Therefore, it must be emphasized once more that the pastoral intervention of the Church in support of the family is a matter of urgency. Every effort should be made to strengthen and develop pastoral care for the family, which should be treated as a real matter of priority, in the certainty that future evangelization depends largely on the domestic Church.” …The Church’s pastoral action must be progressive, also in the sense that it must follow the family, accompanying it step by step in the different stages of its formation and development (Familiaris Consortio 65).

I recently wrote an article about the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae that was critical of those who are wasting this anniversary by repeating the same strategies that may have done more harm than good over the past fifty years. I wanted to follow that article up by highlighting positive efforts being made to take advantage of this anniversary and add a few suggestions of my own. In that first article I shared some of what Pope Francis has to say about those who think that simply by restating the hard truths that they will adequately evangelize others. In this article, in the spirit of papal continuity, I want to pull from Saint John Paul II’s pontificate and what he has to say about the pastoral care and accompaniment of married couples and families.

This notion of accompaniment is crucial here, for we cannot make ourselves holy, but are rather saved “in bunches,” that is, as part of a community. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently released a document titled Placuit Deo that says:

“The salvation that God offers us is not achieved with our own individual efforts alone, as neo-Pelagianism would contend. Rather, salvation is found in the relationships that are born from the incarnate Son of God and that form the communion of the Church” (PD 12).

As Pope Francis says, these neo-Pelagians “ultimately trust only in their own powers” (GE 49). But that’s not how grace works. Grace builds on nature and God primarily communicates his grace to us through natural means. Here’s an example. God can, and does, heal people miraculously, but the usual way that God heals us is through the efforts of other people (doctors, nurses, etc). We receive God’s grace through community, particularly the community of the Church. So when the Church accompanies someone (spiritually, pastorally, financially, etc) they are acting as a vehicle of God’s healing and transforming power.

So what does all this have to do with Humanae Vitae? There are many people in the Church who are freely embracing the full weight of this moral teaching but are finding little support from their Catholic community. Bishop Barron recently said:

“At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.”

This 50th anniversary is an opportunity to help our suffering brothers and sisters and in doing so demonstrate, in a tangible way, the goodness and beauty that’s possible from living out this moral command. I would like to suggest three things for the Church (that is, from you and I all the way up through the episcopal hierarchy) that can make this anniversary fruitful.

First, we must tell the truth about how difficult it can be to live out the teaching of Humanae Vitae. That is, the difficulty of using Natural Family Planning (NFP). I’ve seen two general categories of orthodox discussion in the Church about NFP. The first speaks about NFP as if it were all “kittens and rainbows.” They sell NFP like it’s not only as effective as contraception but will also enhance, and maybe even divorce-proof, your marriage. Some, maybe even most, couples have great experiences with NFP overall, but this is something we are far too good at speaking about, and those who struggle are left on the sidelines.

The second category is those who, without denying those who have been successful with NFP, actually acknowledge that NFP isn’t “Catholic birth control” but actually involves self discipline, struggle, and suffering. Those in this group, with real personal risk of being misinterpreted as heretics, are willing to talk about the profound suffering and life and death struggles that come from following this teaching (like Sick Pilgrims recent series of NFP testimonies). It is this group who is willing to say that NFP isn’t good enough yet and that the Church needs to do something different than it has been doing.

If we truly want to practice Humanae Vitae and accompany those who are suffering, then we must reject that first category that only speaks about NFP in glowing terms, making those who legitimately suffer feel lied to, alienated, and like something is wrong with them. We need to embrace (even when it makes us uncomfortable) that second group. There are real benefits to NFP, but overexargetting them isn’t doing anyone a favor. If we are teaching or promoting NFP we must make it our personal responsibility to stop spreading the “kittens and rainbows” myths and start speaking the truth. Even though we are swimming upstream in a culture that accepts contraception without question, we can’t let that make us so defensive that we reject any and all criticism of NFP.

Second, we need to understand the whole truth about the Church’s moral teachings, especially if we are in a pastoral role. That is, without undermining the objective moral law, we must take into account subjective culpability. Pope Francis puts it this way:

“The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations….More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin….The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: ‘imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.’” (AL 301-302).

The integral role of a person’s subjective freedom and culpability is far from a new idea, it goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas and is well founded in the Tradition. For example, the CDF, under Saint John Paul II, issued a document is 1989 titled “The moral norm of “Humanae Vitae” and pastoral duty” that says:

“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.”

Furthermore, again under Saint John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for the Family published a Vademecum for Confessors concerning marriage and chastity that recognizes that if one’s spouses refuses to not use contraception that one isn’t necessarily culpable for that evil. In other words, like Pope Francis’ teaching concerning divorced and remarried Catholics, the Church says that there are things, like an uncooperative spouse, that can limit a person’s freedom, reduce their culpability, and prevent them from committing a mortal sin. We pile extreme burdens on people by throwing the objective moral law at them without taking into consideration their subjective culpability.

Third, as a Church and as individuals, we need to make practical efforts to ease the suffering of those who are carrying the full weight of Humanae Vitae’s teaching amid terrible circumstances. First of all, the Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility and miscarriage. We’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know struggle with these things. But this isn’t always the case with couples who are backed into the corner of “pregnancy may kill me” and “NFP doesn’t work well enough” and have to choose between living a near-Josephite marriage or using contraception. When people open up about these struggles they regularly hear things like “Children are a gift from God!” or  “Just abstain, if priests can do it so can you.” And being honest in Catholic circles about how for months you wished your “NFP fail” baby didn’t exist may result in condemnation rather than empathy. This needs to change.

One concrete way that the Church can accompany those who use NFP is through financial support. Learning and practicing a method of NFP can be costly, yet there is little to no financial support for couples. The two most scientific methods, and the ones most effective for women with abnormal cycles or who are postpartum, are probably Creighton and Marquette. A couple could easily spend $500 to learn Creighton or if they learn Marquette they will likely spend close to $300 for the digital monitor and class and then another $15 or so a month (more if they are postpartum) on test strips. A friend of mine laughs whenever she hears someone say that NFP is cheaper than contraception saying “My insurance covers contraception, I could get the pill for free.” Then there’s the cost of having a large family. Either someone is privileged to have a high enough paying job for one spouse to stay home, someone is privileged to have family nearby who can provide free childcare, or someone is privileged enough to afford childcare for multiple children (which can quickly add up to multiple thousands of dollars every month). Financial aid for families is perhaps the simplest way for the Catholic community to cherish and accompany large families in deed and not just in word.

Further, we need to invest resources and energy into creating methods of pastoral care for couples living out this teaching. I recently spoke to Jenny Ingles, the Coordinator for NFP for the Diocese of Lansing, and was surprised to hear that she is one of a few (and perhaps the only) full-time diocesan NFP coordinators in the country. If a diocese has a NFP coordinator they are usually part-time and invest most of their resources into promoting NFP rather than pastoral care. Jenny, on the other hand, has created a genuinely pastoral plan for NFP in her diocese. Her intro session for engaged couples is honest about the actual effectiveness rates of various NFP methods. She is working on training local “ambassador couples” (couples who have suffered through the lived reality of NFP) to mentor other couples who are struggling and create small support groups. Jenny also sees the importance of creating resources for clergy that not only make them knowledgeable about NFP but that also give them pastoral guidance on who/where to send couples who are struggling. How wonderful would it be if in commemoration of this 50th anniversary the Church invested more resources in ministries like Jenny’s?

In other words, it is couples in the worst of situations, with the heaviest burdens, who are most tempted to leave the Church because of this teaching. So we, individually and as a community, have the evangelistic obligation to help relieve some of those burdens that are driving people away. We can’t remove all the burdens, but we can, and must, lighten the load where we can. Saint John Paul II said:

“It will be easier for married people to make progress if, with respect for the Church’s teaching and with trust in the grace of Christ, and with the help and support of the pastors of souls and the entire ecclesial community, they are able to discover and experience the liberating and inspiring value of the authentic love that is offered by the Gospel and set before us by the Lord’s commandment…. the ecclesial community at the present time must take on the task of instilling conviction and offering practical help to those who wish to live out their parenthood in a truly responsible way” (FC 34-35).

If we want to take this 50th anniversary seriously and promote Humanae Vitae in an authentic way, if we want to truly present the full importance of this teaching, then we need to get serious about accompanying those who are faithfully carrying the weight of this moral law. An anniversary like this is a terrible thing to waste, so let’s use this year as an opportunity to make the pastoral vision of Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis a living reality.


[Photo Credit:  Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

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Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

Humanae Vitae: truth, accompaniment, and culpability

16 Responses

  1. Mom says:

    “Furthermore, again under Saint John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for the Family published a Vademecum for Confessors concerning marriage and chastity that recognizes that if one’s spouses refuses to not use contraception that one isn’t necessarily culpable for that evil. In other words, like Pope Francis’ teaching concerning divorced and remarried Catholics, the Church says that there are things, like an uncooperative spouse, that can limit a person’s freedom, reduce their culpability, and prevent them from committing a mortal sin. We pile extreme burdens on people by throwing the objective moral law at them without taking into consideration their subjective culpability.”

    Wait- this isn’t even just a footnote, it is in the body of the document- and it didn’t divide the church?

    • Pedro Gabriel says:

      No, it did not. Which makes dissent from Amoris Laetitia even the more remarkable

    • carn says:

      “Wait- this isn’t even just a footnote, it is in the body of the document- and it didn’t divide the church?”

      It is more readily apparent that it does not result in feigning valid confessions.

      The spouse actually trying to respect the teaching of humanum vitae has already intent to sin no more; its just that he/she is not in control of the actions of the other spouse and therefore – although having intent to sin no more – fails at doing so; but that failure is not already certain during confession.

      That would be comparable with a divorce and remarried who actually intends not to be intimate with the non-spouse; but the non-spouse is likely to exert some sort of pressure so that again the person with the right intent nonetheless sins again.

      If AL would clearly and solely aim at such and similar situations, i think there would have very likely have caused little division. Cause after all that is comparable to someone getting regularly raped; regularly getting raped does not exclude a valid confession and does not exclude communion.

      But there is some fear that AL will/is used to open up communion to both partners in a divorce and remarried relationship. That is different, because for both having a valid confession, they both must have intent to no longer be intimate; and if both intent not to be intimate with each other, the brother/sister solution would be the way to go, though maybe with some setbacks in between.

      But somehow there are some divorce and remarried for whom the brother/sister solution is not an option and who still both should end up with valid confessions and communion.

      That is hard to understand if both would have intent to no longer be intimate; so this seems to open up the situation, wherein one or both of such a couple at the end of confession still have intent to be intimate, so still intent to commit a intrinsically evil act AND receive a valid absolution.

      Intent to commit something intrinsically evil and still not being guilty requires ignorance; but they are in confession before a priest who can resolve that ignorance by a single sentence; so it is not understandable how that scenario of a couple one or both still having intent to be illegitimately intimate and both receiving absolution can play out without serious contradictions/breach of binding rules (the scenario of one having intent to sin no more and receiving absolution and the other not having such intent and therefore not receiving absolution would be no problem, its similar to the rape situation above).

      @Pedro Gabriel

      I understand that you probably would suggest, that for a divorce and remarried couple both receiving absolution and both going to communion it would be probably be unavoidable for both having intent to no longer be intimate.

      But my impression is that others see this differently without ever spelling out, who this should workout; and i think this is at the core of the division.

      And this aspect is definitely different from the scenario JPII described.

      • Paul Fahey says:

        >>That would be comparable with a divorce and remarried who actually intends not to be intimate with the non-spouse; but the non-spouse is likely to exert some sort of pressure so that again the person with the right intent nonetheless sins again.<< That is exactly what Pope Francis is teaching:

      • carn says:

        1. As far as i understood Pope Francis mostly refrains from giving examples when communion would be ok and when not; as reason something about casuistry was given.

        Hence, in what we do here, looking at examples and sort them into communion possible and communion not possible, there is no teaching by Pope Francis, how to handle and decide such examples.

        2. Even if Pope Francis would agree that having a divorced and remarried couple both getting absolution/communion although they have ongoing intent to be intimate (and ignorance about divorce and remarriage being potentially adultery is hard to claim, as one will hear regularly Jesus himself in reading of the Evangelium indicate at least potential for this being adultery)

        that does not change that due to the lack of any officially discussions of examples, it is impossible to call any bishop/priest/bishop conference for acting against Church teaching by admitting such couples to communion without there being some good reason (e.g. clearly invalid first marriages and somehow annulment is still not possible).

        What Pope Francis in my view tries is to replace a simple law (the so far either brother and sister, separation or no communion) with a complicated one (individual based on individual situation, guilt, etc.) while having absolute no mechanism which in secular law the system of lower and higher courts have.

        in secular laws complicated laws can work, as the details and especially the problems arising from details are sorted out by the court system with the time; that is not necessarily a process good at every individual step; but it mostly works.

        But a complicated law without correction/cohesion mechanisms is in my view rather bold to say it positively.

        And it makes confusion and dissent practically guaranteed; nobody should have been surprised by this.

        If someone would attempt this in secular law – complicated law but neither official examples nor development/further clarifications by court system – i would call the plan simply nuts and bound for disaster.

      • carn says:

        And what does a complicated law especially require?

        People well versed in legalistic thinking to understand and explore the consequences, identify potential problems and develop solutions.

        So just the type of people which are essential for AL to work well are the ones called names since the beginning of the process (in part due to their own faults).

        AL with Burke and/or Müller (assuming they fully understand the plan and are obedient) sorting out the details of the interpretation and consequences and checking the various implementation guidelines? Could be a good idea.

        AL with Schönborn and Kasper doing the interpretation? Hopefully the Holy Spirit can do a lot of extra shifts in guiding all the priests and bishops in the right direction, cause that is desperately needed.

  2. carn says:

    Good article, just one detail:

    “They sell NFP like it’s not only as effective as contraception”

    On average NFP is more effective than some forms of contraception, especially condoms.

    Its probably that the “unlucky” people having condom failures every 2 years, mostly abort and therefore the lack of effectiveness of condoms is less visible.

    • Paul Fahey says:

      Sure, *some* forms of NFP are more effective than *some* forms of contraception.

      • carn says:

        I just noted this, cause there is widespread error both with christians and non-christians regarding the actual effectiveness of some contraceptions.

        There are literally a lot of people who online upon questions like “Is NFP [meaning the best method] a good idea?” answer with something like “No, better be safe than sorry, so use condoms.”

        Apart from the ethical/moral aspects, that is even from effectiveness a false advice, as using condoms instead of best form of NFP usually means a higher probability of pregnancy.

        Even medical people are not safe from this error; and hence, it even happens that some women advised not to get pregnant are told to simply use condoms; which of course is disastrous advice.

        When women receive medication with which they should not get pregnant, they are required to use at least two forms of contraception, e.g. condoms + pill; only then – except for abstinence – is a pregnancy so unlikely that the advice “You should not get pregnant, therefore use contraception …” is not just complete nonsense.

        So there is just based on pure secular evidence a lot of bad advice out there, even with people who should know better.

        I do not know any solution for the requirement “Do not get pregnant, reduce chances to near zero” except hormonal+barrier contraception or not having sex at all.

  3. Enrico says:

    Let’s take a gander at the decisive portion of that Vademecum:
    “13…This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
    1. When the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
    2. When proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
    3. When one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).”

    First requirement “that the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself” eliminates this working in an equivalent fashion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Every instance of consensual sex between two people who aren’t actually married to one another (the civilly remarried) is illicit in itself because it is objectively adulterous. Such acts fail to meet criterium number 1 for the Vademecum.

    On the flip side, for the actually married spouses, if a husband employs no form of contraception on himself (condom for example) while the wife obstinately persists in using the pill there is a legitimate case for him avoiding sin in such a case. Their act is still properly marital, licit by nature of their being actual spouses, but is being thwarted by her decision to use hormonal contraceptives on her own person.

    Yet another example of the innovations being trotted out to justify AL Ch. 8 having no basis in the teaching of previous popes.

    • Pedro Gabriel says:

      Of course you fail to realize that neither AL, not anyone here contends that there is any situation where a divorced and remarried living more uxorio is “licit”. So, the first requeriment you draw from the Vademecum to allegedly refute the parallel is a red herring.

      What Paul actually quotes from the Vademecum is that there may be situations (“like an uncooperative spouse”) that “limit a person’s freedom, reduce their culpability and prevent them from committing s mortal sin”.

      Yet another example of a dismissal of a defense of AL Ch 8. based on arguments no one made.
      PS: I also don’t understand why Your quote leaves out this part: “Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist.”

      This part is actually more suitable to show that subjective culpability may be reduced indeed. This seems to be more fitting to what Paul was talking about.

      • carn says:

        “Of course you fail to realize that neither AL, not anyone here contends that there is any situation where a divorced and remarried living more uxorio is “licit”.”

        Not anyone here, ok.

        Not anyone? I doubt.

        I would suspect that if the group would be polled that is considered to be the “faithful” by many “AL-fans” in the hierarchy, there would be a solid majority for treating divorced and remarried living more uxorio as “licit”.

        After all, said group also sometimes solidly votes for abortion; if one is somewhat ok with killing unborn children in my experience one usually cannot even remotely understand what the problem about divorce and remarriage could be.

        What i cannot form any opinion on in any meaningful way is why said people in the hierarchy, who surely must know that the people they call the “faithful” are somewhat ok with abortion, divorce, etc., still number them among the “faithful”.

      • Pedro Gabriel says:

        Yes. “Not anyone here”. That’s what I said. Like literally. Thanks for quoting.

        Of course there may be people who take a more liberal stand on what AL means. I fail to realize again how is that remotely important.

        In one of your first comments here, you objected that people demonized the pro-life movement because *some* of its members took cruel stands against the immigrants and such (though not all).

        But constantly lumping the people on this blog with liberals and pro-choicers through guilt by association seems to be fine and dandy.

        The double standard is glaring.

        But even if every single person defending Pope Francis against dissent on AL was pro-choice…

        … even then that would not make dissent from AL okay. So again I fail to realize why this is important at all.

        Forming opinions on AL should not be based on whether it is convenient for your pro-life activism or not, allies wise.

        But if you think there are hordes of people who are pro-choice and who take a stand on the licitness of divorced and remarried living more uxorio that is more permissive than the one on this blog… then by all means, instead of refuting our articles over and over and over, direct those multitudes towards here so that they may learn.

      • carn says:

        “Yes. “Not anyone here”. That’s what I said. Like literally. Thanks for quoting.”

        And you said:

        “Yet another example of a dismissal of a defense of AL Ch 8. based on arguments no one made.”

        Which is not limited to this blog.

        Enrico seems to have based his argument on the standard assumption that somebody “fond” of AL is disregarding intrinsic evil and so on.

        Which is usually a correct assumption; this blog is the first real exception i ever saw; so maybe Enrico was just not aware that the usually correct assumption is here false; and you should be aware about this as well, as it might help understanding some reactions you receive.

        I have to cope with the same regarding pro-life, as people assume that i fit into some standard pattern, which in their view correctly describes many pro-lifers.

  4. jong ricafort says:

    I really don’t appreciate arguing point by point, as if our opinion matters in Heaven…esp. those who doesn’t have a Teaching Authority.
    One should or must read the book of St.Montfort “Love of Eternal Wisdom” for us to realize how tiny our finite wisdom to the Infinite Wisdom of God…
    As scriptures said ““For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. (Isiah55:8)

    I don’t understand why people cannot comprehend the simple calling of Pope Francis to CONVERSION..
    That’s the key to understanding AL…as all of us know “Humility is TRUTH”.
    And Conversion means humbling oneself to God and saying Lord I don’t understand this teaching can you please ENLIGHTEN my limited understanding of your Mercy or better yet please show me the Face of your Divine Mercy.

    Three Popes in succession is echoing the Infinite Mercy of God, starting from St.John Paul II, Pope Benedict even said that Divine Mercy is the Heart of the Gospel.
    And several years back Pope Francis declared “The Year of Mercy”….and remind us all “The Divine Mercy of God is Infinite but the Time of Mercy is Not’..

    This AL arguments boils down to this Orthodoxy vs. Divine Mercy…
    The Mercy of God will be administered by an Anointed Priest…that’s why the Priest must seek Conversion, Pastoral Care is the goodness of man’s heart but DISCERNMENT is the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and each CASE is different that’s why a Priest must be DOCILE to the Voice of the Holy Spirit, it’s not ORTHODOX…the Mercy of God will be coming from the Light of the Holy Spirit the Priest is only the anointed instruments.

    I go with the Mercy of God as no one can define the limits of God’s Infinite Mercy not even orthodoxy…

    As Pope Francis stated this words of wisdom “The Church as a Teacher & Guide always look to a Loving and Merciful Mother”

    The Church has a Maternal Heart, and a Mother’s Heart is not bound by orthodoxy…See it in your life,in all our life how does a Loving & Merciful Mother treat her child….
    Even God raise the bar on this, as He said “even if a Mother forget, I will not forget you”…see the Infinite Mercy of God.

    St.Montfort clearly calls and almost all the Saints had the same motto “distrust yourself”…

    Godbless! S&IHMMP4us.Amen

  5. Dominic says:

    You mention the “heavy burden” of Humanae Vitae often in this article. I disagree. The teachings of Christ through His Church are liberating, life giving and beautiful. It is sin which is truly a heavy burden. Think of the weight of the Cross on Our Lord’s shoulder. Think of what He said about the weight of the yoke He promised if we trust in him. God bless

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