Reflections On the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
July 20, 2018
Reflections On The 50th Anniversary Of Humanae Vitae

Dozing off in a non-air-conditioned, third grade classroom, at a parochial school somewhere south of the 30th parallel, on a hot day in 1973, Mrs. Wright’s voice broke through my enchanted haze.  She said that Catholics should have at least three children to replace themselves.  Well, that snapped me out of a daydream.  That’s about the only thing I remember from third grade, besides being fussed at for not paying attention.  Who knows why Mrs. Wright said that to us third graders.  Was she sorting out population control questions?  Was she pondering Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae which, five years prior, affirmed Church teaching on contraception?  I haven’t a clue.  But the comment stuck.  I wasn’t seriously confronted with baby-making issues until college, ten years later – aside from dozing off in high school lectures on contraceptives, chemistry tables and sentence diagrams.

Aside from that, ten years passed quickly.  In college, sex topics came up often.  Some guys and gals bragged about their sexploits.  It was the age of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a go-to sexpert in the ‘80s.  During my first semester, I recall a guy doggedly asserting that sex is not about kids but about fun.  I didn’t agree, but I didn’t care what he thought either.  But my sophomore year was a moral eye-opener: a guy – ironically an avid Reagan Republican – told me that abortion was good because it saved poor babies from misery and lowered welfare costs.  My gut reaction?  I was sickened.  I sensed darkness in his words.  Six years of campus life taught me something I didn’t learn at home: the world can be cold.  It got colder after graduation.  On a business trip, a young colleague told me that his dad (an executive in Seattle) would “take care of it” if he got a girl pregnant.  “Take care of it” didn’t mean feed it.  Driving the company car, he confided this with a tense smile, perhaps concealing resentment over his dad’s offer to betray his own flesh and blood.  Again, I was sickened.  I turned inward for a while.  Another coworker bragged about seducing a Catholic girl from a school, he said with a forced sardonic laugh, “called Guardian Angels.”  It was disorienting to hear these things, like passing through Alice’s “Looking-Glass” into a twisted realm.  Ironically, though, my morals in those days had little to do with moral principles.  I experienced life with a sensitive yet inarticulate perceptivity.

For example, I had no strong moral convictions, one way or the other, about contraception.  But I had doubts.  I thought things through, perhaps more than most; and my gut feelings played into my thoughts.  The thought of using contraception depressed me.  I instinctively felt that lovemaking should be spontaneous and organic.  Thinking of it that way made me feel joyful and free.  Innocence said: be free; don’t be on guard or take precautions.  If love makes babies, then so be it.  I admired free-love Bohemians, the next best thing to Catholics.  Moreover, I thought condoms were gross.  The thought of using something purchased from a dispenser above a urinal at an Exxon station was a turnoff.  The dispensers had lurid cartoons and brief narratives of each condom’s features and what kind of ride it’ll give you.  Bland over-the-counter brands, which could be bought with a long face, didn’t sanitize my repugnance.  As for pharmaceuticals, why should a woman have to pop pills to make love?  This can’t possibly be, so I thought, what either Mother Nature or Mother Goose had in mind.

These thoughts had nothing to do with Church teaching, let alone Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which I’d never read.  I’m sure you, my dear reader, detect incoherence in all this.  But, that’s where I was.  I also doubted the moralisms of holy-rollers and Church aficionados.  Paper-doll dictums about “the gift of self,” “reserving the conjugal act,” and “saving one’s self for marriage” sounded to me like Kermit the Frog lecturing on sexual ethics.  On sex questions, I didn’t trust anyone – playboys or prelates – save for three: my dad, my gut, and my upbringing.

I thought through the “baby question,” connecting sundry counsels from my father.  In my early twenties, I concluded that, if I’m going to make a baby, I have to study hard, get a good job and pay for it.  Arriving at that conclusion didn’t crack my brain.  It was more like a little sunlight burning off fog.  When I told a friend this, he said I should take more risks.  Life is full of risks, he said, like in business.  Really, I thought?  The stakes are a bit high, don’t you think?  What would I tell my kid if I picked his card?  “I took a risk and got you?”  It was a harrowing thought.  Is this, I pondered, how we play with life?  Even when the love gods got playful, there was the countervailing question: what’s at stake?  That was before priesthood thoughts.  But either the Holy Spirit had other plans, or Celtic superstition is correct: whoever finishes the bottle of wine doesn’t marry.

I remember the “ah-ha” moment when I believed Church teaching on contraception.  I was in my  mid-20s.  I was annoyed by glib dismissals of Pope John Paul II’s opposition to contraception.  While I wasn’t convinced of Church teaching, I wasn’t writing it off either.  The teaching may well be, so I thought, just another bishop-quirk, like a second collection.  But maybe it wasn’t.  My doubts suddenly cleared.  At home on vacation, I  pondered these questions one evening.  Then it hit me like Light on St. Paul: Contraception is not the will of God.  Where did that thought come from?

I don’t know.  But it made sense.  However, the “It’s not the will of God” thought was not an argument.  It didn’t convince me.  It changed me.  It illumined an outlook on life and opened my mind.  My outlook on love and life became more coherent.  Life’s big picture, in all of its organic beauty and goodness, began to make sense.  I thought about the thought.  If God created man and woman to freely love and be fruitful, if civilization was about loving one’s neighbor, then the Creator couldn’t possibly want pesticides in sex.  The “need” to sterilize must come from an ancient curse, a primeval treachery.  Love must have an Enemy.  And that Enemy made a tactical strike on love.  That’s why the man and woman hid from God and one another, in shame.

So I read Humanae Vitae, which Pope Paul VI issued on July 25, 1968.  I thought it boring and abstruse.  But it reaffirmed my intuitions.  Humanae Vitae is specifically about marriage.  Married couples should be open to life, it said.  Contraception is inherently flawed.  Though Humanae Vitae is a clear light of moral guidance, it was (and is) controversial.  In the ‘60s, many people expected the Church to give “the pill” a green light.  But Paul VI didn’t do that.  He said that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life” and that there be no “break between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”  “By safeguarding…the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its orientation toward man’s exalted vocation to parenthood.”  Humanae Vitae was prophetic and out of season.  It’s a metaphysical document about a physical issue, which makes it clunky and hard to digest.  But it’s a light of truth.

“The feelin' good comes easy now / Since I've got the pill,” sang Loretta Lynn in the early ‘70s.  High-life hedonism aside, there are hard cases not resolved by Humanae Vitae’s teaching.  Long before the “the pill,” Fr. Vincent McNabb, a Dominican, raised tough questions in the 1920s.  He ministered among poor factory workers in Dublin’s slums.  In his 1925 book, The Church and the Land, McNabb met parents of multiple children living on factory wages who “are found to look upon family limitation not so much as a necessity for themselves as an act of charity and even of justice towards their children.”  The economic system, he said, was an “occasion of sin.”  “We must work to change the conditions which make it heroic virtue to avoid the sin.”  Among the working poor, said McNabb, the “Malthusian option” is not necessarily a moral failure.  “The majority of our people live not by producing and consuming things,” he said, “but earning and spending wages” and that, “the modern industrial system is [often] incapable of giving a wage sufficient for feeding, clothing, housing a normal family.”  In a wage economy, children are a liability, not an asset.  Married wage earners are often caught between two options: sinful birth control methods or heroic virtue.  These couples, said McNabb, who opt for the former are not intentionally doing anything perverse.

McNabb died in 1943.  Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American unions negotiated family wages that supported single-breadwinner families with several children.  Hence, a blue collar baby boom.  But that changed by the ‘70s.  Today, once again, a single-breadwinner with multiple children often means poverty or hardship.  Current methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP), while effective for many, are ineffective for some.  Fr. McNabb said, “We Catholics are not fulfilling our duty either to God or our neighbor merely by denouncing the sin.  We must work to change the conditions which make it heroic virtue to avoid the sin.”  Quoting Pope Leo XIII: “A remedy must be found…for the misery…pressing so unjustly on the vast majority…that Neo-Malthusianism is spreading like a wild-fire.”  Circumstances have changed, but the point still applies.  Humanae Vitae plays right into the broad scope of Catholic social teaching: the political economy must serve families with children.  Said Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation: “If free societies have a future, it will be because they figure out…a way to restore the value of children to their parents, and of parents to each other.”  It’s time to re-think priorities.

Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor