Humanae Vitae: What to Do for the Next 40 Years?

Today is the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae!  What about the next 40 years?

If you were born in 1950, you would have been 18 in 1968, and you were probably not vitally affected by all the turmoil that summer about Humanae Vitae.  If you were born after 1950, you were probably even less interested that summer, but almost every Catholic born after 1950 learned about it later and how to dissent from it.  You may have been taught that the dissent was something purely spontaneous or, on the other hand, that it was based on serious theological reflection on what the encyclical actually said and taught.  Both versions are inaccurate.

Prior to 1960, birth control was more or less a taboo subject.  You didn’t read about it in the papers, but after the Pill was mass marketed in 1960, birth control almost immediately became the daily or weekly news subject that it still is today.  In this context, liberal Catholics began to publish their wishful thinking.  They were hoping that because the operation of the Pill was not immediately seen, it might be considered as a medical regulation of ovulation rather than a form of contraception or sterilization.  They wrote magazine articles and pamphlets, and lucky was the parish that didn’t have these publications available in the church literature racks.  They tried to assure their readers of two things.  First they tried to show that the Church could change its teaching on birth control and still claim that it hadn’t changed infallible teaching and therefore could still be consistent in claiming to teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals.  Second, they would almost invariably assure their readers that they would accept the decision of the Pope, whatever it was.  Maybe they were sincere at the time, but they certainly switched tracks. 

The dissent was ignited before most people including bishops had a chance to read the encyclical.  Very importantly, it was well orchestrated.  The results were disastrous, and almost any informed Catholic could easily fill a column with the damaging effects of the sexual revolution that started with the acceptance of marital contraception. 

The big question is this:  What is to be done in the next 40 years?

Let us assume that the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae might mark the end of the modern Babylonian Captivity of the Church by the liberal dissenters.  They are dying and not being replaced.  Their arguments have been analyzed and found to be hollow.  Does that meant that the laity will more or less automatically accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae?  By no means.  What the dissenters have succeeded in doing is changing a whole culture within the Church.  At one time Catholics were known for being different; today they are known for having assimilated the neo-pagan secular culture of the West.  True, there are many Catholics who continue to stand out in the counter-cultural effort to stop abortion, and undoubtedly some head up good abstinence-only programs for adolescents.  But by and large, marital contraception and a process of marriage, divorce, annulment and remarriage are more or less taken for granted.  Further, for the most part the liberals still control institutions of Catholic education from grade school through colleges.  Even marriage preparation right within the parish may be seriously tainted.  Will non-repentant contracepting and sterilized parishioners teach lifelong acceptance of Humanae Vitae?

In 1989 a committee of U.S. bishops issued a document on marriage preparation that was a great step in the right direction.  They urged that every engaged couple should be required to attend a full course in natural family planning as a normal part of preparation for Christian marriage.  Some 19 years later, there are only about a half-dozen dioceses that have announced such a policy, and the recommendation was not repeated in the bishops’ 2006 booklet on natural family planning. 

Obviously, there needs to be a thorough house-cleaning in many institutions of Catholic education.  That may take time, and it will be complicated by the tenure of many dissenters.  But what bishops can do right now is to insist on a thoroughly Catholic preparation for marriage.  That means that everyone connected with diocesan and parish marriage preparation needs to believe and practice in accord with Humanae Vitae and the other relevant teachings such as Donum Vitae regarding in vitro fertilization, etc. 

With regard to NFP courses, bishops and priests need to realize that differences in NFP programs are not limited to differences in methodology (only one sign or crosschecking signs, etc.)  Of more importance is whether any given program transmits the call to chaste Christian discipleship or is simply a short course on the female reproductive system.  To be very specific, do NFP programs convey Catholic teaching against the sins to which married couples are tempted during the times of abstinence—masturbation and marital sodomy?  Masturbation includes mutual and solitary acts; marital sodomy includes oral and anal copulation.  Published surveys have reported that oral-genital copulation has been accepted by over half of teenagers in some parts of the country.  If such people later find themselves in a required NFP course, won’t they be thinking in the same terms to avoid abstinence?  Yet, from what I can gather, this unpleasant subject is simply not addressed within the NFP movement except by the program headed by my wife and myself, NFP International.  If I’m wrong, please correct me. 

So, yes, requiring engaged couples to attend a full NFP course is important, but how can it lead couples to the practice of marital chastity if it does not teach chastity?  The goal of Church-related NFP instruction is not just fertility awareness but Christian chastity.  The NFP course offers bishops and priests an excellent opportunity to evangelize their young people, and it can make a difference.  Bishops and priests, however, need to ensure that the courses to which they are sending couples are making a conscious effort to place NFP in the context of authentic, chaste Christian discipleship.  To see how we attempt this, you can read Chapter 1 of our online NFP How-to manual, Natural Family Planning, at the top of our home page.  Your comments about our blogs, our NFP manual, and other website items are always welcome.

Readers might be interested in an informative comment posted at the end of the July 23rd blog on Humanae Vitae and Sterilization.

Tomorrow: The Perfect Storm 

John F. Kippley
Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality

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