The encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI shocked the world when it was published in 1968.
While society was in the midst of the sexual revolution, the pope wrote that couples could not morally use contraception as a means of planning or spacing their children.
“It was an explosion in the Church,” said Dr. Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a Catholic speaker and author on marriage and family.
In the 50 years that followed, she said, the Church has worked to explain its teaching to a world that often refused to accept it.
“But we’ve made some great strides,” she noted. “The fact that you can get 60 scholars to come and talk about Humanae Vitae? In Kansas? It’s fantastic!” Dr. Smith was one of four keynote speakers at Benedictine College’s seventh annual Symposium on Advancing the New Evangelization. The theme of this year’s symposium was “Humanae Vitae 50 Years Later: A Call to Self-Gift.”
While Humanae Vitae states that couples may not use contraception, it affirms that they may make use of the natural fertile and infertile times of a woman’s menstrual cycle, measurable through Natural Family Planning (NFP), in order to achieve responsible parenthood.
But there are problems even within the Christian and Catholic community of understanding exactly how NFP works and what it means to use it morally, Smith noted.
For example, there are certain groups within the Church whom Smith called “Providentialists” - they believe that NFP should only be used by couples to limit family size for “grave reasons,” while the original Latin text of Humanae Vitae and the Catechism use the words “serious” and “just” reasons.
“Providentialists hold that unless grave reasons present themselves, such as very serious health or financial ones, spouses should just let the babies come,” Smith said.
“They’re beautiful people who really want to do God’s will in a very radical, self-giving way, though I think they reason falsely about these matters,” she said.
With Natural Family Planning, couples work together with a woman’s cycle to determine - through methods such as body temperature and cervical mucus observation - the fertile and infertile phases of her cycle. Typically, a woman’s menstrual cycle is around 28 days, and she is fertile for just a handful of those days, though the specifics of the number of days of each phase varies woman to woman.
Couples using Natural Family Planning discern through prayer and practical reasons whether to have sex during the fertile or infertile phases of a woman’s cycle, depending on whether or not they believe it is a good idea for them to get pregnant at that time. As long as couples do not impede the possibility of pregnancy through artificial means (contraception) or natural means (withdrawal), they act according to Church teaching, Pope Paul VI notes in Humanae Vitae.
Where Providentialists go wrong, Smith said, is in believing that couples should be required to have sex during every phase of a woman’s cycle, and that NFP should only be used to avoid pregnancy if a woman is on her deathbed, or the family is in financial ruin.
It’s moral to abstain from sex for other, somewhat trivial reasons, Smith noted - a spouse with a headache, someone would like to finish a book, someone wants to catch a sports game, the walls are too thin, etc.
“So I have a simple question for you. Why would it be wrong not to have sex because it’s not a good idea to have a child at that time?” she said.
“I’m certainly going to affirm that children are the primary purpose of marriage and commend the Providentialists for their devotion to that good,” Smith said, “but I’m going to challenge the claim that [just reasons to abstain] only mean the woman’s near death or the family’s financial ruin.”
The culture at large, on the other hand, misunderstands sexuality as something “nasty and naughty,” and sees children as an optional means of personal fulfillment or a hobby, Smith said, rather than as a supreme gift from God resulting from the gift of sexuality within the context of marriage.
“They don’t see [sex] as a huge gift from God that God has given to spouses as a means to let them help him create new human souls,” she said.
“[Children] are a supreme gift of marriage, they give people meaning, purpose, joy, unbelievable laughter...and bills to worry about and all kinds of things,” Smith said. If Christians believe they are raising up souls for God, “why wouldn’t they want to have a lot of children?”
But while the Church recognizes children as a gift and asks couples to be generous in their openness to life, it also allows for couples to abstain from sex during the fertile phase for “serious” and “just” reasons, including “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions,” Humanae Vitae states.
Furthermore, it notes that “responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
What counts as serious or just enough reasons? “It’s between you and God,” Smith said. “One thing you have to do [to use NFP] is to learn how to pray, and to learn how to say, ‘What do you think, God?’”
It is possible to use NFP selfishly, Smith noted, but she added that the cure for that selfishness can also be found within the use of NFP, since it facilitates conversations between the couple about their family and relationship. Furthermore, she said, most people want to have sex, meaning that abstaining from sex requires a self-mastery that is not characteristic of selfish people.
“If you believe you’ve got good reasons [to abstain], go ahead and use NFP, but keep praying, and tell God: ‘If we’re being selfish with NFP, let us know,’” she said.
When asked what the biggest hurdles are for Catholics and non-Catholics alike when it comes to accepting Church teaching on this issue, Smith said it is a misunderstanding of both contraception and NFP within both groups.
“They don’t have any idea the damage that the hormonal contraceptives do to a woman’s body, so they don’t even know they should be looking for something else,” Smith told CNA. Furthermore, “they don’t understand the many benefits that abstinence brings to a relationship, and it needs to be acknowledged that it’s difficult. It’s as difficult as dieting, and budgeting and exercising regularly, but everybody knows that those bring great benefits to those who do those things. And if you have a necessity to do them, they’re that much easier, because you have a necessity,” she said.
It’s important that the Church keep teaching the truths of Humanae Vitae even 50 years after its original publication, Smith said, because most people still don’t know the truth, and it has also become “more and more overwhelmingly clear that it was right, that contraception would be devastating to relationships and to cultures.”
Smith added that she was encouraged by the symposium at Benedictine. “It was astonishing, and these were young people for the most part in some way defending Humanae Vitae,” she said. “People who oppose Humanae Vitae seem to think its a dead letter, but we need to show that young people are confirming its truth rather than rejecting it.”