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Humanae Vitae: Understanding and Helping Couples Who Struggle

Humanae Vitae's 50th Anniversary

by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ

Before the publication of Humanae Vitae by Bl. Paul VI fifty years ago, there was great pressure on the Church to approve contraception, and that pressure has not abated. Yet until the nineteenth century, not just Catholics but all Christians considered contraception to be at odds with human dignity. What explains the change in attitude? Those who would offer pastoral help to couples struggling with the teaching should first try to understand the social and historical background of the encyclical.

The change from an agrarian, rural society to an industrial, and then technological, urban society profoundly affected attitudes about contraception. Until the Industrial Revolution, the norm was for people to marry, have regular marital intercourse, and gladly accept whatever children came along. Of course, people who were misbehaving or were not normal married couples sometimes resorted to contraception, but married people tended not to have a problem accepting the teaching on contraception. To understand this, we need to reflect on what agrarian society and health care were like before the dawn of modern medicine.

Running a farm used to require far more labor than it does today, and, of course, children helped their parents with the farm work. Since the farm produced what everyone in the family needed to eat, children were regarded not as an economic liability but a needed blessing. People tended to want a lot of children.

Yet because women breastfed their babies—which was the only way they could feed them—the return of menstrual periods was delayed, creating a natural spacing of children. Then too, because of the relatively primitive state of medicine, the infant mortality rate was much higher in earlier times, and many children who survived infancy died from diseases that are easily treatable today. With the far higher death rate of infants and young children and the higher death rate generally, a couple might have twelve children but only a few who survive into adulthood.

Moreover, raising children was in many ways easier in earlier times. This responsibility did not prevent the mother from working outside the home, because doing so was never an option in the first place. Both men and women tended to work on a farm right where they lived. The mother was already there, and even small children could do things like feed the chickens and help with the gardening.

A major shift took place, however, with the Industrial Revolution and the movement of much of the population into cities. Even as that shift was taking place, it became clear that germs cause disease, and so institutions and individuals began to develop sanitary practices. So too, modern medicine discovered effective remedies for disease. As a result, the mortality rate decreased dramatically.

Industrial urban life required someone to be at home to take care of the children, but the home was not the place where the work that supported the family was done. And the transition from childhood to adulthood became far more difficult. To do well in such a context, children needed to receive more education and, except for the relatively few who were well to do, needed to be trained in a skill for a long time. This delayed the time when children could leave home and begin their own families.

The result of all these factors began to emerge in the urbanized and industrialized economy of the nineteenth century, in which it became impossible for most people to have all the children that they naturally could have and properly care for all and get all children successfully started in life.

This situation hasn’t changed in post-industrial, technological society. Rather, the financial challenge for parents has perhaps become even greater. So, the need for most people to exercise responsible parenthood by limiting the size of their families is evident. Most people cannot, as people in times past could, just get married and have all the children that naturally come along. That problem arose when society began to change, and it remains a problem. When limiting family size first became necessary, the only solution for faithful Catholics was obvious, though very difficult. When a couple had all the children they could deal with, they abstained from marital intercourse, and sometimes did so for many years.

Marital intercourse is God’s gift to married couples that enables them to express and helps them live out their personal one-flesh unity. But when they cannot responsibly conceive a child because they need to meet their other responsibilities, they are obliged to abstain, despite the fact that abstaining for long stretches is difficult and tends to put pressure on a marriage.

It’s worth recalling what St. Paul says: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:5). Of course, Paul also says later in the same letter, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). Still, it is not easy to be continent under such circumstances, and it began to seem to many people that to exclude contraception even in dire circumstances unnecessarily burdened people, and from her earliest days the Church has sought to avoid adding burdens (see Acts 15:28; cf. Luke 11:46).

The problem just described, which put great pressure on marriages and was widely experienced by Christians, led Protestant churches to give up on the previously universally accepted teaching, beginning with the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference in 1930. Every major Protestant denomination eventually approved contraception, so that today only the Catholic Church proclaims the once universally accepted Christian teaching that contraception is intrinsically wrong.

Contraception was not the only moral issue that societal changes gave rise to. The Catholic Church was also faced with the spread of divorce and the beginnings of societal approval of abortion. Indeed, the traditional conception of marriage as a whole was under attack. To provide a better treatment of those issues and to defend the Catholic teaching, therefore, Pius XI wrote the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii.

At this time, too, Natural Family Planning began to be introduced. Although Pius XI did not address it in his encyclical, he did reaffirm that sterile couples are entitled to exercise their conjugal rights, and in 1951 Pius XII said that for serious reasons a couple can have recourse to the sterile periods.

Some Catholics, however, began to claim that married couples have a right to have sex whenever they want, and they considered the abstinence NFP requires to be a serious imposition. This situation, along with the widespread acceptance of contraception outside the Catholic Church, put growing pressure on the Church to approve of contraception.

During the period from Casti connubi to Vatican II—from the 1930s to the 1960s—there were important societal changes that increased this pressure. The Great Depression brought a tremendous economic setback that left many people without jobs. And the late 1930s brought a great disruption of life with many conflicts, culminating in WWII, which extended into the mid-1940s. During that period, the pressure that urbanization and industrialization were putting on people to limit the size of their families was becoming ever stronger. When you are out of work, or at war, or displaced, it’s obviously not a good time to have children! The situation eased in the late 1940s and 1950s, followed by a baby boom. But by the time the 1960s arrived, many couples already had all the children they thought they could bring up and educate.

The dissent that began to be manifested in the 1960s had no doubt been quietly brewing underground in the preceding decades, when the teaching was neither well taught nor wholeheartedly and universally accepted, as it had been before society began to change. Those who rejected the teaching needed arguments to justify their dissent, but they did not produce any new arguments. Instead, Catholic theologians essentially reiterated the utilitarian pro-contraception arguments made earlier by Protestants.

What was Paul VI’s attitude toward contraception? He continued the Commission on Population, Family, and Birth Rate that John XXIII had initiated, and he waited quite some time before issuing Humanae Vitae. There is, however, no evidence to support the claim that Paul VI was in doubt about the Church’s teaching on contraception. He knew that Pius XI condemned contraception in Casti Connubii, and there is no reason to think he considered that teaching false or questionable. But he also wanted to help married couples in any way he could, and did not want to condemn anything the tradition did not require him to condemn. He was open to arguments defending the view that married couples somehow can practice limitation in ways not considered before and that are faithful to the tradition. But he was not convinced by theologians who argued using the Pill is not an instance of the contraception that had always been condemned.

For this reason, when Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s traditional rejection of contraception, he defined it as “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to impede procreation” (Humanae Vitae, no. 14), thus making it clear that the Pill is contraceptive—an anti-life choice—and must be understood as included in what the Church has always rejected.

We must, of course, reject dissent and defend the Church’s teaching. But how can we help couples for whom this teaching presents grave challenges? If it is wrong to practice contraception, how can a couple with children who are open to more children in the future, but whose responsibilities limit the ability to properly care for more children at the present time? Might not a couple in these and similar circumstances rightly judge they cannot meet their other responsibilities properly if they have more children now, yet be justified in continuing to come together as husband and wife?

The answer, of course, is yes. And such couples are not without recourse, because natural family planning is available to them, a method the Church encourages them to learn about so they can identify the signs of the wife’s fertility and avoid possible pregnancy. Because this method has proven to be so effective in promoting marital communion, it is worth considering more closely.

There are many advantages to practicing natural family planning, or NFP. First and foremost, couples that practice NFP do not make the anti-life choice of contraception, for they make the sacrifice of abstaining whenever intercourse might result in conception. They do so precisely to avoid the sin of contraception.

Of course, practicing NFP requires discipline and sacrifice. It will not work if, for example, a husband treats his wife as the instrument of his pleasure rather than as his beloved spouse. As they abstain for approximately eight days each cycle, a faithful husband and wife will build up their relationship in other ways. When they come together after their time of abstinence, their union has more meaning, for it embodies a fuller relationship.

NFP is also a great benefit because it is completely natural, based on a couple’s understanding of the woman’s fertility and acting in a way that respects the fertile part of her cycle. Contraception, on the other hand, is not based on a couple’s understanding and respecting the woman’s fertility, but instead stifles the fertility through a device or pill or patch or injection. Research has shown such means can be harmful to a woman’s health and can even make it difficult for her to have children later on when she wants them. Moreover, some so-called contraceptives, for example, Ella and the copper IUD, are in reality abortifacients: they prevent the already fertilized ovum—a tiny new human being—from surviving in the womb. They cause an abortion at a very early stage of the child’s life.

Natural family planning, on the other hand, has nothing to do with contraception or abortion and is not at all harmful to the woman’s health. All it requires is a couple’s willingness to practice it properly. When they do, no method of birth control is more reliable, for couples practicing NFP know when the woman is fertile and realize that she simply cannot become pregnant when the signs indicate that she is not fertile.

Finally, natural family planning can be used to help not only the couple that needs to wait before having more children but also the couple that is ready to have children but has difficulty conceiving. Knowing when the woman is fertile, such a couple plans to come together at the peak of the woman’s fertile time, making it extremely likely she will conceive. Indeed, the whole point of NFP is not to enable a couple to avoid having children altogether but to help them bring their intelligence to bear in planning their family by recognizing the signs of fertility. Such an approach reflects well the openness to life that Christ asks of married couples and honors the soon-to-be-canonized Paul VI, who was a model of fidelity and pastoral charity.

by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ

Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ

Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ, is professor of theology at Sacred Heart.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.