This article appeared in the Special Issue of the Sooner Catholic of August 28, 1994, containing a Special Supplement for the 26th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae
Twenty six years after its inception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae still rings clear with profound simplicity, lightness and beauty, while its ill fated detractors founder and sink under the weight of their own lugubrious verbosity. It is a stunning prophecy whose predictions have come true to the letter, For example:
Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened to conjugal infidelity and to a general lowering of morality. One does not need much experience to know human weakness and to understand that human beings—especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point—have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, and must not be offered an easy means to evade its observance. It can also be feared that the man who becomes used to contraceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and no longer caring about her physical and psychological equilibrium, come to the point of considering her a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.
Consider also the dangerous weapon that would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who have no concern for the requirements of morality. Who could blame a government for applying as a solution to the problem of the community, those means acknowledged to be permissible for married couples in solving a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring and from even imposing upon their peoples, if they should consider it necessary, the method of contraception that they judge to be most efficacious? HV. 17.
The manifestation of the first paragraph we see in our everyday American lives. And consider, in that last paragraph the policies of the government of China, and the agenda of Planned Parenthood for this country.
Also consider how this is precisely what we are facing in the United Nations Conference on Population and Development coming up in Cairo this September. That Pope Paul’s prophecy came true so startlingly is something over which he would not rejoice in the least.
The demands of a highly complex world call the Christian to ever greater simplicity. Humanae Vitae is not a document about biology but about sanctity. Sanctity, and the role of human sexuality towards that goal. It is also a document about love. It is a greater act of love not to make love when it involves the good of the other. To hear some argue, one might get the impression that the sex act itself is the only way in which unitive love grows, but that is not the case. As HV makes clear, if for serious reason the couple decides to space births, love is free to grow in other ways through the shared spiritual discipline of temporary abstinence which allows for quiet growth in mutual respect and consideration, but also in wonder and anticipation at the mysteries of the intertwining of love and nature.
In contrast, contraceptive sex is junk sex—like junk food. Like junk food, it doesn’t nourish but may glut. Something’s missing. It becomes closed, finite rather than infinite. Instead of a “we” there are two “mes.” Sex cut off from the possibility of conception becomes a different kind of act than the one the Creator designed. It runs the very serious danger of becoming self-centered rather than other-centered and God-centered. Should we be surprised then when marriages fail and love becomes barren and sterile?
Sex is moved from the realm of the sacred to the realm of the recreational and worse. Winners and losers appear, in place of the one flesh. Persons become objects, means to our ends of satisfaction, ego gratification, or manipulation or worse. The truncation of sex by contraception makes the act an end in itself, instead of a means to something beyond itself, infinite, namely a life. But, when that means is closed off and made finite, the act is lessened. Its reach is shortened, made finite; tamed when it should be wild, “safe” in the worst sense of the word. It holds back an act which is only complete (or completely satisfying) when there is no holding back. On any level. It is a cheat. It is a lie. A deception. We are short-changed and we know it.
Some may complain that this involves hardship. But hardship, which comes into all lives inevitably, is one of the overlooked treasures of the spiritual life in our spoiled and (materially) comfortable culture. Real love grows through hardship; hardship not sought for its own sake, but patiently and willingly endured and offered to God as sacrifice. This basic element of the spiritual life takes on even more meaning when it can be shared and offered by a couple as one flesh. Marriage for Christians is a shared spiritual life. The Christian life is not a life of ease and comfort sought above all else, but often a life of sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. The good of the other and obedience to God in the teachings of the Church are worth occasional sacrifices of immediate pleasure and pay unimaginable and unforeseeable dividends in the life of the marriage and family.
The above, it should go without saying, applies to married couples actively striving to live the shared life of grace. There is no such thing as “safe sex” outside of marriage, for the simple reason that sex outside of marriage is sin. St. Paul teaches that sin is death. There are people now literally dying as a result of this sin. Besides AIDS and abortion, we can point to many deadly evils that surround us resulting from the abuse of sex, such as rape, incest, child abuse, dysfunctional families, breakdown of communications and many other things that bring pain, tragedy, and death into our lives.
To suggest, as some do, that contraception—or even abortion—hold solutions to these evils is like suggesting placing an infected band-aid on a cancer tumor. The answer to these evils lies in individual repentance and a return to obedience to God whose love is poured out and made clear in the teachings of the Church.