Humanae Vitae Speaks Today of God’s Plan of Marriage
I reflect in this article on one of the most important teachings of the Church especially as it relates to marriage. I invite you, though to read the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI 50 years ago, which contains a beautiful reflection on this sacrament. It also outlines one of the areas of our Catholic faith that is most radical. Very few other Christians even make the declaration that contraception is morally evil. This is a place where we have taken a stand and believe that a very important moral truth is contained. A truth that, to the extent that it has not been followed, has radically affected our culture. We look around today, 50 years later, and find that the divorce rate has increased dramatically, pregnancy outside of marriage and abortion have increased to the point where we have 4.000 abortions every day in our culture, and prostitution and sex-trafficking have grown faster than anyone could imagine. This is actually the result of not following God’s plan of sexuality in marriage.
The Church proposes her teaching with a deep love and reverence both for what marriage is and for those whom God has called to this sacrament, this way of life. It is a beautiful sacrament that scripture reveals is a reflection, an image of the love of Christ for his Church. This is what a sacrament does. It makes an invisible reality present. Saint Paul tells husbands in Ephesians, chapter 5, to love their wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, that she might be holy and without blemish. How does Christ love the Church? He gave his life for the Church, his bride. He loved the Church to the end offering Himself as a total gift. We call his offering of himself on the cross for us a covenantal act. And every time we celebrate the Eucharist we are invited to receive Jesus totally and make a gift of our own life to him. It is to say, I desire to give myself to you and we then become one flesh with Christ. Husbands and wives participate in this love, this covenantal love that is God’s love when they make their vows to each other and live them out. This is God’s plan – to make visible the love of Christ for his bride the Church through marriage.
This covenantal love is also fruitful. It brings new life. When Christ died on the cross, his side is pierced and flowing out from his side is water and blood which symbolizes the birth of the Church in baptism and the union of her members in the holy Eucharist, from which flows forth the life of the Church with him. The Eucharist bears always the fruit of new spiritual life in us. So as husbands and wives give themselves to each other in marriage, it brings forth union and fruitfulness that is an image of the fruitfulness of the union of Christ and his Church. When we speak of the marital act, we speak about it as a holy action in marriage that expresses this love. It is first expressed verbally as marriage vows and is a total gift of oneself in vulnerability and openness to each other. This is why we see married life as so sacred and human life as so sacred. Because it comes from this act of love.
The way our culture sees marriage and sexuality is a very different picture. Saint Paul VI predicted this. He said that “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman and disregard her physical and emotional equilibrium and reduce her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as a partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (Humanae Vitae, no. 17). All corruption that comes into the area of sexuality happens because it transforms it from what it is supposed to be. It is supposed to be an act of self-giving, and contraception turns it into an act of taking. How does this happen? It turns the act into something that is not a covenantal, sacramental, and symbolic total gift of oneself. This is because, by its very nature, acts against God’s plan and holds something back, namely my ability to be a father or a mother. It pretends that I can introduce human control into this most sacred divine gift. And then I can pursue this simply to satisfy my own pleasure without openness to life and to God. Of course, when I act against God’s design, it has consequences. It separates what God has united – the union of the marital act and the procreative nature of the marital act.
This is very different from Natural Family Planning. NFP is also a scientific method applied to human sexuality, but it is very different because it cooperates with the way that God made us. Through cooperating with the natural cycle, we can, in fact, still achieve what is a necessary and good end – responsible parenthood. The Church acknowledges that there are many times where it is not prudent to bring another child into the family, and so without destroying anything that God has put in place, I can choose to express marital love only in infertile times. This, of course, requires discipline and sacrifice that in fact strengthens the love of a husband and wife. Their discipline and sacrifice opens the way to a deeper and more perfect love in all of life’s circumstances. This is in contrast to contraception which takes away the need for discipline and sacrifice and allows lust to take first place at times.
The statistical studies prove that the Church is right on this teaching. Our culture has less than a 50% success rate in marriage. Couples who practice NFP and this teaching of the Church have about a 98-99% success rate in marriage because they are living in accord with God’s plan. They are living sacrificially as they seek to always make a gift of themselves in covenantal love. As Jesus said, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). Jesus also said, “Remain in my love” (John 15:9). When we remain in his love, we experience the joy that comes from living in communion with him, even as his teachings may be challenging. When we do not, we do not experience the joy that he desires to share with us.
Natural Family Planning classes are taught all over the Twin Cities and outstate as well. These classes are environments where people are there to help you embrace this teaching and answer your questions to learn about NFP. It’s not an easy teaching, and I know that many couples, although they are trying to be faithful, struggle and that is part of the Christian life. It is part of the way of perfection and becomes a source of joy. For one of many great resources on NFP, go to the Couple to Couple League website at ccli.org and you will find many virtual class listings. Let us pray for each other, our Church and our world that we may rediscover and embrace this beautiful teaching on marriage so that we may remain in his love and so that our joy may be made complete.