Fifty years ago, on 25 July 1968, the soon to be Saint Paul VI promulgated his great Encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he reaffirmed the ban on the use of artificial contraception. In the intervening years, and in the aftermath of the disastrous sexual revolution, the fight for moral truth has been waged relentlessly, but it has to be said, not particularly successfully. Figures show a huge percentage of married Catholics have for one reason or another dismissed the clear and constant magisterial teaching that artificial contraception can never be justified.
In my opinion, I dare to say, it will not be contempt for the authority of the Church in areas of sexual morality– even if that is often the reason given– but a fear, and lack of trust in God’s divine grace to support and bless the marriage and family. As far back as 1968, Blessed Paul VI was well aware that changing historical and social circumstances were leading young couples to consider natural methods of responsible parenthood were bordering on the impossible. The poisonous narrative that individual freedom was being turned into a type of ecclesiastical slavery by those intent on promoting an anti-life agenda, was also exerting ever increasing pressure.
In essence, laicist anthropocentrism, working through various means and systems in the past century, has heralded an era where the only religion is the religion of man; a belief that man holds the key to his own destiny, and can find pleasure and fulfilment in whatever way he chooses, no matter what acts may contradict the natural moral law, or how devastating the consequences. This devilish temptation which reminds us of Satan’s words in Genesis chapter 3 “you will become like God”, has without doubt even seeped into the life of many Catholics– St John Paul II referred to it as a “silent apostasy” (Ecclesia in Europa).
It seems to me, that a landmark anniversary for such an important magisterial document, affecting the lives of millions of Catholics throughout the world, is an opportune moment to take stock and look at possible new ways of approaching the question of natural family planning that may, with God’s help, begin to reverse the attitude of so many.
One of the great aspects of the present Pope’s magisterium is that he takes a realist approach to doctrine, and how it is received by the faithful. In reality, the Holy Father long ago recognized–as did many moral theologians in the mid to late twentieth century– that a manual of “you can do this, but can’t do this” was an approach that sooner or later would be challenged by an ever increasingly educated laity. So what was missing in this approach? Quite simply the person of Jesus Christ! A moral theology manual absent of promoting a deep and loving friendship with the God of truth and mercy is decadent, and leaves more questions than answers. It does little to explain how the various prohibitions fit into the will of God, the theological reasoning for this, or address the reality of daily struggle for those trying hard to respect the teachings.
However, with St John XXIII’s announcement at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that the Church as Mother “prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity”, a new approach was taken up, one which Blessed Paul VI emphasised in Humanae Vitae “Then let them [married couples] implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.”
Today, I believe there is a need for realism to be taught in marriage preparation, particularly in the area of conjugal relations and responsible parenthood. Since the late 1990’s, positive catechises in this area has revolved around St John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which was formulated by the great Polish Pontiff in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Unfortunately at times, this wonderfully rich body of magisterial teaching have been perhaps misunderstood a little, or used to present a vision of natural family planning that for many– after marriage–will seem far removed from the stress, anxiety and complexities of modern family life. Women who suffer from irregular cycles for instance, will often feel an immense pressure to interpret their signs correctly, while at the same time trying to enjoy this vitally important part of married life.
In my view, it is important to stress for young couples the sacrificial nature of married love, and to see natural family planning as part of carrying the cross Jesus has given them. True preparation must be open to the truth that nfp requires great sacrifice at times, and that it is the polar opposite of the instant sexual gratification that dominates the world of today.
But should this view be seen as negative, and a hindrance to helping young couples avoid artificial contraception?
It seems to me that sacrificial love, and the cultivation of virtues associated with faithfully practising nfp, (such as patience, humility, faith, trust, purity, self- control and understanding to name a few) are the paths to imitating Jesus ever more closely, and thus the couple should be reminded that their marriage vocation is their own path to sanctification. If properly understood, the idea of self- sacrifice in union with the will of God can allow those setting out on this lifetime journey to accept it with joy, knowing that divine blessings will fall on them.
The root of any success in promoting nfp cannot come from any other source than Jesus himself through the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is trust in divine providence that must be encouraged during marriage preparation. As I said at the beginning, I firmly believe many couples cannot see past the fear of having several or more children, perhaps for very good reasons such as economic, or the ability of parents to properly care for them. However as Blessed Paul VI pointed out, marriage is an invitation from the Lord for a couple to cooperate in the divine plan and to see that his divine will is carried out in those to whom he calls into being.
Thus a truly eschatological dimension must be instilled into marriage preparation, to encourage the couple to see past the ephemeral, and to look with wonder at the eternal and glorious future the Lord has planned for all his children. In this way, what may seem as a great and worrisome burden can take on new meaning and significance; that the sufferings and sacrifices involved in bringing up a large family will last only a short while (cf 2 Cor 4:17, Rom 8:18).
It seems no coincidence that the contraceptive mentality has grown in the same era that a loss of the sense of the supernatural has occurred. Eschatological hope is no longer the driving force for many Christians that it should be, and as such it sadly produces fruits of selfishness and aridity here and now. But eschatological hope is not restricted to a future beyond the end of time; in Jesus this hope is realized now as definitive victory, and he invites each couple to share in that triumph through a profound Christian witness and friendship with him.
Natural family planning ensures that within a marriage, a clear path between heaven and earth is never blocked off; that a chapter in the book of life always remains open. It reveals to the young couple that God has invested in them in the most awe inspiring way, that He entrusts to them the very keys of creation. It is a mission of such grandeur for husband and wife that the Church must never tire of announcing it, or search for new ways to explain it, and God willing, inspire these faithful to fulfil it.
But what of those struggling Catholics who cannot grasp this teaching? Those who cannot face more children and turn to artificial contraception? What role do confessors have in their spiritual life?
In the first instance, we must recall that nobody has permission to sin, and thus it can never be the case that artificial contraception can be approved of as a good moral choice. But the maternal nature of the Church can always look with compassion on those who make use of these methods to avoid pregnancy, and display the same mercy the Lord Jesus used often in his public ministry.
The confessor, for instance, with careful discernment can help the penitent in various ways: possibly utilising the doctrine of “good faith” as taught by St Alphonsus Liguori and approved by the Church (1), in which he may consider it inopportune to reveal the gravity of the sin if he feels material sin will become formal sin. He may encourage them to seek the “law of gradualness” taught by St John Paul II in which they honestly undertake a path to leave behind artificial contraception though a process of deepening their faith and trust in God’s help. As part of this process, ensuring the penitent does not make use of abortifacient pills could be a positive start. He can also discern–as Pope Francis has taught in Amoris Laetitia for the civilly divorced and remarried and the possible reception of Holy Communion–the amount of guilt, or the seriousness of the sin, and thus encourage them to receive the Holy Eucharist as a spiritual medicine for their weakness– when sin is venial rather than mortal. The truth about God and Catholic morality can never be simply about judgment and sin. It must include the revelation of divine mercy. This is not a weakness in doctrine, or a means to approve sin, but a magnificent divine attribute, so great that God lowered himself to share our humanity in order to save us.
In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification entitled “The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty”, in which it sought to address criticisms made by certain theologians concerning this emotive subject. While reaffirming once again what successive popes have taught (2), the document did strive to make clear that mercy and loving compassion were an essential element of Christian doctrine applicable to souls bound by these particular sins, and certainly applicable to the Christian moral tradition:
“The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt. Accordingly, when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception.” (3)
Interestingly, for those critics of Pope Francis, it is noticeable in this extract just how similar the language and teaching is to that found in Amoris Laetitia paragraphs 301-302, and we must recall that this CDF document originated during the intense middle years of St John Paul II’s papacy, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect.
In conclusion, we must stress that if a new openness to natural family planning is to occur, a deeper and more realistic approach is needed in which the couple see their exalted role in the history of creation alongside, and within the heart of Jesus. It is to guide them to a greater understanding of agape, that sacrificial love that places the other above themselves, and one that entrusts every struggle and effort to the divine will of God. It is to remind them that true Christian witness will inevitably involve carrying one cross or another, and the embracing of natural family planning is certainly one. However, if this truth can be lived to the full, the sexual relationship can be one of immense joy and one benefitting from true freedom; not the illusion Satan likes to offer, but one blessed and ratified by God in heaven. Pope Francis teaches this clearly in Amoris Laetitia:
“Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord.”
The young couple need the witness–as Cardinal Farrell– recently stated, of experienced married couples even more than priests; those who can guide them and encourage them that living nfp is possible and a blessing. A Realism based on authentic witness can also tell them that navigating this truth in the early years of marriage may involve certain difficulties where intimacy is concerned, but that in no way should the couple be taught to act as if they were no more than brother and sister when they are abstaining from full sexual relations during fertile periods of time. Husband and wife will always remain just that; sexuality cannot be compartmentalised, but self- control with the grace of God can certainly be mastered.
Humanae Vitae reminds us that God never rescinds his invitation for married couples to participate in the unfolding of salvation history. It impresses on us the truth that sex without its procreative and unitive aspects becomes a tool of evil in many ways: sexual slavery, pornography, paedophilia, abortion, adultery.
For every married couple, the courageous “yes” that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave to the Archangel Gabriel should be a summons for their own courageous unending yes to God; one that with trust in divine mercy can live marital life with the expectation that God will never abandon them. On the contrary, he will sit at table with them and guide them to see children as the greatest blessing–the “living stones” of the family (cf Amoris Laetitia no 14).
It must be our prayer that the next fifty years will see marriage preparation take on a new dimension which places the call to holiness as central to the vocation of each spouse; that couples are made fully aware of the gravity and beauty of their undertaking. That sacrificial love and generosity of spirit remain the central components for true companionship to grow. Anything less than this, and there is little chance that the contraceptive mentality will diminish. Authentic love allied to eschatological hope will allow future young married couples to see the divine will of God far more clearly, while appreciating their own little “domestic church” as building blocks of the glorious communion of saints that will flower fully on that Sunday with no evening. – Stephen Walford, Vatican Insider, 23 July 2018
* Stephen Walford is a theologian and lives in Southampton, England with his wife Paula and five children. Educated at Bristol University, he is the author of two books: Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Bl Pius IX to Benedict XVI (Angelico Press), and Communion of Saints: The Unity of Divine Love in the Mystical Body of Christ (Angelico Press). He has written articles for various publications on eschatological and mariological themes. He is also a pianist and teacher.
1) Pontifical Council for the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life”, February 12, 1997, no 8
2) “What is taught by the Church on contraception is not one of the matters that may be freely disputed by theologians. To teach the contrary is equivalent to leading the conscience of spouses into error.” St John Paul II, Address “To participants in a study seminar on responsible procreation” 5 June, 1987
3) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and pastoral duty”, L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, N. 9, 27 February 1989, P 7.
4) Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, no 317, March 19, 2016