“… Theological reflection is able to perceive and is called to study further the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle: it is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality. The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self- control. (…) In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension, and is never “used” as an “object” that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God’s creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person”
— Pope St. John Paul II
Familiaris Consortio, #32
It seems like nowadays, no Church teaching is more misunderstood than the one about artificial contraception, as taught in a wide array of authoritative documents (from Casti conubii to Amoris Laetitia), but which finds its greatest expression in Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV). In this regard, HV stands as one of the most incomprehensible texts for modern-day Man, a wedge that separates two completely opposite views: the Church’s and the world’s.
Acknowledging the practical problems this teaching poses to concrete people worldwide, Paul VI allowed for the use of natural family planning (NFP) for couples who would like to space their pregnancies in order to exercise responsible parenthood. Unfortunately, instead of appeasing modern-day Man, this allowance seemed to add even more to his confusion. People argue that, in both instances, we have the intention to avoid children (HV categorically states so in #16), so why not go for artificial contraception, which is (according to them) easier and more effective?
Apologists have struggled with providing an adequate answer to this question, especially to non-religious people to whom appeals to religious authority are inadequate. This seems daunting, since Paul VI specifically states this teaching belongs to “natural law“, i.e. it is “in harmony with human reason” (HV #12) and can, therefore, be understood by any person, irrespectively of his/her affiliation with the Catholic Church.
Difficulties aside, my contention is that, just like in Amoris Laetitia (AL), the answers are present in the document itself, if we take the time to prayerfully read it while allowing ourselves to be led by it, without trying to impose a preconceived conclusion to it, more in line with our own values. There is no need to build up fanciful explanations or analogies from scratch…
The Definitional Conundrum
One of the first obstacles we may come across concerns the excerpt where Paul VI bans artificial contraception.
“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means”
— HV #14, “Unfawful Birth Control Methods”
Some have argued that this seems to ban NFP as well, since NFP has the “intention to avoid children” (HV #16). However, that is not the case. Later on, Paul VI states:
“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained”
— HV #16
St. Paul VI argues that the Church is not being “inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception” (HV #16). Why is the Church not inconsistent? The reasoning is:
“In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love”
— HV #16
This doesn’t seem to give us much more information. Actually, it seems like Paul VI has just issued a series of tautologies. NFP is different from artificial contraception, because only in NFP is the couple willing to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period… which is the definition of NFP to begin with!
The wording is confusing and, in some cases, apparently contradictory. However, in here just like in AL, the confusion can be overcome by someone with a true love for the Church and who reads the Pope with the intent of better to understand him rather than to find fault with his teachings.
For the Pope didn’t just issue this doctrine and ordered everyone to accept it because he said so. St. Paul VI actually explained the reasons behind this doctrine in a very articulated and coherent way. The problem is that those explanations are scattered throughout the document. And only by reading them can we go back to HV #16 and understand why the pontiff has considered those two family planning methods to be different… the answer is actually there too, hidden unless you get the context from the full encyclical.
I have found it useful to gather all the arguments I’ve found into three groups.
1. A Personalist view of the Human Body
In HV #16, St. Paul VI argues that NFP and artificial contraception are “completely different” because in the former “the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature” while in the latter, they “obstruct the natural development of the generative process.”
This reasoning seems baffling to modern-day Man. What does the Pope mean by “nature“? And why is it so important? The problem is based on a miscommunication, since the Church and the world have two very different definitions of nature.
To better explain what the Pope may mean by “nature“, I think it would be sensible to contextualize a bit. Namely, I think it is important to consider the Catholic doctrine of the body-soul dichotomy. Many people today, even Catholics, seem to think that the Church teaches the soul to be something entrapped in the body until it is released after death. This thinking, however, is not Christian, but rather Manicheistic.
The Catholic understanding is based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ concept of hylemorphic dualism. According to this idea, body and soul are not separated entities, but are actually intertwined into a unified whole. Body and soul are so interrelated as the concepts of “rubber” and “roundness” are in a rubber ball. If you take the rubber out of a rubber ball, or the roundness out of a rubber ball, you don’t have a rubber ball at all. Same with the body (matter = “rubber”) and the soul (form = “roundness”), which together make a human being. This is why the resurrection of our bodies in glorified form in the Last Day is such a central tenet to our faith, so much so that it crept into the Creed.
Fast forward some centuries. In the 20th century, some thinkers developed a school of thought focused on the centrality and value of the person. This philosophy was aptly named “Personalism.” And even if Personalism can be purely secular, it is undeniable that there is such a thing as Christian Personalism. On this level, Christian personalists acknowledge the body as an integral part of the person. As one of the founders of this movement stated in his seminal work (my translation):
“The indissoluble union of the soul and body is the axis of Christian thought. Christianity does not oppose “spirit” and “body” (or “matter” in its modern meaning.) For Christianity, “spirit” in the modern spiritualist sense, which signifies simultaneously the thought (noús), the soul (psyché) and all of life’s breath, fuses in the existence of the body. When the body pulls in a way contrary to Man’s supernatural vocation, Christianity calls this movement “flesh”, which is the weight exerted on the soul and on the senses. When the body propels towards God, body and soul cooperate in tandem with the spiritual realm (pneuma), in the solid Kingdom of God and not in the ethereal kingdom of the Spirit. If original guilt wounded the human nature, it affected its totality, the human composite (…) The Christian who talks about despising the body and matter, does it in contradiction with his most central tradition. According to medieval theology, we can only commonly access the most sublime spiritual realities, and God Himself, by traversing matter and the weight we exercise over it.”
— Emmanuel Mounier, “Personalism”
Why mention this? Because it gives us the appropriate context for one of Paul VI’s masterstrokes in HV, and if we don’t know this, we might miss it. For, if it is true that Christianity heavily influenced Personalism at its inception, it is also true that Personalism heavily influenced post-Conciliar Catholicism. And what we see in HV is an embryonic attempt (albeit still very crude) to ground Catholic sexual ethics in a personalist view of the body. In my opinion, that is what is signified by the Pope’s words about “nature” (emphasis from now on always mine):
“The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.”
— HV #12
In other words, the capacity of a couple to generate new life is inscribed into their actual nature as man and woman, even if they are, for health reasons, incapable of conceiving (HV #11). This is due to the fact that the reproductive system is a part of the body and, therefore, of the human person (“laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman“.)
But the same laws that render the woman fertile also render her infertile during some periods of her monthly cycle. This also is a part of her body and, therefore, part of her person:
“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws”
— HV #11
In other words, the infertile periods of a woman are also part of the same laws of nature that render her fertile as well. Since it is up to a person’s conscience to determine when he/she will perform the sexual act, it is not wrong to take this information into account to make an informed decision.
Artificial contraception, however, is a completely different thing. It is not a part of the “nature” of the human sexual act, but a direct thwarting of it.
“… An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman“
— HV #13
Later on, Pope St. John Paul II (arguably one of the leading Christian personalists of the late 20th century) would build upon Paul VI’s foundations and articulate a complete personalist anthropology of human sexuality in his famous Catecheses dubbed “Theology of the Body” (ToB). In these catecheses, John Paul II (JP2) would invoke the concept of the body-soul composite to state that sexuality is a way that the soul uses to express itself through the body. In this sense, the body could speak this language to build up a “communion of persons” (the “nuptial meaning of the body“)… or be misused to stir “concupiscence“, which would drive the human person away from such a communion. Regarding contraception, the Holy Father had this to say:
“The unity of the two aspects of the problem—the sacramental (or theological) dimension and the personalistic one—corresponds to the overall revelation of the body (…) The subject of the natural law is man, not only in the “natural” aspect of his existence, but also in the integral truth of his personal subjectivity. He is shown to us, in revelation, as male and female (…) According to the criterion of this truth, which should be expressed in the language of the body, the conjugal act signifies not only love, but also potential fecundity. Therefore it cannot be deprived of its full and adequate significance by artificial means. In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. (…) If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act.”
— General Audience, August 22nd, 1984
We can see how this ties very nicely both with Personalism (which is explicitly mentioned in the above quote) and with the concept of “nature” as used by Paul VI. Also, regarding NFP, the Polish Pope would say:
“The description of “natural,” attributed to the morally correct regulation of fertility (following the natural rhythms, cf. HV 16), is explained by the fact that that manner of conduct corresponds to the truth of the person and therefore to his dignity. This dignity by “nature” belongs to man as a rational and free being. As a rational free being, man can and must reread with discernment that biological rhythm which belongs to the natural order. He can and must conform to it so as to exercise that responsible parenthood, which, according to the Creator’s design, is inscribed in the natural order of human fecundity. (…) The “natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions” pertain to the objective truth of that language, which the persons concerned should reread in its full objective content. It is necessary to bear in mind that the body speaks not merely with the whole external expression of masculinity and femininity, but also with the internal structures of the organism, of the somatic and psychosomatic reaction.”
— General Audience, September 5th, 1984
It is worth repeating that Personalism may be completely secular, so it is not necessary to subscribe to Catholicism to understand these concepts. If one wants to understand how Malthusian techniques de-personalize others when they separate sexuality from its double unitive-procreative purpose, one need not go further than “Brave New World“, a literary classic written by an agnostic.
There is another clue in HV #16, when Paul VI makes the distinction between NFP and artificial contraception: only in the former case are “husband and wife ready to abstain from intercourse.” This seems obvious and tautological, but why is it important?
Both in HV and in the ToB catecheses, the pontiffs include “self-mastery” into their personalist view, in that self-discipline is part and parcel of what distinguishes us as human beings. In the words of JP2:
“This extension of the sphere of the means of “domination of the forces of nature” menaces the human person for whom the method of “self-mastery” is and remains specific. The mastery of self corresponds to the fundamental constitution of the person; it is indeed a “natural” method. On the contrary, the resort to artificial means destroys the constitutive dimension of the person. It deprives man of the subjectivity proper to him and makes him an object of manipulation”
— General Audience, September 5th, 1984
Loss of self-mastery in an area of human behavior where people expose themselves in such an intimate way (including the unborn child that may result from such an act) risks turning the human being into an object:
“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
— HV #17
However, we may risk not only objectifying others, but also ourselves, in a way. Since, from a personalist view, the body is an inextricable part of the human person, then the human person must respect his/her own body.
“Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source”
— HV #13
Loss of self-mastery will also necessarily have practical implications in society at large. By stripping sexuality from its natural consequences, we are inevitably opening the door to any kind of sexual expression, even the ones outside the proper framework of marriage.
“… First consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”
— HV #17
I think this is understandable, even from a secular point of view. It is certainly true that artificial contraception needs a certain degree of consistency, but its use is always easier than NFP. Taking a pill is easier than exercising self-control. In this sense, the temptation to eschew any kind of self-mastery in the sexual realm is just too great. But the value of such self-mastery, and the risks of doing away with it, can be understood even by non-Catholics. Or, as St. Paul VI says: “Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control” (HV #17).
3. Undue State power
We have seen how Paul VI postulates that man does not have absolute control over his body. However, such restrain does not apply simply to Man as an individual person. The State too should be wary of overstepping its moral boundaries. “… There are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.” (HV #17).
Facilitating the separation of sexuality from procreation through technical means may not always advance the individual’s freedom, as pro-contraception ideologues usually claim… sometimes it may be used to take freedom away. And such technologies may even, if appropriated by the State, be used to infringe on fundamental human rights regarding a person’s liberty to form a family. We have to go no further than China’s horrific One Child Policy, but there are many more examples worldwide. Obviously, if people would regulate their fertility through NFP, the control exerted by the State in this intimate sphere would be hampered. After all, NFP has everything to do with choosing when to practice the sexual act, a very personal choice. NFP, unlike artificial contraception, does not mean controling sexuality in a way the State may also want to use to avoid children, regardless of the individual’s opinion on it.
“Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife”
— HV #17
This also is a weighty argument, understandable even to non-Catholics. Even today, our contemporary pontiffs are on record as denouncing the overreach of public authorities into this most personal and intimate part of people’s lives, for economic, political or environmental reasons. Such overreach could only have been achieved with the widespread use and development of artificial contraception.
Certainly there are many other arguments scattered throughout HV which also show fundamental differences between NFP and artificial contraception. For instance, Paul VI also had this to say about NFP:
“… For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers”
— HV #21
However, the three arguments I have presented here are the ones that more consistently appear (and continuously resurface) throughout HV and also in later pontificates (namely JP2’s ToB.) Those are the arguments which have been more fleshed out in the encyclical and, in my opinion, the ones better suited to be understood by non-Catholics.
Granted, maybe those arguments should be more developed if we wish to be more convincing. This was, in fact, the intention of JP2 in his ToB catecheses… to build a complete sexual ethics based on a personalistic worldview derived from Paul VI’s seminal work. He has succeeded, in part, in providing the theoretical framework, the intellectual consistency and coherence… but modern-day Man still rejects it. In this sense, I think Pope Francis can provide invaluable insights in one of the parts that is severely lacking: the pastoral accompaniment of those who may find it difficult to live up to this hard teaching. If we neglect this, we will never be able to get modern-day Man to open up his heart to these teachings, thereby rendering all this intellectual construct useless. In other words, and as paradoxical as it might seem, rejecting Francis may actually be counterproductive for those who claim to defend HV.
In the end, in HV just like in AL, the key to a better understanding also must come from a transformation in our interior dispositions. Sometimes, the confusion we may find in statements that seem contradictory in papal documents comes not from the documents themselves, but from misconceptions from our way of thinking that we project onto them, especially a preconceived notion of what the Church should be or teach. Granted, it may be more difficult to accept HV than AL, since in this case we are not simply dealing with a certain conception of what Christianity is, but may be dealing with difficult and painful existential sufferings derived from problems couples experience in their everyday lives. However, if we frown upon HV, we are actually frowning upon very important overtones that constitute Pope Francis’ papacy. And, in fact, most of the arguments used by AL dissenters have been employed previously by HV critics.
Those who wish a more pastoral and merciful Church toward those who feel burdened and overwhelmed by its sexual teachings should do well in stopping the vicious circle of dissent on their end as well. For just like rejecting Francis may be counterproductive for those who claim to defend HV, it is also true that rejecting HV may be counterproductive for those who claim to defend Francis. Just like our body and our soul are inextricable from the totality of the person, so every single part of doctrine is one whole belonging to the Person of the Body of Christ. Artificially separating any of those parts from its due place is doing violence to the whole Body and is, therefore, an act against the will of God.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.