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Humanae Vitae After Twenty-Five Years: Responses to Some Common Difficultie

  • PAUL FLAMAN

This paper considers some common difficulties with respect to Humanae Vitae and its teaching regarding family planning, especially with respect to its approval of NFP and its disapproval of all forms of direct contraception.

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Pope Paul VI

While many have understood and agreed with Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) on birth control published in 1968, [1] many others have found difficulty with some of its teaching. Concerning this Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio on the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (1981) has noted that "many couples encounter difficulties not only in the concrete fulfilment of moral norm but even understanding its inherent values." (33), [2] The purpose of this paper is to respond to some of these difficulties.

In a General Audience on April 2, 1980 Pope John Paul II said that in order to respond adequately to the many questions raised today regarding marriage and procreation, it is necessary to have an integral vision. [3] Humanae Vitae itself presents an integral vision. The whole area of the responsible transmission of human life is treated by Paul VI in light of an integral Christian understanding of human life, conjugal love and marriage related to God, as their source and ultimate end. The theological doctrines of creation, sin, redemption and grace underlie the teaching and pastoral directives. Of note, Paul VI outlines a holistic model of marriage and conjugal love (8-9) before focusing on certain specifics concerning responsible parenthood, and illicit and licit ways of regulating birth.

A number of noted authors have developed lines of argument in support of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. For example, Dietrich Von Hildebrand treats birth control in light of the meaning of the conjugal act as an expression of the loving mutual self-donation of husband and wife and its superabundant finality whereby spouses participate in God's act of creation. [4] Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, William May, and others have developed a line of argument related to respecting basic human goods, including human life in its transmission or procreation, and the openness required for integral human fulfillment in Christ. [5] Paul Quay has developed an argument in light of sexual symbolism and sacramentality. [6] Pope John Paul II has developed several lines of argument especially in light of the "language of the body". [7] In a recent comprehensive study, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, Janet Smith discusses the background of Humanae Vitae, analyzes the encyclical itself, and discusses some of the main lines of argument in support of the encyclical and some of the main objections raised against it. [8]


1. The Goal and Means of the Agents

A difficulty often encountered concerning the teaching of Humanae Vitae that direct contraception is always illicit, but Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be licit in marriage for good reasons, concerns the question of human goals and means to achieve these. "If the goal of using contraception and NFP is the same," that is, one intends to avoid conceiving a child, many ask, "What is the difference?" First of all, it should be noted that NFP can be used as well to try to achieve pregnancy. Also certain "pills" that can be used for a contraceptive purpose are sometimes used for therapeutic purposes. Humanae Vitae, 15, speaks of the licitness of such therapeutic means provided they are necessary and any impediment to procreation is not directly willed. When NFP is used to try to avoid conceiving, there is indeed some similarity of goal or remote intention on the part of the human agents with the use of contraceptives. The goal, however, is not the sole determinant of the morality of a human action.

Compare two students who both have the same "goal" to get a good mark in a course. One tries to achieve this by attending lectures, doing adequate research for the essay and studying well for the examinations. The other tries to get a good mark by handing in under one's own name a "well-written" essay by someone else and by trying to devise a method of cheating on the examinations without getting caught. Although the goal of the two students is the same in a sense, the means of the two students are very different. The first student uses honest means; the second dishonest means. Honest or good means, while sometimes difficult, tend to ennoble the character and personality of the person who chooses them. In this case, the first student, unless improperly motivated, will grow in virtues such as honesty and hard work. He or she is also likely to learn much more. This in itself is conducive to other good goals for taking a course in the first place (e.g. to gain theoretical and/or practical knowledge related to life and work). Dishonest or evil means, often chosen because they are easier, tend to harm the character and personality of the agent. Even if the second student is not caught, he or she reinforces vices such as dishonesty and laziness, and may have missed learning knowledge important to one's future quality of life and work. Cheating is counterproductive regarding the longer term goals of education related to taking a particular course. The choice of different means can also involve different proximate intentions with respect to an important value or values. The first student's choice of means is compatible with a proper respect and promotion of the value of truth. The second student's choice of means necessarily involves a proximate intention that is incompatible with a proper respect and promotion of the truth. [9].

NFP and the use of contraceptives are profoundly different means of regulating conception. NFP tends to foster better communication between the spouses, respect for their bodies and the God-given gift of fertility, and hence, a better image of oneself and partner. It is also healthy and tends to foster the virtue of chastity (self-control in the sexual area according to the requirements of a properly ordered love of God, self and others). One's proximate intention in the choice of NFP, also when used to avoid conception, can be compatible with a proper respect for the basic value of procreation (human collaboration with God in creating new human persons) and the total mutual giving of self naturally symbolized in sexual intercourse. [10]

The use of contraceptives often involves health risks, in particular for the woman. [11] Contraceptives, which involve deliberately making human sexual intercourse infertile by human initiative, necessarily involve a direct proximate intention contrary to the wonderful God-given gift of human fertility. [12] They thus tend to lower esteem for one's body and self and the body and self of one's partner. Direct contraception necessarily involves a lack of proper respect for both the procreative and unitive meanings, values and God-given purposes of human sexual intercourse. It is, therefore, counterproductive with respect to growth in the virtue of chastity, integral human fulfillment and union with God. [13]


2. Realistic Approaches to Serious Problems

For many people, to present contraception as always immoral and never to be promoted seems very unrealistic. The realities of world population growth, pregnancies out of wedlock especially involving teenagers, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and certain difficult marital situations are frequently mentioned. Compare certain pragmatic, utilitarian, consequentialist and proportionalist approaches.

a) Population Growth Concerns

Concerning world population growth, it should be noted that while some places in the world are experiencing rapid population growth, many other places including most Western countries have birth rates of less than what is needed to keep the population at its present level. In any case, modern means of NFP are effective enough to lead to even a decline in population if that were desirable. The Ovulation Method of NFP, for example, is easy to learn, inexpensive and ideal for illiterate and poor people, among others. Some of those who know of the effectiveness of NFP if properly used, however, say that many people lack the motivation to use them. Many of these same people though lack the motivation to want to use other methods. For example, a couple in a poor country without adequate pensions and assistance for the elderly may be motivated to have many children with the hopes that a few will survive to provide for them in their old age. In light of such attitudes, some have even tried to impose coercive and/or deceptive programs of contraception and/or sterilization, for the "greater good" . Such programs (e.g. Indira Gandhi's in India), however, have been resented and have been correctly criticized as a violation of the right of free and informed consent. Problems related to poverty and population growth need to be addressed instead with good means such as programs of integral development. These include improving living conditions for the poor; adequate health care, social and moral assistance, and adequate pensions for the elderly, where these are lacking; and holistic moral education and cultural formation. Correcting injustices, land reform and better agricultural methods are needed too in many places. NFP is a moral means well-suited to integral human development, whereas contraception is not. [14]

b) Adolescent Pregnancies

Concerning pregnancies out of wedlock, especially involving teenagers, there is indeed an enormous problem, and not only for the persons directly involved. There are also high costs for the wider society. There is much evidence that simply promoting contraceptives, including providing them in schools free of charge with factual information, does not solve the problem. Many studies show that adolescent pregnancies often increase in conjunction with introducing such programs. Such simplistic programs do not address the psychological, moral and spiritual harm of premature and non-marital sexual relations. Paul VI's speaking of the consequences of methods of artificial birth control including "the general lowering of morality" comes to mind. Concerning this he says in part, "Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men [and women] - especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point - have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance." (HV, 17) What is needed to address this problem is holistic sexuality education that promotes true values and the virtue of chastity. There is evidence that holistic sexuality programs for teenagers that promote abstinence and/or chastity (e.g. Sex Respect, Teen-Aid and Teen STAR), while not eliminating all problems in this area, are quite effective. [15]

c) Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Contraceptives, in particular condoms, are often promoted as a means to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Again, we are faced with serious problems not only for the people directly involved (cf. not only the risk of death, but also of bodily harm including infertility, discomfort, etc.), but of enormous costs to society as well. Concerning this issue, it is important to be informed of the relevant facts and values.

Condoms are not a very effective means of birth control, and there are reasons to think that they are likely to be even less effective with respect to preventing the transmission of STDs including AIDS. There also exist a number of STDs including the common human papilloma and herpes simplex viruses for which the condom offers little, if any, "protection" . [16] Although it may be true to say that "proper" use of a condom reduces the risk of transmission of some STDs including AIDS by sexual intercourse involving an infected person, the risks are still significant. For example, the United States Public Health Service has cautioned "that - even with a condom - any type of intercourse with a person known to be infected with the AIDS virus is so dangerous to an uninfected partner that anyone in such a situation should 'consider alternative methods of expressing physical intimacy.'" [17]

A number of important values are relevant to the use of condoms. Although the goal of their use may be to promote good values such as health and/or responsible parenthood, they are a means that fails to respect properly both the unitive and procreative meanings, values and God-given purposes of human sexuality. As a barrier method, the use of condoms is a real physical and symbolic barrier to intimacy, to becoming "one flesh" (Gen 2:24). This obviously contradicts the total mutual giving and receiving naturally signified by sexual intercourse. Even if condoms are not used with anti-procreative intent, the intention to obstruct the transmission of bodily fluids including semen and sperm is incompatible with sexual intercourse's remaining "open to the transmission of life." (HV, 11)

If Christian and other teaching on sexual abstinence for the unmarried and sexual fidelity for the married were universally practiced, human STDs would virtually disappear. Many educators see that to promote such lifestyles is not only the moral way but also the best way to reduce the transmission of STDs. Some people, however, while they say that they agree that non-marital sex is irresponsible, argue that it is proper to promote the use of condoms for those who will be promiscuous in spite of educational attempts to the contrary. Concerning this issue though, a proper application of the Principles of Professional Communication and Legitimate Cooperation, [18] is needed.

Professionals and others teaching and counselling in this area should first of all try to establish and preserve a trusting relationship with the people they are serving. They should also communicate the truth that others legitimately need, according to their age and level of maturity, to form their consciences properly. This includes not only accurate relevant factual information, but also sharing the relevant values and norms. Good norms guide us to respect values properly. One should also avoid formal cooperation in evil. That is, one should never directly intend that another do evil, for example, to engage in non-marital sex and/or to use means including condoms that violate the marital/unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. If others choose to do immoral actions, which we should never approve, we should not condemn them. Rather, we should pray for them and seek to maintain a trusting relationship with the hope of their conversion in the future. It can also be helpful to understand any psychological factors (e.g. disordered attachments, insecurities, compulsive sexual behavior, prejudice) relevant to a case and how best to deal with them.

d) The Difficulty of Using NFP for Some Married Couples

The periodic abstinence required for NFP to be effective, with respect to avoiding conception, can be difficult for some married couples. While many people see NFP as having many advantages, some of these people argue that using contraceptives can be justified for some married couples. We will consider two types of difficult situations here: difficulties in exercising self-control and situations that require extended periods of abstinence.

It should be recognized that some spouses will find the self-control of the periodic sexual abstinence during the fertile time involved in using NFP to avoid conception more difficult than others. [19] Compare some people finding the self-control necessary to meet the requirements of an integral love with respect to other behaviors (e.g. eating, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, expressing anger) more difficult than others. In all of these areas, including the sexual, it is important to understand and appreciate the important values at stake such as health, the dignity of persons and/or the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. If one truly appreciates the inherent significance of such important values, then one will be motivated strongly, for the right reasons, to try always to respect properly such values. It is important to realize that we are not talking about self-control for the sake of self-control, or self-control motivated by reasons such as vanity or following some arbitrary rule, but of what an integral love of God, self and others objectively requires of one.

Even if one is well-motivated, it may sometimes be difficult to exercise the required self-control due to human weakness, especially if one has developed certain bad habits of thinking and acting. Here it is important to try to apply the recommended means of overcoming such weaknesses and bad habits such as avoiding unnecessary situations of temptation for oneself, good spiritual reading, a balanced life of work and healthy recreation, ascetical practices suited to oneself, and especially prayer. Regarding the latter, it is important to realize both our impotency to overcome sin by our own resources alone, and the infinite power and desire of God to heal and transform us in Christ, if only we freely cooperate. Patience is also important. If we fail, in spite of our best efforts, we should not become discouraged, but entrust ourselves to the mercy of God and always be ready to begin again. God can use our failures to help us grow in other virtues such as humility. We should never forget that God works out everything for the best for those who love Him. (see Rm 8:28) [20]

Some marital situations may require extended periods of abstinence in using NFP to avoid conception. Consider the case of someone who alternately works away from home for two weeks and then is home for a week. It could happen that for an extended period of time (i.e. several months) one is away from one's spouse during the infertile times and at home during the fertile times. In such a case some people would argue that, even though NFP is an ideal form of family planning, contraception is justified here, so that the couple can regularly express their love fully. Certainly one should be sympathetic to such cases. First of all, one could explore whether there are any alternatives within the couple's means to harmonize better the use of NFP with work schedules, etc., such as rearranging one's work schedule or the other spouse visiting after hours at the job site. In any case, other types of situations sometimes exist, unrelated to using NFP, that require one to abstain for extended periods if one is to respect properly important values. Consider the case of a spouse away for several months or longer (e.g. due to war). Both may be tempted to have sexual relations with someone else or to masturbate, but are called to abstain to be faithful to each other, their marriage promises and God, and so not to violate the marital/unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. Or, consider the case of one spouse who becomes incapable of sexual relations for an extended period due to illness or an accident.

Some situations call us to respond generously if we are to love integrally. It should be remembered that God always offers us the help and grace we need to live according to the requirements of His love, including when this requires sacrifice on our parts. [21] Although integral love may call for extended periods of sexual abstinence in some marital situations, the couple can still express their love and affection in many other ways and continue to grow in mutual love, intimacy and unity. These are not equivalent to genital relations. Genital relations can foster these if the couple respects all the important values involved including God's purposes for human sexuality. Genital relations, also for married people, however, that fail to respect properly such values as marital fidelity, the total reciprocal giving and receiving of persons that they naturally signify, their procreative meaning, the dignity of persons, one's body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, truth and justice, contradict rather than promote true love and unity, genuine intimacy and a true communion of persons.


3. Physicalism

Many people have difficulty understanding why the Catholic Church teaches that contraception is wrong, because to them contraceptives seem to interfere only with the physical structure of sexual intercourse (cf. condoms) or with natural biological processes of the human body (cf. birth control pills, e.g.). Along these lines, a number of moral theologians have accused Humanae Vitae of "physicalism" in its exclusion of contraception. In general, they think that official Catholic teaching here places too much importance on respecting the natural physical structure of sexual intercourse and biological processes and does not adequately appreciate that morality encompasses a whole range of factors and values. [22] If one carefully reads Catholic teaching here, however, one very much sees an appreciation of other relevant values. For example, Humanae Vitae teaches that by safeguarding both its unitive and procreative meanings, "the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's [and woman's] most high calling to parenthood." (12) This encyclical teaches too that "it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good" (14), and it speaks of the licitness of therapeutic means, even though they have a sterilizing effect, provided this is not directly willed.(15) It is quite clear that the morality of the act in question is not simply identified with respecting biological processes and the physical structure of the act. The intention of the agent with respect to various values is very significant. [23] Compare also Paul VI's teaching that, "The responsible exercise of parenthood implies ... that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family and toward society, in a correct hierarchy of values." (HV, 10). Surely, this is not physicalist.

The charge of "physicalism" implies that the disorder or evil involved in contraception is at most only physical. Concerning this compare the case of homicide. Suppose someone argued that in deliberately killing someone they are only causing a physical evil, tampering with biological processes and causing the death of the person's body. Murder, after all, per se does not kill the victim's soul. The person is immortal and continues to live, perhaps even in a better state. The victim may now be enjoying heaven! Such an argument, however, fails to appreciate the full value of our bodies and bodily human life. Bodily life is not the most important value, but it is basic to realizing many other important values. Bodily life of persons is an inherent and priceless good of persons. One's biological dimension is closely interrelated with one's psychological, social, moral and spiritual dimensions because of the profound unity of a human person. Therefore, the destruction of human bodily life by deliberate human intention involves more than a physical evil. Procreation, collaborating with God in creating a new human person, a new member of the human community meant to enjoy eternal happiness with God, involves good on more than the biological level. Therefore, directly attacking this good by directly contraceptive means necessarily involves more than physical evil. Failing to see this involves failing to appreciate the deep unity of the human person and the intrinsic relationship between the biological and other dimensions of human persons created in God's image. [24]


4. Doning What Nature Does

Some people have difficulty understanding the teaching that contraception is wrong, because to them contraceptives seem to do merely what nature does. That is, nature itself provides women with infertile times during their fertile years and later renders them sterile. Direct contraception and sterilization cause by human initiative a woman to have infertile times or to be sterile. Concerning this line of thinking though, could not one also say that murder and even genocide do what nature does? Nature causes human persons to die (cf. murder) and sometimes natural disasters (e.g. floods, earthquakes, plagues) kill thousands of people (cf. genocide). The fallacy of this line of thinking is that it fails to appreciate that we should not do everything that nature does. Nature, in the sense being used here, is not a moral agent. Physical nature is not called to respect certain values as human life and it does not have the capacity to choose to respect such values. But, we as persons, who are capable of being moral agents, are called by God to love and respect God, the absolute value, and other genuine values which reflect the goodness of God. [25] Murder, genocide, and direct contraception and sterilization involve human persons deliberately violating such wonderful values as human life, the dignity of persons, and the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act.


5. Using Technology for Human Good

A type of question often raised concerning contraception is, "Should we not use our God-given intelligence and ability to create technology and control nature for human good?" Compare the use of technology in agriculture, construction, medicine, and so on, that has increased the length and quality of life of millions of people. Concerning this we can first of all note that technology is not always created and used for human good. Consider the use of technology for torture or murder. Consider also the fact that even some technology that is designed for basically good purposes (e.g. to produce more food or to increase human mobility) can have some harmful consequences (e.g. damage the ecosystem on which human life depends). Human intelligence, creativity and technology should be used ethically, in a way that properly respects important values including the value of our ecosystem. The development of the newer methods of NFP have involved technology. Their use may also involve the use of technology (e.g. a thermometer, charts). NFP involves human artifice. Contraception is not immoral simply because it is artificial. Rather, direct contraception necessarily involves a human choice that can not properly respect the God-given values, meanings and purposes, unitive and procreative, of the conjugal act. NFP can be used in a way that properly respects these values. Concerning this Paul VI himself taught that, "the church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his [or her] Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God" , and that the married couple may choose not to have sexual relations during the fertile periods "when for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love." (HV, 16) He interprets the fact that "not every conjugal act is followed by a new life" as God having "wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity" .(HV, 11)


6. Hedonism

One major obstacle to the much wider use of NFP and the application of correct morality in the area of family planning is that hedonism is widespread. Hedonism is an approach to life that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. An action is considered moral if it contributes to this. It is not difficult to appreciate that if one takes such an approach, that contraception can appear to be a good option. It can allow one more opportunity for sexual intercourse and the pleasures associated with it including orgasm. What is wrong with hedonism is that it makes pleasure to be the goal of life and persons to be mere means to gratification. Hedonism fails to appreciate the great dignity of human persons and God. A proper moral approach is grounded in loving God and human persons and the rest of creation in a properly ordered way. Such love will allot pleasures their proper place. Our seeking and deliberate enjoyment of pleasure should always be subordinate to the requirements of true love, which, among other things, exclude the use of contraception out of respect for important values. [26]


7. Atheism (Theoretical and Practical)

Another major obstacle to the application of Catholic teaching in the area of family planning is that atheism, at least practical atheism, is widespread. Although some people are atheists in a theoretical sense (they reject the existence of God ideologically), it seems that many more people are atheists in certain practical senses. They may theoretically acknowledge that God exists, but this belief does not affect their lives, or at least certain areas of their lives such as choosing a method of family planning. This is not surprising since many religious pastors, including many Catholic pastors, simply leave the matter to the individual's conscience without offering adequate guidance concerning the relevant values and moral norms. Also, many in the medical profession, which has been generally highly regarded, recommend the use of contraception. It is understandable that many people do not consider the use of contraceptives to be much of a moral issue, except as concerns health risks. On the other hand, Catholic teaching very clearly relates morality, including the area of family planning, to God.

God is love and He calls us to love as He loves. Unless we become like God and love as God does, we cannot be united fully to God. [27] Loving as God does necessarily involves loving and respecting values such as human life, the dignity of persons, truth, justice, and the total giving of oneself to another in love, values that are rooted in who God is. Loving as God does also necessarily involves loving and respecting God's purposes for everything including our sexuality. Since God has created human sexual intercourse to foster the unity of spouses, to become one flesh in marriage (cf. Gn 2:24), and so that they may procreate, to be fruitful and multiply (cf. Gn 1:28), [28] then for God to choose deliberately not to respect these purposes would involve God contradicting Himself. This is an impossibility.

If we want to be united fully with God forever, we should try to become like God (see 1 Jn 3). To choose deliberately something that harms the dignity of a person (including oneself) created in God's image and that fails to respect properly God's purposes for something, including our sexuality, necessarily involves an objective impediment to our union with God. Subjective factors, such as ignorance through no fault of one's own or factors that weaken or eliminate one's freedom of choice and action, can mitigate or even eliminate a person's culpability in certain circumstances. [29] In any case, it is important that people, who have a good appreciation and understanding of the relevant values and norms, help others, while respecting their legitimate rights regarding conscience, to see the connection between our choices and actions and our relationship with God. It is also important that we learn and make use of the means to overcome obstacles to true love such as prejudice, pride, moral blindness, selfishness, bad habits, and human weakness. Such means include holistic education, appropriate self-discipline, and above all sincere and humble prayer. [30] God, who is all-loving, certainly is willing to help us to grow to love integrally and to transform us in Christ, provided we freely cooperate. He, who is all-powerful, certainly is capable. [31]

Conclusion

This paper has considered some common difficulties with respect to Humanae Vitae and its teaching regarding family planning, especially with respect to its approval of NFP and its disapproval of all forms of direct contraception. Some responses, hopefully clear and balanced, have been given to these difficulties. Certainly much more could be said in response to the difficulties treated and other difficulties not treated. In light of the above reflections and the references made to Humanae Vitae, it can be seen that this encyclical itself contains the foundation on which to develop responses to difficulties and objections raised against it. Pope Paul VI evidently had a good understanding of the issues surrounding family planning and treated these carefully, sensitively and wisely. Humanae Vitae thus remains as relevant today as it was when it was published twenty-five years ago.


Notes:

  1. The NC News Service Translation printed by the Daughters of St. Paul, Boston, is used in this paper. Back to text
  2. From the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Edition, Ottawa. Back to text
  3. See John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), 173. Back to text
  4. See Dietrich Von Hildebrand, The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1969). Back to text
  5. See, e.g., Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation and Defense (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1985), especially Ch. 7.II-IV, by Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William E. May; and The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living A Christian Life (Quincy, Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1993), by Germain Grisez. Back to text
  6. See Paul Quay, The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality (Evanston: Credo House, 1985), especially 70-72 and 80-81. This book has been republished by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988. Back to text
  7. See John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio, 28-35, and Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality and Spirituality (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1984). Back to text
  8. Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Catholic University Press, 1991). A review of this book by William E. May is found in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, Sept. 1992, 9-13. Back to text
  9. The goal or "remote intention" of the agent is used here with the same meaning as the Catechisme de L'Eglise Catholique [Catechism of the Catholic Church](Paris: Mame-Librairie Editrice Vaticane, 1992) speaks of the envisioned end or the intention of the acting subject; and "proximate intention" is used here with the same meaning as the object chosen. Concerning the sources of the morality of human actions, this catechism also speaks of the circumstances (consequences) of the act, the secondary elements of a moral act, which increase or diminish the moral goodness or evil of human acts and can also augment or decrease the responsibility of the agent.(1749-61) Cf. also Benedict Ashley and Kevin O'Rourke, Health Care Ethics: A Theological Analysis (St. Louis: Catholic Health Association of the United States, 3rd ed. 1989), 179-88. The use of the example of cheating here is for illustrative purposes; it is not intended to suggest that all people who use contraceptives are insincere. Back to text
  10. Cf. the procreative and unitive meanings and God-given purposes as explained by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, 12-13; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 32; and Dr. Suzanne Parenteau-Carreau, Love and Life: Fertility and Conception Prevention (Ottawa: Serena Canada, 1989), 29-38. For a fuller treatment of the virtue of chastity, see, e.g., William E. May, The Nature and Meaning of Chastity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976). Cf. also notes 11-13 below. Back to text
  11. Concerning this contraceptives can be considered sexist. The onus of getting and using them is usually put on either the woman or the man; health risks of certain methods such as the pill and IUD pertain only to the woman; sterilization involves either a man or a woman and certain risks. In contrast NFP involves the collaboration of both partners and involves no health risks to either sex. NFP is not sexist. Any health risks would pertain to the circumstances (consequences) of an act (cf. note 9 above). Back to text
  12. The use of contraceptives fails to appreciate and respect how wonderfully we have been made by God (Ps 139:14). Cf. Larry and Nordis Christenson, a Lutheran couple, The Christian Couple (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1977), Ch. 8. Back to text
  13. Cf. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 14; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 32; Parenteau-Carreau (see note 10), 39-48; and the sources referred to in notes 4 to 8 above.
    Direct contraception by definition involves one directly choosing against procreation which is certainly good since it involves human collaboration with God in creating a new human person (cf. Gen 1:26-31 and 4:1). One can not properly love a good and directly choose against it at the same time. The choosing to abstain during fertile periods involved in using NFP, to avoid conceiving a new human being, for good reasons, involves choosing not to act to realize the good of procreation when this would be inappropriate (e.g. one could not adequately provide for a new child or pregnancy would seriously threaten the health of the woman). A properly ordered love always respects all important values in a situation (e.g. marital love, truth, justice, procreation, health, the life and dignity of persons) and never directly chooses against any of them. In light of our human limitations, however, ordered love does not necessarily call one to act to try to realize all values in a given situation. It should be noted though that it would be wrong to use even NFP motivated by a disordered love (e.g. selfishness).
    The use of contraception also violates the unitive meaning of the conjugal act. Cf. John Paul II who aptly says, "...the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality." In using NFP a married couple can "'benefit from' their sexuality according to the original dynamism of 'total' self-giving, without manipulation or alteration." Familiaris Consortio, 32)
    Re respecting God's purposes, including His purposes for creating human sexuality, and our relationship with God, see also section 7 below re atheism. It should be noted that some forms of "contraception" such as intra-uterine devices and various contraceptive pills work abortively, at least sometimes, by interfering with implantation of the early embryo (see Parenteau-Carreau, 41-46). Back to text
  14. See, e.g., Benedict Ashley and Kevin O'Rourke, Ethics of Health Care (St. Louis: The Catholic Health Association of the United States, 1986), Ch. 8.1-3; Brian Harradine, "Population Control Policies for the New Cultural Imperialism," Linacre Quarterly, Feb. 1989, 39-52; and Philippa Hitchen and Thomas Szyszkiewicz, "One Too Many?" The Catholic World Report, Jan. 1992, 36-41. Cf. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 17 and 23. It is worthy of note that one year before publishing Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI published Populorum Progressio "On the Development of Peoples" (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1967). Recent popes including Paul VI and John Paul II (see, e.g., his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis "On Social Problems," Origins, Mar. 3, 1988, 641-60) have not been indifferent to problems related to poverty and population growth, but have articulated some good principles involving a holistic approach to address these. Back to text
  15. For an evaluation of a number of sex education programs including several that promote abstinence see, e.g., Has Sex Education Failed Our Teenagers: A Research Report by Dinah Richard, Ph.D. (Pomona, CA: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1990). Cf. also The Teen Sexuality Crisis. . . A Positive Approach To a Real Problem by Robert Ferland, M.D., Joann Oudman, Gerry Schwalfenberg, M.D., and Stephen Genuis, M.D. (Edmonton: Teen-Aid, 1988); and "Adolescent Sexuality and Chastity" by Richard Wetzel, M.D., Linacre Quarterly, Feb. 1991, 67-75. For an evaluation of Teen STAR (Sexuality Teaching in the Context of Adult Responsibility) see Hanna Klaus et al., "Fertility Awareness/NFP for Adolescents and Their Families: Report of Multisite Pilot Project," International Review of Natural Family Planning, Summer 1988, 149-167. A number of sex education programs that promote abstinence are designed for use in both public and separate school systems, with the consent of the parents. Re Catholic teaching see the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education's Educational Guidance in Human Love: Outlines for Sex Education (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1983). Back to text
  16. See, e.g., Dr. Stephen Genuis, Risky Sex: The Onslaught of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Edmonton: KEG Publishing, 1991), Ch. 8. Re birth control condoms have an average failure rate of about 10%, with a higher failure rate for teenagers. Sexual intercourse can only lead to pregnancy during a few days in a woman's cycle. Sexual relations with an infected partner though can transmit a STD at any time during a woman's cycle. Even if someday condoms were made that were 100% effective, which is very unlikely especially if one considers use-effectiveness, using them would still be intrinsically immoral as explained below. Back to text
  17. Los Angeles Times, Feb. 18, 1989, 24, Part I. In Uganda, the country in Africa worst-hit with the AIDS epidemic, it is worthy of note that not only the Catholic bishops, but also the country's Anglican bishops, "have fought efforts by the government and aid groups to promote condom use to fight AIDS." (The Edmonton Journal, Feb. 7, 1993, A6) Back to text
  18. See Ashley and O'Rourke (see note 14), 90-92. Cf. the Health Care Ethics Guide published by the Catholic Health Association of Canada [CHAC](Ottawa, 1991), pp. 14-17, 30-32, and 35-37. Back to text
  19. The difficulty in using NFP to avoid conception and the periodic abstinence involved, however, is often exaggerated. Learning to use NFP is no more difficult than learning proper hygienic practices (e.g. washing) and diet. The fertile period (when sexual intercourse could lead to conception) of the menstrual cycle is at most seven days. This takes into account the maximum sperm survival time in a woman's body when fertile type cervical mucus is present (five days), ovum survival time if not fertilized (less than twenty-four hours), and the possibility of a double ovulation. If two ovulations occur within the same cycle they are within a twenty-four hour period. The periodic abstinence needed to use a modern method of NFP to avoid conception is usually about seven to twelve days, depending on the method of NFP used and other factors. Cf. Parenteau-Carreau (see note 10), 5-6 and 29-38; and John McCarthy, M.D., et al., The Ovulation Method (Washington, D.C.: The Human Life and Natural Family Planning Foundation, 1978).
    Many couples practice periodic abstinence for other reasons (e.g. during menstruation, illnesses, business trips, and before and after childbirth) without considering it a big deal. Back to text
  20. Mary Shivanandan and Marion Geremia in "Natural Family Planning and Family Systems Theory," Linacre Quarterly, Nov. 1992, "explain why immature couples may have difficulty with the method [NFP] as well as ways in which NFP actually may improve family functioning and raise the level of emotional maturity." (57) Back to text
  21. Cf. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 33-35. Back to text
  22. Cf., e.g., Charles Curran, Moral Theology: A Continuing Journey (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 144; and Richard Gula, What are They Saying About Moral Norms? (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 39-40, and 61-81 re mixed consequentialism. Re critiques of the charge of physicalism and/or biologism see, e.g., Von Hildebrand (see note 4), 38-49, and Lawler, Boyle and May (see note 5), 154-67, and 66-97 re patterns of thinking in moral theology; and Father Kevin McMahon, "Humanae Vitae" : 25th Anniversary," Origins, April 22, 1993, 771-3. Back to text
  23. Biological processes and the physical structure of acts can be relevant to morality, but Catholic morality is hardly reduced to respecting these. For example, the physical structure of an act of non-marital intercourse and an act of marital intercourse can be the same. Cf. also murder and killing an unjust aggressor to protect others and/or oneself from serious harm as a last resort. Although the physical structures of these respective acts might be the same, one's intention or will with respect to values such as the good of marriage and human life are quite different. Back to text
  24. Cf. CHAC's Health Care Ethics Guide (see note 18), pp. 35 and 43. The example of homicide is used here for illustrative purposes. There is no suggestion that contraception per se is equivalent to the crime of murder. Back to text
  25. Cf. Teresa Iglesias, "Test-tube Ethics," The Tablet, Jul. 14, 1984, 668. Back to text
  26. Cf. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), trans. H.T. Willett, 34-44 and 224-36. Back to text
  27. Cf. especially the Johannine writings in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 15:9-12 and 1 Jn 3). Cf. also the Pauline teaching that God's love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us (Rm 5:5). This teaching is given in the context of teaching regarding salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. For scholarly commentaries on these and other biblical texts referred to in this paper, see, e.g., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), ed. by Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer and Roland Murphy. Back to text
  28. Although sexual union in marriage and procreation are created good by God, this does not mean that all people have an obligation to marry or that married people have an obligation to procreate as many children as possible (cf. Mt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7; and note 13, second paragraph, above). Back to text
  29. Cf., e.g., Lk 12:47-48; and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona Humana "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics" (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1975), n. 10. Back to text
  30. Our choices determine our moral character and endure unless revoked. If one has made a bad choice and realizes this, it is important to repent (cf., e.g., Mk 1:15). Humble prayer thus includes not only asking God for help, but also contrition (cf. as well the sacrament of reconciliation or penance) and expressing gratitude and praise to God, who is all-good and the source of all that is good. Back to text
  31. Cf. Dietrich Von Hildebrand's modern classic, Transformation in Christ, which has been reprinted and republished several times. Re our transformation in Christ, we should appreciate, among other means of grace, the immense value of receiving Jesus regularly in the Eucharist with proper dispositions. Back to text
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Acknowledgement

Flaman, Paul "Humanae Vitae After Twenty-Five Years: Responses to Some Common Difficulties." Paper presented at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars' Canadian Convention at St. Michael's College, Toronto, October 16, 1993.

This paper was given at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars' Canadian Convention at St. Michael's College, Toronto, October 16, 1993. It was subsequently published in Humanae Vitae: On the Twenty-fifth Anniversary, Proceedings of the Second Convention of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars / Amicale des Savants Catholiques du Canada (16 Oct. 1993, University of St. Michael's College, Toronto), ed. by David L. Sands, L.Ph., Ph.D.. (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Pubs., 1994), pp. 35-46.

Reprinted with permission of Paul Flaman.

The Author

Paul Flaman is an Associate Professor of Christian Theology at St. Joseph's College, a Catholic College affiliated with the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. Paul Flaman is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1994 Scepter Publishers
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