Dear Visitors and Parishioners,
July 28, 2019
On the 51st anniversary of Humanae Vitae, it is still one of the most misunderstood and controverted teachings of the Church and it's important for all Catholics at least to understand what the teaching is, to whom it applies, and why it is taught. Could you defend the teaching? Let's try to answer those questions.
First, what is the teaching? Humanae Vitae teaches that when husband and wife consummate their marriage that act must be open to new life. Notice, it applies to "married couples". For all others the teaching is chastity, not prohibition of contraception. For other cases the Church does not say "don't use contraception", she says, "don't have intercourse outside of marriage". That clarification alone can clear up a fair amount of ignorance because oftentimes you'll find that an argument framed as a rejection of Humanae Vitae is in fact a more fundamental doubt about the teaching on chastity which clarifies the conversation. The basis of the teaching is that the union between husband and wife is sacred and that in this sacred action husband and wife must absolutely give their whole selves to each other, including their fertility, which is not something to be despised, but something to be treasured as an incomparable gif t from God. In giving all of themselves and in bringing forth new life, spouses even imitate God Himself, Who is Creator of new life and Who gives Himself totally and unconditionally to us in Jesus and in the life of the Trinity. To give all of oneself, then, is godly, and not to give all of oneself in such a noble action is ungodly. The issue with sexual unions outside of marriage is that they go all the way physically but not all the way with the mind, the will, the heart, the spirit. There is a physical sharing but no commitment. Since this is a sacred action given by God, this union must never be cheated of its full potential and glory. It should not be cheated at all by the will or fears of man.
So that's the teaching, who it applies to, and why it is taught. The teaching itself is rather simple. So why has there been so much controversy? There seems to be at least three obstacles. Three crises. The first is the crisis of faith, which is a crisis of trust. Now sometimes we should make judgments about what we're told, but when it is God revealing what is true, if we do not accept it and instead make judgments about it, against it, for instance the sacredness of this action as revealed by God, then we are having a crisis of faith. And if we struggle this way, it's a very important struggle which should be brought to the Lord Jesus. We have to decide if we want our plan or God's plan for our lives.
Second is a crisis of weakness. Practically no one has difficulty with this teaching for intellectual reasons. Rather, they have difficulty because they find it hard to live. Because among the Church's more difficult teachings, contraception is far and away one of the easiest to accept intellectually. For instance, if we line up the teachings on the Trinity, the Incarnation of Jesus and the Eucharist we can see that the teaching on contraception is just much easier.
So most people don't reject Humanae Vitae on intellectual grounds but because they find it difficult to live and if this is the case it is important to recognize that just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's not true. So you might be having a moment of weakness, this doesn't mean that you have to have a crisis of faith which is much more serious. If we can accept that it is true but we find it difficult to live we should bring that to Jesus in prayer. Especially in the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, which is precisely the recommendation that Paul VI made in this encyclical. The Gospel that leads us to glory is, at times, very difficult.
Third is a crisis of moral vision. We can cheat on this teaching and get away with it. Many people would say that adultery has an effect on a marriage but many think that contraception, while it may be wrong, is not going to have an effect on marriage. This is a crisis of moral vision because what I say and do affects me, it changes me, it forms my way of thinking. Our actions form our interior disposition. We become what we do. We form ourselves this way. And this is true of contraception. If spouses make a habit of holding back on generosity, not giving their whole selves, this has an effect on marriage. Sacredness has been detached from this action.
Many find this teaching difficult because our society is sexually addicted . The worldly view of sex that leads away from responsibility and respect toward darkness and addiction is the idea that sex is trivial: "what's the big deal? why is the Church hung up on this?" The Church recognizes and teaches that this is not trivial. You are sacred, how you use your body sexually is very significant.
Humanae Vitae is liberating because it affirms our dignity and freedom. What husband and wife do is not trivial but sacred and profound. The contraceptive mentality blunts generosity and even manifests a distrust in God's providence. It injures the intimacy of marriage. God invites husband and wife to share in what is properly His own ministry, that is, to create life where before there was nothing. In the sacrament of marriage, He elevates a natural friendship to the level of a sacrament where husband and wife are the instruments of salvation to each other. They are to be partners in leading each other to glory. May the Lord in His great kindness strengthen couples to embrace with joy the wondrous vocation He has given them.
-Fr. Joseph Mary Hertzog, O.P.