Back in May, my family went to Mass in another state because we were visiting my in-laws. The kids were in rare form. Our 4-year-old daughter repeatedly tried to go under the pew, and protested loudly whenever my wife or I pulled her back and picked her up. Repeated attempts to shush her, bribe her, and punish her were fruitless. Our 1-year-old had kept us up most of the night, and was fussy and cranky throughout the Mass. Whenever I held her, after about 5 minutes she’d want to be held by my wife, and would begin whining and lunging in her direction. 5 minutes after the handoff, she’d do it again, wanting me to hold her.

The older kids were exhausted and inattentive because they had been up late playing video games with their grandmother (don’t ask). They would zone out and not say the responses unless they were snapped out of it by a tap on the shoulder by a parent, but they’d just zone out again 30 seconds later. My 9-year-old also apparently decided that standing and sitting were too taxing for him, so he leaned on me for physical support the whole time. Anyway, this went on until the offertory or so, and I spent most of the rest of the Mass in the Narthex with a 4-year-old who wouldn’t stay quiet about her desire for ice cream.

At the end of the Mass, the sympathetic elderly woman who had been sitting in the pew behind us approached me and said, “I got tired just watching you this morning.”

Granted, that morning’s Mass was especially stressful and exhausting, but it was somewhat representative of the struggles that the parents of larger families face, especially as they get older and energy reserves are depleted as the number of children continues to increase.

Today is the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the document that re-asserted the Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception. This anniversary comes amid increased speculation and paranoia that Pope Francis will release a document that will either “relax” the force of the teaching or downplay its importance and gravity.

This week, Stephen Walford has an excellent article in anticipation of a potential document, with all the relevant episcopal and magisterial justifications for what may take place. Paul Fahey and Brian Killian have written on various aspects of Humanae Vitae for WPI in the past, and I recommend their articles wholeheartedly if you are looking for a better theological or doctrinal understanding of the teaching.

I hadn’t planned on writing about this topic at all, but here I am, prompted by a PM from a Twitter follower, asking for my thoughts.

For the sake of clarity and to head off any accusations to the contrary: I want to state clearly that I accept and assent to the Church’s teaching (even when difficult, even when it doesn’t make sense, and despite any trials I have faced). I have never used artificial contraception in my life, nor have I advised anyone else to. And even if I wanted to use it, my wife would be adamantly against it.

I’m not saying this to brag. For me, it’s just a part of living a Catholic life. I’m not judging anyone who disagrees or sees this differently, but the Church’s teaching is clear and I have always accepted that. It’s something we’ve adhered to, often with little discernible benefit to our marriage, spiritual life, or well-being. I’ve rarely experienced the great joy and freedom that promoters of Natural Family Planning espouse. The financial toll it’s taken on my family is undeniable: we’ve never been able to afford a vacation; we drive old, unreliable cars; we can’t even afford Catholic school for our children. The idea of saving for college or retirement is laughable, and we’re just praying that our roof holds up for another 10 years.

It’s very true that each of our children is a blessing. Fortunately they are all happy, healthy kids. We don’t know what the future holds for them, but I believe we are giving them the formation and foundation that they need to make their way in the world.

That said, there isn’t a single NFP family doesn’t understand the appeal of contraception. Every family that has had an unplanned child knows the stress of changing life’s trajectory and imagining “what could have been.” Every young couple that has a child in the first year or two of marriage understands the sacrifice and suffering – yes, suffering – that could have been avoided had they both worked and saved for a few more years. No large family is immune from the probing questions or judgemental assertions of acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, or complete strangers about the number of children they have.

I haven’t even gone into the hardest cases. There are cases where another pregnancy can put the life of the mother at risk, cases where a needed medicine might cause fetal deformity or death, cases where a child with special needs is causing a great deal of emotional and physical hardship on the parents, and the last thing the family needs is another difficult pregnancy.

It’s no secret that the overwhelming majority of Catholics ignore this teaching. Is there anything the Church can do to overcome the dissent over something so central to Catholic family life?

It’s clear from my perspective that arguments promoting the practical benefits of NFP are unconvincing. Actual material support from the institutional Church (activities for large families, providing babysitting at Church events, tuition breaks, support groups) would be a step in the right direction, but is that even realistic?

Amoris Laetitia is a step forward, especially in how it guides the Church to accompany families who are undergoing hardship and experiencing struggle.

New approaches are needed, both to encourage Catholics who embrace the teaching and to influence those who don’t. Stephen Walford, interestingly, suggests that the family must be viewed from an eschatological perspective. He writes:

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.

He’s right. The weary view of practicing HV that I present in this piece is very much the fruit of “selfishness and aridity.” Sometimes we can become privately bitter about not using contraceptives. We can become jealous of others when we look at children as a burden and NFP as a cause of pain and suffering.

It’s as if we become like the elder brother in the parable. We’re angry at the father for running out and receiving the brother even before he’s completed his journey home. And we hate the brother because he’s enjoyed the fruits of the behavior that we secretly envy.

When we embrace the truly eschatological dimension, however, we accept each child with joy, as a gift, and do not allow hardships to lead us to despair. We run out, along with the father, to extend the joy of the Gospel and mercy. We love the brother and embrace him, even though he is still on the journey towards the fullness of Truth.

Living a life faithful to the teaching of Humanae Vitae is often quite difficult. For many of us, it’s a sacrifice and an act of faith with few discernible benefits. Let us pray that as a Church, that sacrifice bears great fruit and brings us closer to the Lord.

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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Humanae Vitae and Me

2 Responses

  1. Christopher Lake says:

    Thanks so much for this piece, Mike. It gives voice to many, many married couples who strive to live by the Church’s teaching on openness to life but who do honestly, seriously struggle and, at times, wish that they had more concrete, on-the-ground, everyday help from the Church. One might think that as a currently unmarried man, thoughts on this topic might seem abstract to me, but they do hit home.

    A big part of it has to do with the eschatological dimension and how to face very serious, painful questions in my life. The major example that I’m facing: I’m in a long-term (years at this point), and long-distance, relationship with a woman who lives in a country with serious financial struggles and political turmoil. I won’t go into a great deal of the details here, but we have developed a deep bond over the years, even largely from a distance, but over and over again, we have come up against the fact that if or when we marry, I, as a man with Cerebral Palsy, will lose all of my governmental disability benefits. That means losing not only the benefits which currently enable me to pay my rent, but also the medical benefits which help me with getting wheelchairs, needed repairs to wheelchairs, and other things related to my disability. The difficulties are also compounded by the fact that, due to my disability, I am unable to drive a car, and depending on the weather (the winters are brutal), even simply using public transportation to get back and forth from a job, using my wheelchair, can be physically precarious (I’ve had some terrifying experiences!).

    These are very painful, daily realities, that I can really only face and maintain my sanity, by fighting to keep in mind the eschatological dimension of the Christian life (while still, obviously, dealing with the daily, minute-to-minute struggles of my life!). If my girlfriend and I marry, all of my benefits will be gone. That is a reality, and it’s a harsh one, especially considering that I cannot not just easily “replace” all of those benefits, even if I were able to get a full-time job with “good” benefits. Theoretically, my girlfriend could train to be an attendant who helps to take care of people who have physical disabilities, and she could move here and be paid, by the government, to stay with me and actually be paid a decent salary to help me with my various, daily needs (which are increasing as I get older). However, if she and I *marry*, then I lose all of my benefits, and she would not get any money for being my attendant. I have done some painful research, and as far as I can tell, the Catholic Church’s answer to my dilemma seems to be either “Find a way to bring your girlfriend to this country, go through the marriage preparation, marry her, and trust that God will somehow make up for all of the undeniable, seemingly-catastrophic, financial and medical losses that you and she will face,” (which I want to do, but it’s just not that simple!) or “Stay single, and end this relationship, and seriously consider that, in spite of all your desires, you should stay single for all of your earthly life.” She and I are trying to sort through what to do. I wish that the Church were willing to allow us to have a sacramental wedding ceremony, in a parish, without signing legal papers, so that we could be married, before God, while still allowing me to have the crucial help that I need, day-to-day, as a man with a disability. However, from all that I have read and heard, that is not an option within the Catholic Church. If we want to be married within the Church, the government must be a part of it, even when that means the government all but making it practically, physically catastrophic for us to marry. If I were not able to have some kind of eschatological view of all of this, I would probably be near-suicidal at this point. Thanks for helping to remind me and my girlfriend that whatever our earthly lot is in this life, even if it is almost unimaginably painful, this life is not the final word– and that, while in this life, we must strive to be faithful and find light and hope and joy where we legitimately, obediently, can.

  2. Jane says:

    Does it seem to you that it might be necessary to take your concern to the Holy Father himself, who holds the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, to ask him to help you? That is the thought that just came to mind after reading of your difficult situation. I don’t know what to say other than that that might be the exact thing to do. If Christ Himself were on this earth and I had such a situation as yours, I would seek Him out immediately, talk with Him in private and say, “O my Lord! Is there any way around this? Is there something You can do to help me?” And I believe that He would . . . Maybe that’s a specific thing you might want to take right to Christ Himself here on earth in the person of His Vicar? I think that is what I would do. God Bless you

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