A Personal Reflection on the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae
By Deacon Bill Turrentine
During the famous Summer of Love in 1967, hoards of young people descended on San Francisco to join the hippie rebellion against superficial, middle-class values. "Make love," the appealing slogan went, "not war." I was 14 years old and in full sympathy with the hippie movement, opposing the cultural bankruptcy that seemed to be epitomized by the war in Vietnam. The assassinations the following year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the televised scenes of police brutality at the Democratic Convention in Chicago seemed to confirm the need for a radical break with the past.
In July of this tumultuous year of 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, defending Christianity's traditional teaching on the meaning of sexuality and openness to life. As the Pope anticipated, Humanae Vitae was a "sign of contradiction" (HV 18). It seemed obvious to me and many others, that the Catholic Church was a dangerous anachronism which opposed progress in order to control people afraid to think for themselves. The Church was bound to fade away, I thought, as the Age of Aquarius spread enlightenment, which would include sexual liberation.
Nine years later, influenced by a professor at San Francisco State, I entered the Catholic Church I had once despised. In the instructions prior to my Easter Vigil Baptism, however, the Church's teachings regarding the meaning of sexuality, openness to life and against the use of artificial contraception were not even mentioned. Later, when my fiancée and I were preparing for marriage, the Church's teachings were again never mentioned. We did know that there had been some, apparently vague, Church teaching against contraception. We assumed this was an ancient, dreamy ideal but certainly not a practical requirement for modern Catholics. The few Catholic couples we knew well enough to know this sort of thing all used contraception. Dependent on my wife's income while I worked at a start-up company, it never occurred to us to mention contraceptive use when we went to Confession.
Two years later, a friend who was studying theology at the University of San Francisco lent me a copy of Humanae Vitae. Clearly and authoritatively reasoned, it was the most devastating thing I had ever read. We also discovered other documents, such as Casti Connubii, written by Pope Pius XI in 1930 and Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, published in 1965, which reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the Church. With trepidation and self-pity, my wife and I agreed that, as faithful Catholics, we had to submit to these teachings. We could not, as Humanae Vitae states, "determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they [the married couple] must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church." (HV 10).
This was the heaviest cross ever thrust upon us. Growing up in a time of general rebellion against societal norms, the virtue of Chastity was foreign to me. The Natural Family Planning we learned in order to comply with Humanae Vitae required periodic abstinence, which I found difficult. Furthermore, the method we learned depended on a single sign of fertility, a single sign which works well for the vast majority of couples. But we were one of the rare exceptions and we had a surprise pregnancy, our first child.
The challenge of abstinence and the shock of the pregnancy precipitated a crisis. As unhappy as we were, however, we realized we could never turn back to contraceptives. To our surprise, when we had fearfully dispensed with artificial methods, our relationship had improved profoundly. It was clear in retrospect that the use of contraception had involved exploitation. We discovered in our own experience what Pope Paul VI had warned about in his encyclical: by disrupting the baby-making part of sex, we had also been damaging the love-deepening part of sex. This kind of damaged sexual relationship still affords sensual pleasure; in fact, contraception makes sensual pleasure available on demand, which is particularly desirable to many men. But wives often sense that that their husbands end up more intent on satisfying bodily urges than making an authentic gift of self. Pope Paul VI warned that the acceptance of contraception would lead to negative consequences for society, for marriages and especially for women. He predicted a lowering of morality and a tendency for a husband to view his wife "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion." (HV 17).
Fortified by prayer, my wife and I remained faithful and God helped us. First we discovered the Sympto-Thermal method, taught by the Couple to Couple League, which includes multiple signs of fertility. For us, it was like driving north on the Golden Gate Bridge and coming out of the fog into sunshine. The method is presented in the context of the Church's teachings, which helped deepen our understanding and commitment. We later discovered Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, where he explores the biblical roots of Humanae Vitae and nature of married love. He delves into the reasons why the love-affirming and the baby-making parts of sex have been united by God and cannot be pulled apart without harming the marriage relationship.
The Pope also observed that periodic abstinence requires couples to develop self-mastery. Though difficult to achieve, self-mastery liberates the spouses to make a free gift of themselves to each other. The beautiful self-giving of husband and wife is expressed physically through the union of their bodies as God intended from the beginning when He made them male and female. With the development of self-mastery, this self-giving can rise above the limits of selfish desire, so that each spouse can seek the highest good of the other. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that this love between husband and wife refers to the mystery of Jesus and His Bride the Church. Jesus makes a complete gift of Himself, body, soul and divinity, to His bride the Church on the Cross, and He continues to make that same self-gift present to His Church, above all in the Eucharist. The Church in turn makes a total gift of herself to Jesus, placing herself completely at his disposal. This mutual self-giving is never a closed circle; it is always open to new life. The new life involves a deeper union between Christ and His people and it also reaches out to bring new life to those in need, to those who do not know Christ, and to those who are enemies of Christ.
In the sacrament of Marriage, God touches the human love of husband and wife with His divine love. It is the nature of divine love to confer new life and so the expression of Christian love in marriage must always be life-giving. Sometimes the new life a couple actively seeks with their physical self-giving may be limited to the development of a fuller love for each other and, in some circumstances, conception may be highly unlikely due to the phase of the fertility cycle or because of other natural factors, such as advancing age, which can reduce or prevent fertility. At other times, the life sought may include the immediate hope to participate with God in the creation of a new human being, a baby in whom husband and wife become one flesh forever in the person of a new and unique image of God. A couple, evaluating their circumstances with reason, faith, generosity and prayer, need not seek a baby every time they engage in the self-giving proper to marriage but they must never seek to kill new life once conceived. They also must not alter themselves with a surgeon's knife, or with spermicides, artificial hormones, the introduction of physical barriers or by the frustration of the act itself in order to damage the life-giving power God has woven into the physical self-giving of married couples. These actions may succeed in destroying the life-giving nature of sex, thereby making sensual pleasure available with only the remote possibility of unwanted babies. But even if a couple's intentions are good, these actions are really more war-like than love-like. This is a type of mutilation that makes us less capable of giving ourselves completely or of receiving the self-gift of our spouse. Regardless of intention, these actions damage the love-affirming character that God has built into marital sex.
As my wife and I discovered, Natural Family Planning helps bring couples into harmony with the law of love and life that God has written into our very being and into the nature of Christian marriage. We should not have been surprised that Christian marriage leads to the Cross. Anything that shares in the sacrifice of Christ will require repentance, faith, self-mastery and self-giving. Nor should we have been surprised that Jesus would help us along the way and that this cross would lead to new and more abundant life. That is the Resurrection. The really surprising thing is that this liberating truth has been kept so devastatingly well hidden. In 1985 we began teaching Natural Family Planning and we are still doing so today. We have seen couple after couple discover the same liberating truth. God has written a law of love into our bodies and into our souls. It is not easy for us to live according to that exalted law. Nevertheless, when we seek His will, He shows us the surpassing beauty of human love touched by divine love. God helps us to not just an ephemeral Summer of Love but to a lifetime of love which will help the spouses, their children and many other people they influence to prepare for an eternity of love with Him. His truth is a sign of contradiction. It is this challenging truth that offers married couples in San Francisco and elsewhere an authentic way to make love, not war.
Deacon Bill Turrentine is Permanent Deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and is assigned to St. Rita Church in Fairfax. He is on the board of the Couple to Couple League , one of the largest providers of Natural Family Planning services in the world. He and his wife, Pat, teach the Sympto-Thermal Method of NFP.
© 2008 Deacon Bill Turrentine. Posted with permission.