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 lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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