In our house, we try to be involved in “outside” stuff, but we’re just too darn busy. And we’re constantly drowning in our own day to day obligatiosn of work and family.

    Meanwhile, the people who have the time, energy and money to “be involved” are the ones who did things the way the world says and then “came around” later in life, after they’d already had their 2.5 kids, if that. Then they take over the parishes and look askance at those of us who have large families.

    I don’t see how anyone can seriously claim that the “true will of the Holy Spirit” is for couples to intentionally frustrate the fruitfulness that God commanded *at the very moment of creation.” God said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” He did not say, “Be fruitful and mutliply until people start saying ‘overpopulation.'” He did not say, “Be fruitful and multiply until you can’t afford to go on expensive vacations or buy HDTVs. ” He did not say, “Be fruitful and multiply until you’re tired.” He said, “Be fruiltful and multiply.”

  • JC

    “Fr. G.,”

    Your comments are scandalous, especially in your screen name suggesting you are a priest.

    How can you honestly say that contraception doesn’t hurt marriages? Even the Supreme Court of the United States admits that abortion is the natural fruit of contraception. As Paul VI and others have predicted, contraception has led to wider acceptance of divorce, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality and other offenses against sexuality and human life itself.

    It cheapens love. My favorite formulation of the issue is how John Paul II puts it: Love needs to expand, or it dies.

    Yes, that can be interpreted in other ways than biologically. But it *must* be interpreted biologically for the married couple. But if it were merely that, if it were just “The Popes want people to have lots of kids,” then the Church would support artificial fertility treatments, but She doesn’t.

    Why?

    Because, as I said in my reply to Todd, the fundamental issue is sacramental unity.

    It doesn’t matter what “experience” people claim to have. Modern society is filled with misery, and no one wants to admit that their behavior is at cause of that misery. And while you’re attacking _Humanae Vitae_, what do you say about _Mater et Magistra_? (That goes for Todd, too). _Mater et Magistra_ says that contraception is the #1 offense against economic justice. Meanwhile, for those who think that Paul VI and John Paul II are too rosy in their outlook (and I tend to agree), go back and read _Casti Connubii_: Pius XI answers just about every objection I’ve ever heard, from every direction, very matter-of-factly.)

    Finally, I was troubled my Mr. Shaw’s article and had to take a day or so to ponder it. It bothers me that so many Catholics, even “conservative” Catholics, are so weak on this issue.

    As someone noted above, why is this the one issue where people think it’s OK to be a heretic? Who cares what this woman’s “intetnions” are or whether she has “good will”. That’s for God to decide. To say that someone is a “good Catholic” is to judge, just as much as to say, “You’re going to Hell.”

    To promote heresy is not to be a good Catholic. If this woman were going around saying, “The Eucharist is just a cracker,” would she be given the same benefit of the doubt? If she were saying, “I don’t have to confess my sins to a priest,” would she be given the same doubt?

  • Adriana

    The one problem with Humanae Vitae is that it got caught in the maelstrom where many of the faithtful realized that the advice that they got from priests on questions of marriage and sexuality had been wrong and harmful. I refer to issues like how to deal with rape victims and with abused women – and incest victims.

    Not that those priests were any different than the society at large. Most people thought that rape victims “had asked for it”, that battered wives “had asked for it”, and in dealing with incest victims, their first reaction was to pretend it was not there, to try to “save the family” even if that meant abandoning the victim to her fate, and asking her to forgive.

    The questioning of those shibboleths led to a great distrust of any authority figure who expounded them, were those true Chruch doctrine or just personal prejudices of the expounded.

    To understand what happened, we need to go back to the nineteenth century with the greatest medical advance of the time, which saved countless lives after it was applied :convincing doctors to wash their hands before and after tending to a patient.

    While this sounds elemental now, there was great resistance and anger – because more than one doctor who had cared responsibly for patients, in his view, stood convictted of having sickened and killed them by past practice, that hospitals supposedly built to heal the sick were actually slaughterhouses, that the whole endeavor had been a lie.

    You can imagine the psychological resistance to believeing it – and how the man who discovered the importance of washing the hands was hounded to madness. It does not make it right. It can never be right to cling to error to save your hurt feelings.

    The same can be said about the way priests hurt rape victims by acting as if they need forgiving – by telling battered wives that they would go to Hell if they left their abusers – or like that numbskull who told an incest victim in the hospital, when she spoke bitterly against her father to “honor your father and mother”.

    Those comments might not be church doctrine – but the faithful have no way of telling when a priest speaks whether it is true church doctrine or not – they depend on the priest to tell it to them.

    So, if priests have been known to give awful, harmful advice in the past, there is very little likelihood that their advice on other matters – relating to the same subject – will be taken. Call it the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome.

    So it is with Humanae Vitae. When it comes to sexuality the hearer “considers the source” and tunes it out.

  • Andy

    Todd wrote:
    I would say that couples open to the Catholic principles of generativity, sacrifice, sacramentality, real presence, and the like have stronger and more fruitful marriages than those who don’t. That pretty much includes and excludes both non- and contracepting couples.

    Christopher West says it best (invoking JPII, of course): saying you can be open to children “over the course of a marriage” without every act of sex needing to be open to children is like saying you can be faithful “over the course of a marriage” without every act of sex needing to be with your spouse.

    Todd wrote:
    I’d also say that a by-their-fruits-you-shall-know-them argument, suggesting that non-contracepting couples somehow have it all over those who do is a waste of time. We are all fallen, sinful human beings. Those of us who are married manage to screw things up in such ways that a comparison of sins, omissions, or practices is not likely to show up in a contraception versus not comparison.

    Two points:

    1. God judges us each individually, not on a comparison list of “sins, omissions, or practices.”

    2. In an argument on morality, taking the “aren’t we all sinners” tack isn’t a good idea. Can’t that argument be used to close discussion on all matters sinful?

  • JC

    Adriana,
    I’m not sure what connection contraception has to rape, but
    a) obviously those priests you’re talking about never read St. Augustine,
    and
    b) that’s why the laity needed to be more educated in their own faith–and still need to.

    Someone wrote: So it is with Humanae Vitae. When it comes to sexuality the hearer “considers the source” and tunes it out.

    Uhh, the Source was the Holy Father.

    More precisely, what happened was that, for nearly 10 years, presumptuous theologians, priests and bishops had been saying that the Pill was OK.

    As Ralph McInerny discusses in _What Went Wrong With Vatican II_, this set the standard for everything else since. Today, people still take their primary source of “what’s right” as their personal pastor. If the pastor says it’s OK, then it’s OK, even if the Vatican says it’s wrong. And if the Vatican says it’s wrong, the Vatican is “out of touch.” This is true of contraception as much as liturgical music.

  • R.C.

    Let’s make sure that, while defending the Church’s teaching, we don’t use bad arguments.

    Russel Shaw’s argument is flawed in the following area:

    The reason it doesn’t work has to do, among other things, with the fact that contraception depersonalizes the other — it turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self. Sex becomes an essentially solipsistic activity rather than a relational experience of self-communication and mutual giving.

    This may be true during some or most contracepted sex acts, but there is nothing intrinsic to a contracepted sexual act per se which means that it will be true of all of them.

    We had this discussion already, in fact, in an earlier thread here at InsideCatholic:

    Given:
    – Two married loving Christian couples, each of whom intend to have a child once every 3 years until menopause;
    – One of the couples spaces these births out using NFP, because they’re aware of the Church’s teaching;
    – One of the couples spaces these birth out by using condoms as minimally as possible to achieve the intended result; i.e., only during climax, only on days of likely fertility;

    …then the objective moral difference between the two is non-obvious. At the very least, that difference does not lie where Mr. Shaw says it lies.

    For both couples, their intent is the same. The attitudes in each couple between the spouses are the same. The desire for children is the same. The love which will be expressed toward a child, whether unexpectedly early or timed-as-planned, is the same.

    Now, let us admit: The statement that sex “turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self” may (of course!) be true in some couples using condoms.

    But it may also be true of sex by the NFP-using couple, during known-to-be-infertile times. And, in either case, it may not be true. So, whatever the objective moral difference between the two may be, this is not it. In both cases it is morally wrong to take a narcissistic approach, or to treat one’s spouse as an object. And, in both cases, this sin can be avoided, or not.

    Mr. Shaw does better when he says:

    It is not a rational argument against contraception but more like an intuition, both moral and aesthetic, to say there’d be something very nearly blasphemous about likening the relationship of Christ and the Church to a contraceptive relationship between a man and woman. As metaphor, it just doesn’t work.

    This is the stronger argument, even though it is not phrased as an argument but as an intuition.

    I admit I’m not sure how to phrase it as an argument. Perhaps one starts from “one flesh” and the notion that earthly marriages are to mirror the way that all we who are in Christ are His bride. The argument could then be completed by appealing to Christ’s character which should be reflected in us: His love toward us bears fruit; ours toward one another should do likewise. But there are objections to that argument, too, which I don’t know how to answer. All in all, the scenario I posited above is perhaps the only remaining point where the Church’s teaching bewilders me.

    Anyway, the purpose of this post is to dissuade Catholics from using a particular flawed argument, repeated above by Mr. Shaw.

  • Adriana

    JC:

    Like it or not, few of the laity get their teaching directly from the Holy Father. They get what their priest teaches, and since they are not well educated in the faith, they cannot tell when what the priest says is true Church doctrine or just the priest opinion.

    And, since you mention St. Augustine, it would not surprise me that priests may not be that well educated either, and that they substitute their own prejudices and things learned in childhood from true doctrine.

    In the meantime, we have a lot of priests giving a lot of wrong advice, and a lot of people suffering from it. There are consequences for that, and one of the consequences of having had bad advice, and realizing it, is tuning out good advice when it seems to come from the same place.

    So it is now a question of regaining trust in this area.

  • R.C.

    Adriana:

    You’re certainly correct that a lot of priests have given bad advice.

    It’s hard to know what to do about this. Is there, in the Church, a program of some kind for the ongoing catechizing of priests? A sort of continuous “continuing education?” Correspondence courses for post-seminary seminarians?

    Is there some kind of review process by which a priest’s need for clarification on some topic of doctrine can be detected and responded to? Do priests show up to listen to one another’s homilies? …or are the homilies videotaped or audio-recorded for possible later review by other authorities? A sort of “random testing” process?

    One presumes, of course, that in most instances where bad doctrine is taught, it is through innocent misunderstanding. Clearly this is not always the case. Where the Church’s teaching is abundantly plain and the priest teaches in a contrary way through sheer stubbornness, the phrase “sack ’em” comes to mind, though of course there’s a priest-shortage in the West already, and Christian charity should, perhaps, put up with a lot.

    But with respect to faulty teaching, there appears to be a need for some kind of quality control.

    A dear friend from college was apostate (and probably remains so, though he and I haven’t spoken for some time) largely because he resented his Catholic upbringing and thought its teachings illogical. When I asked which teachings in particular, he said, “Well, how ’bout that the Original Sin is the one thing that allows us to even BE here?”

    This confused me. He clarified: “Sex. Sex is original sin. If sex is always sinful, I guess it’s a sin that we’re all here!”

    I was astonished: “Dude, that’s not Christian teaching at ALL. Original Sin is nothing like that. The notion that sex (when appropriately used; i.e., not rape or something) is sinful not only isn’t Catholic, it’s actually an old heresy!”

    But he insisted that’s what the nuns and priests taught him, right through Confirmation.

    Making allowances for his faulty memory and his hostile feelings toward the church, I think that story is nevertheless indicative of something amiss in the teaching, at the parish level.

    How to fix it? I haven’t a clue.

  • Adriana

    RC:

    Yes, it is a problem. There seems to be a disconnect as to what learned teachers of doctrine know, and what the ground troops (priests and nuns) know.

    The solution might be a more informed laity – and a process of complaint – or requests for clarification. Maybe each parish should have a box of requests for clarification – a sort of “dear Abby” to be passed on further up the chain.

    And regular updates being sent down to the ground troops, as to what the guidelines are.

    Your friend was a small example of what faulty teaching can do. The reaction to HV is the same effect but on a massive scale. BAsically HV does not allow them to do what they wish, and since the ones who say that are the same who said some previous nonsense, they you have the perfect excuse for not accepting it. If you continued in the Faith, in spite of Sister Mary being a cruel disciplinarian who told you that sex was evil, then you can continue in the Faith when the Pope tells you something that you do not agree with, and do as you like.

  • Single Forty-something

    I think there is no question the Church has been morally vindicated in the forty years following HV; now for a serious pastoral problem.

    It is not just that the laity doesn’t “get” HV;

    It is not just that the Church fails to uphold it in practice (witness that the vast majority of people who are married in Catholic churches are shacked up and contracepting right to the day of their wedding, or functionally shacked and contracepting even if they maintain different mailing addresses);

    It is that single Catholics who affirm and uphold HV stand virtually no chance of finding a suitable marriage partner in secular society, and that Catholic social networks that were already breaking down in our parents’ day have been gone for decades now.

    Today’s Catholic parish (a kind of transactional service center) is about the worst possible place to find a spouse. Online dating services simply do not work for the vast majority, perhaps 95%, who sign up.

    Perhaps things aren’t as bad these days for single Catholics in their 20s (with Theology on Tap, etc) but there is a lost generation of Catholics in their 30s and 40s who stayed even when their contemporaries left, who face the real likelihood they will never marry in time to start families of their own, or who may even be at that point now, looking at a childless future and wondering how many more years of singleness they will have to endure.

    If suffering has redemptive power, then least the Church could do is recognize that protracted singleness for those with a seeming vocation to marriage is a form of suffering too.

    There are many folks of advancing age out there who are tired of being told that singleness is a blessing and if we just wait some more everything will be fine. That message is fine for teens and early twenties, but for those over 30 it is practically an incitement to despair. The Church needs to develop a pastoral approach for singles over 30 that is sorely lacking.

    Consider this: if today’s cradle Catholics can’t get married and start families, where is the next generation going to come from?

  • SWP

    As the deacon said in his homily on Sunday, there is a complete difference between the couple that contracepts and the couple that practices NFP. The latter is abstaining from sex during a fertile period and the former is deliberately and artificially rendering infertile a sexual act. While abstaining from sex during a fertile period may, in a literal sense, render the NFP couple “infertile” they did so without sexual activity. In fact, their abstention required a virtuous act of willpower.

    In contrast, the couple using contraceptives is continuing the sexual act while rendering it sterile. While it could be argued that both couples have separated the marital act from half its intended purpose (i.e. procreative AND unitive), the couple using NFP has replaced procreative generativity with an act of virtue while still cultivating unitivity in their sex during non-fertile days. Meanwhile, the couple using contraception has taken the marital act and artificially separated it from its procreative purpose while still engaging in the marital act.

    Both couples have obtained a similar result: non-pregnancy. Yet one has done so through artifice and sterile act of coitus while the other has done so in cooperation with natural cycles and an act of virtuous willpower.

  • SWP

    Adrianna-

    Have you considered maybe relying on the Holy Father (or an infallible magisterium) for teaching in this area rather than your local priest?

    Typically when I seek out information on a topic, I seek out more than one source. Just as hurtful to the faithful are those people who, having been hurt by a priest, advocate that everyone stop listening to all priests, including the Pope.

    Maybe talking to a different priest, or a deacon, or your parish DRE, or someone else who maybe has a better acquisition of the facts about the Church’s teaching? Why do you feel bound to listen to these numbskulls whose credibility is clearly compromised by statements so obviously contrary to the Gospel, nonetheless the Pope?

    When I research a paper, I consult the background on my sources before I use them in my paper. Likewise, when I want to know what the Church teaches, I check my sources. Perhaps exercising a little more critical inquiry may have helped you avoid being so hurt.

    Church doctrine on matter of rape, incest, and domestic abuse is very easily accessed. As a person of moderate education with access to the Internet, it should be no problem for you. Perhaps if you attempted to read the sources instead of taking the priest or nun’s word for it, you would not feel the need to wholesale reject it.

    People make mistakes. Had you expressed even a remote interest in forgiving clergy and religious their mistakes, I might be more persuaded in forgiving you your mistakes. As it is, your sophomoric reasoning deserves a sophomoric rebuttal: get over yourself!

    Engage the texts with an ounce of maturity and then come back to the discussion when you’re ready to talk about them like an adult.

  • Howard Kainz

    Someone wrote: As the deacon said in his homily on Sunday, there is a complete difference between the couple that contracepts and the couple that practices NFP.

    Your deacon actually spoke about the Church’s teaching? Amazing! In the last 40 years, in all the churches I’ve been in, I’ve never recall a homily or sermon touching on the subject.

  • SWP

    Because this past Friday was the 40th anniversary, the homily was instructional and only loosely bound to the scripture readings. There are a few such places in North America, and I’ve been privileged to be participating in Mass at those places 🙂

    That’s why I say– tell your priests to preach the Gospel– ALL of it, not just the feeding the homeless parts– the WHOLE of social justice. And if they think homilies are supposed to be open-mic routines, tell them you want substance instead.

  • faithful

    Todd, the comments you wrote were very thought provoking.

    “I’d also say that a by-their-fruits-you-shall-know-them argument, suggesting that non-contracepting couples somehow have it all over those who do is a waste of time.”

    Yes, somehow NFP is proclaimed as what makes or breaks a marriage. Being around large numbers of NFP using couples I can say that I see no difference between them and my faith filled friends who use contraception, and sometimes I think they have a great deal more dysfunction but that is only a personal observation not a research study. Studies show that couples who pray together and attend church together have a very low divorce rate, whether they use ABC or not.

    “As an adoption advocate, I’d say that the world’s unadopted millions are an instance of social sin on the part of societies that do not encourage adoption. Here is the opportunity to be generative, fertile or not, for the world’s married couples, especially the Catholic ones. The HV and conservative focus on sex suggests that Church teaching is incomplete on this whole area of family life. The lack of Catholic witness and leadership on adoption would be evidence HV is woefully lacking. It may be that is one of the missing aspects–why this teaching is so controversial and so disruptive of unity.”

    This comment was good to hear. It is something I think about but is not often a topic among orthodox couples I know. In fact when it was brought up it was mentioned that a couple using NFP because they wanted to adopt an orphan would be sinning, it was not a valid reason (nonsense….) There is such a narrow view of fruitfulness and the question you also asked was something along the lines of, what else includes fruitfulness in married life? I’ve got something to think about.

  • fr. g

    Joe Marier wrote: I get a little tired of people categorically stating what the “experience of couples” is. There is no one collective “experience of couples” that you can use in moral reasoning, because it does not exist.

    LOL, yes, of course, can’t use people’s experience. You’d rather tell them what they will experience without any regard for what they actually do experience. How logical.

    Also, that “reducing sex to body parts” argument is hackneyed. It isn’t reductionist to say that the body parts involved matter.

    Correct, its not reductionist to say they are involved. But it IS reductionist to reduce the morality of sexuality solely to its physical component.

  • fr. g

    JC wrote: “Fr. G.,”

    Your comments are scandalous, especially in your screen name suggesting you are a priest.

    How can you honestly say that contraception doesn’t hurt marriages?

    Because there is no evidence that it does. I’d hate to lie and violate the commandments.

    Even the Supreme Court of the United States admits that abortion is the natural fruit of contraception.

    Thats just a terrible legal opinion. There’s no logical link between contraception and abortion in the legal sense. Other than, of course, a terrible application of constitutional privacy laws.

    As Paul VI and others have predicted, contraception has led to wider acceptance of divorce, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality and other offenses against sexuality and human life itself.

    And just how is this connection established? Ice cream sales and murder rates both rise at the same times. Does this mean ice cream sales cause murder?

    It cheapens love. My favorite formulation of the issue is how John Paul II puts it: Love needs to expand, or it dies.

    So if a couple is infertile their love dies?

    It doesn’t matter what “experience” people claim to have. Modern society is filled with misery, and no one wants to admit that their behavior is at cause of that misery.

    Oh please. Thats the same as asking someone, “Are you still beating your wife?”

    To promote heresy is not to be a good Catholic. If this woman were going around saying, “The Eucharist is just a cracker,” would she be given the same benefit of the doubt? If she were saying, “I don’t have to confess my sins to a priest,” would she be given the same doubt?

    Gee, life is not black and white but is full of gray. Welcome to the real world. 🙂

  • George Rutler

    If the people do not understand the facts of Humane Vitae, parish priests are not alone to blame. Pope Paul VI was protected by the grace of state, that is the integrity of his prophetic office, from teaching other than he did. Every warning in “Humane Vitae” has been realized, perhaps even beyond what the Holy Father could have imagined, while the best selling “population bpmb” eugenics books were pathetically wrong. But in the human order, much was lacking. After he published “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI did not mention it publicly for ten years.

  • fr. g

    George Rutler wrote: Every warning in “Humane Vitae” has been realized, perhaps even beyond what the Holy Father could have imagined, while the best selling “population bpmb” eugenics books were pathetically wrong.

    The so-called “population bomb” was indeed far off, or atleast wrong as far as the Western world.
    But the “prophetic warnings” of Humane Vitae are not necessarily correct either. Two things happening around the same time does not necessarily mean they are directly correlated. As previously mentioned, in most major cities murder rates rise at the same time that ice cream sales rise. This doesn’t mean ice cream sales cause murder.

  • George W. Rutler

    Fr. G’s non sequitur could be resolved by the first lesson in Logic 101. The applicable equation would not be between murder and ice cream but between murder and non-murder. A parallel rise in rates of murder and ice cream sales would indeed be capricious. A parallel rise murder rates and the number of people who advocate murder would not be mere caprice. This is so obvious that I am not reluctant to publish my name to this observation.

  • Catholic Father of Wonderful Chi

    Are we still teaching a religion of fear, damnation, and sin or have we evolved to one of hope, tolerance, and good? That is where I am as a husband and father in the Catholic Church.

    Even with 40 years of attempt to make HV a believed and followed doctrine of the Church, the extremes of Humanae Vitae are not close to rational thought or following. Too many good, genuinely loyal Catholics do not deserve, or accept, these uncaring proclamations.

    Positions against those of our faith who do not believe Humanae Vitae represents the people of the Church are too often attempted to be authenticated by one word or one line in a biblical text rather than humanity or reason. It never follows. These people are not sinners. Neither couple (NFP) nor those proactively using contraceptive devices are more correct or holier than the other. To present that contraception has lead to the rise in abortions is obviously ridiculous on its very surface.

    Stop this please. It does no good. These are harmful arguments that hurt good Catholic people. Are they any better than the outrageous positions and philosophies of those “reverends” on television and airways (“Reverend” Hagee for example) who refer to Catholicism as “a cult?”

    The more harmful part of these HV proclamations are towards those young people who are made to feel that they are sinners because they love another human, genuinely and sexually and then try to tie in contraception with some illogical connection or blasphemous analogy. Regrettably some “experts,” for whom HV became a traveling road show of sorts have, unfortunately, come to respond to the questioning with continually rote “black is white and white is black” type of teachings, ungrounded in rational tenets or reason, that harm credibility and damage our faith, if not Catholicism itself.

    This is “faith” at its worst and cannot be but the smallest percentage of practicing Catholics, except perhaps in those countries in which questioning teachings of the religion are not allowed or perhaps are influenced only by academic clergy.

    The Church both includes and is its people. Just as the Church has evolved over hundreds of years, saw errors in the theology, it evolved its understanding and teachings. It is on going. There were many errors made by human clergy on behalf of the Church no matter how well intentioned they may have been. That history cannot be distorted. We continue to increase our understanding and evolve.

    With many loving Catholic families and friends of all ages over many decades of my life, HV has never been a part of the belief for any of us — at least as it relates to intended contraception (NFP or otherwise) or attempting to equate it with sin and fear.

    Human life is very important to us all and we must use all of our God given and self directed senses through God to know the difference. Humanae Vitae as it relates to contraception does not fit within that context and will hopefully evolve in its understanding, care of the human life and in its teaching as it has in its practice.

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