The beloved Catholic author Flannery O’Connor once famously quipped, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” 

I have seen this laid out before me in my own life many times, most clearly when my wife and I received the news that our unborn son had a prenatal diagnosis incompatible with life. 

As a well-formed Cradle Catholic, I had always been outspoken on the issue of abortion, but this was without the experience Flannery O’Connor mentions above. In that grief-stricken moment when the perinatologist asked my wife and I if we wanted to continue the pregnancy or end it, I felt the harshness Flannery describes melt away.

We chose to continue the pregnancy, and found great love and sanctification through the pain, but the intense feeling of wanting to do anything to run away from the suffering and darkness was palpable. 

While we chose life, my heart was opened to those who didn’t. I understood them. I walked in their shoes. And because of that experience, when I speak of my convictions as a pro-life Catholic now, I do so without harshness, and instead seek to embrace and love those who chose differently.

And so it is with contraception.

As we continue to recognize the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Church’s most well-known re-stating of it’s stance against artificial contraception, I feel compelled to speak up. 

As someone who has lived part of my life in direct contradiction to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, as someone who didn’t understand why a celibate man in Rome should have an opinion about what happens in my bedroom, as someone who felt the Church was wrong - I feel compelled to speak up.

There was a recent article from the National Catholic Reporter titled “Humanae Vitae’s Ban on Contraception Causes Suffering,” and because of my powerful reversion experience, I decided to click the link and read through it.

The article brought out the usual tropes against the Church’s teaching: taking time to remind us of a “study that reported 89 percent of American Catholics believe that contraception is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all,” regurgitating the same thought I had that “there is something bizarre and unseemly about a group of celibate men who have such a preoccupation with controlling women's fertility,” and then concluding “what a luxury it is to have the freedom to disregard the church's teaching and to have the resources to access contraception.”

It even went so far as to suggest “Untold numbers of women and children have died, will die and are dying right now as a direct consequence of Humanae Vitae.

Because of my experience with this specific teaching of the Church, I can understand where the author is coming from. I’ve been there. I get it. The article, however, made me think of another well-known Flannery O’Connor quote:

"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I always knew that the Catholic Church stood against contraception, and yet, as I began to experience young adulthood, I found the Church’s stance less and less convincing. I held many of the same ideas the author expresses in her article. I lived a life in direct contradiction to the Church’s teaching, but then I actually sat down to read Humanae Vitae, and everything changed.

It was precisely because of my experience that Humanae Vitae made sense. I had experienced exactly what Pope Paul VI spoke about in the encyclical. The objectification, the lack of proper dignity and respect, the rendering myself incapable of unconditional love; all of these things were present to me. It was like Humanae Vitae was delving deeper into my heart and mind than I felt comfortable going myself. And that was why I knew I had to do something to make a change.

But the change was painful, as Flannery suggests. It was painful to give up that sense of control I had. It was painful to be open to God’s will. It was painful to be humbled and accept that I was wrong all along.

My understanding and acceptance of the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control has nothing to do with controlling women or allowing a celibate man in Rome to tell my wife and I what to do in the privacy of our home. It has nothing to do with forcing women to have babies or being against women and families climbing out of poverty. Instead, it has to do with Humanae Vitae ringing true when I reflect on my own personal experience. It has to do with finally being humble enough to realize the Church was right, is right, and will always be right.

I turn to Flannery O’Connor once more, for her pithy and profound thoughts:

“The Church's stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease. I wish various fathers would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice the day when they say: This is right whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may. Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding.”

For the sake of unconditional love, for the sake of fighting against the objectification of women, for the sake of standing up against the efforts of the elite to render the poor of the world infertile; for all of these reasons, I would encourage everyone to read and reconsider Humanae Vitae.

Does Humanae Vitae cause suffering?

No.

But it does cause sanctification, and as Flannery O’Connor mentioned, sanctification can be painful. But it’s so worth it.


Tommy Tighe is a Catholic husband and father of four boys. You can find out more about him at CatholicHipster.com.

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