Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae,” cementing the Catholic Church as one of the last institutions to reject artificial contraception as licit. The decision followed extensive debate among Catholics and a two-year, Vatican-sponsored commission that had recommended the church permit at least some forms of artificial contraception. Pope Paul VI rejected the commission’s recommendation, and I am a grateful beneficiary of his decision.
At the core of the encyclical, Pope Paul VI stated that artificial contraception is illicit, and reinforced the dual nature of sex. That is, sex is unitive and procreative, and separating one does violence to the other. “Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.”
If the Catholic Church has failed on this, it did so in not adhering to this teaching with a vengeance. The premise is sound; the execution has been flawed. Far too often we speak in generalities and platitudes about theoretical benefits, perhaps because sex is awkward to talk about in public. Nonetheless, “Humanae Vitae” has had profound, concrete impacts on my life and marriage.
Restraining Sex Orders One’s Passions
By showing that every sexual act must be open to life, “Humanae Vitae” gives order to otherwise insatiable passions. It properly subordinates inferior goods to superior goods. Specifically, it points sexual desire to its natural and limiting terminus: children.
In not using artificial contraception, my wife and I are open to every night of sex leading to a child. We use the signs God placed in our bodies (more specifically, my wife’s body) to identify when we are fertile, and abstain then if we have a reason to not have a child. Periodic abstention is a crucial means by which we can master our natural urges. Contrary to modern conceptions, wherein every itch must be scratched, “Humanae Vitae” drives us to control our passions by our wills. There’s a reason fasting exists.
At the same time this puts my human faculties in proper order, it also puts my natural passions in a proper order. Sex is good, and therefore the babies that proceed from sex must be good too. Babies have needs, and their dependency on me is more deserving than my own wants.
Our urge to have children should not be castrated, but harnessed, because having children makes us more virtuous adults. I can’t buy myself a new smartphone to replace my still functional one, because I have diapers to buy; I can’t take a two-hour nap, because the kids have Little League; I can’t eat filet mignon every night, because my boys prefer chicken nuggets. This is a good thing.
This also places passion in proper degree. “Humanae Vitae” reinforces that each and every sexual act must be for love of my wife and her body. This is incredibly liberating, and has kept me from being one of the thousands of men addicted to pornography. Sexual desire is a powerful force, making men who, through a series of escalating highs provided by pornography and masturbation, no longer find sex with their wives fulfilling. Without “Humanae Vitae’s” reminder of the nature of sex, I likely would have fallen victim to this as well.
Sex Is Better With Boundaries
Sex is the only way that I may cooperate in making something that is eternal. My savings will disappear, my house will crumble, my career will end. But the souls of my children are eternal, and my wife and I, by a free and willful act, were the efficient cause of that.
This realization makes sex so much better. It is not just an animal act driven by chemical reactions of hormones; it’s something of eternal significance.
Recognizing that sex has a dual and inseparable final cause—uniting and procreating—adds a new dimension to enjoying the act. Fatherhood is an exciting adventure, bringing ineffable joy, mystery, and exhilaration. The fact that the joy of fatherhood is inextricably linked to the joy of marriage enhances both.
I have sex with my wife and, months later, cuddle a baby. The seamless continuity between these events allows me to savor a single night for the rest of my life, as opposed to it floating away as the memories fade.
It Teaches Me to Love My Body
One of the most disturbing facets about artificial contraception—ya know, besides abortion being a mechanism for making them completely effective—is that it necessarily regards a natural and good function of a woman as broken. Sterilization does the same thing. It’s no accident that people refer to a vasectomy as “getting fixed.”
But it’s not “fixing.” It is actually breaking a healthy and good bodily function. This idea that our bodies are born wrong is pervasive and destructive.
Against this backdrop, “Humanae Vitae” tells us that our bodies are good, and not intrinsically flawed. Our fertility is natural and beautiful, not something to fear and murder. Just as the concept that fertility is a burden can lead to insecurity, the idea that fertility is a blessing leads to confidence.
I wish I could convert ten pounds of Oreos around my waist into ten pounds of muscle around my arms, but I can’t, and that’s okay. My body is beautiful and good and communicates my soul to the world. I don’t lament it; I rejoice in it. The same is true for my perception of my wife. I love her exactly as she is, and I’m not burdened by wishing that she were someone else.
This Is What Liberation Looks Like
My friends and colleagues assume that I’m burdened by not using artificial contraception. If we weren’t held captive to my and my wife’s fertility, I could have cars, vacations, and savings. I could have gone to concerts and museums, happy hours and bachelor parties. I might even know how to ski. Some of the more licentious among them suggest that this form of slavery has prevented me from experiencing the full range of my sexuality. With so many options in women, it’s inconceivable to them that I should only love my wife.
They miss the point. I am a free man precisely because of this teaching. I am not a slave to money or sex, a servitude that I have observed not as just a nuisance but a debilitation. I do not thirst for a drink that does not satisfy. “Humanae Vitae” has taught me to order these passions and be grateful for them, rather than let them rule and drive me to resent what is good.
That’s freedom. I’m thankful for the courage of Pope Paul VI and the thousands who have followed his teachings, those who bravely abandoned the edicts of the world and preserved truth so I may learn it.
As Paul VI recognized, “It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’”
I don’t brag of this inheritance, because I’ve done nothing to earn it. But on this anniversary, I hope the current generation can preserve this teaching against rampant pernicious attacks, so that we are not the last beneficiaries.