Blessed Pope Paul VI made what, at the time, seemed to some like exaggerated predictions of what could happen in society. He predicted that there could be an increase in marital infidelity, a general lowering of moral standards, a disregard for the reverence due to women in their dignity as human beings (making them into instruments to satisfy man’s desire), and the interference of government in the most intimate and personal dimensions of marital life and sexual love.
To what did the Holy Father attach these dire predictions? He predicted that these things could happen if men and women gave in to the wide acceptance and use of artificial birth control. His reaffirmation of the Church’s solemn and constant teaching on the intrinsic evil of all means of artificial contraception was laid out in the famous papal encyclical Humanae vitae, issued in 1968.
As I said, many thought these predictions to be exaggerated or even somewhat hysterical at the time. Yet look at where we are as a society, here and throughout the world. I was only 8 years old when Humanae vitae was issued, and what I have witnessed happen in society over the last 47 years is nothing short of shocking. The rise and acceptance of premarital sexual activity, cohabitation without marriage, homosexual behavior, and a general promiscuity which involves multiple partners is no longer the exception but is commonplace. It is even expected and celebrated if one watches television, movies and social media.
The rise in pornography and the degradation and disgusting treatment of women as sexual objects rather than human persons with an innate dignity is causing devastating problems in people’s lives. Governments throughout the world promote and some even force contraception and abortion as a means of “birth control.” Our own government here in the United States has gravely violated the religious liberty of many of its citizens by forcing them to pay for artificial contraception and abortifacient drugs and devices as a part of “health care” insurance plans.
So what does the wide acceptance of artificial contraception have to do with all of this? Although it does not offer a complete explanation for these disturbing social trends, it has greatly contributed to them. Why? Because once the life-giving procreative dimension of the sexual act is deliberately separated from the unitive love-making dimension, the door is wide open to all of these distortions of the conjugal act of sexual union. Once sex is no longer about children, anything goes.
I will recall for us that Sacred Scripture and the Church clearly teach us that marriage is, by its very nature, ordered toward two ends or purposes: the good of the spouses themselves and the procreation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised this natural meaning of marriage to the level of a sacrament for the baptized so that it mirrors Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church.
This twofold end or purpose of marriage is beautifully reflected in the conjugal act, whereby the spouses unite as man and woman and become “one flesh.” The act of sexual union is a beautiful and powerful expression of the love between the spouses as they completely give themselves over to one another and rejoice in the accompanying sexual pleasure. But this sexual union is at the same time intrinsically and necessarily ordered toward the procreation of new life as the couple cooperates with God’s plan. One does not need to be a theologian or a biologist to see that the conjugal act is about love and new life.
To deliberately and intentionally interfere with this natural two-fold purpose of the marital act of sexual union and remove from it artificially the procreative dimension with the intent to contracept is intrinsically wrong and objectively seriously sinful. To do so distorts and disfigures the natural ends and purposes of sexual union in marriage and opens the door to all sorts of problems in marriage and in the wider culture as we have seen.
The basic principle at stake here, as stated in the previous column in this series, is that the sexual act is reserved only and exclusively for a man and a woman united in marriage, and even within marriage, that conjugal act must in itself always remain open to the transmission of new life. The “unitive” and “procreative” meaning and purpose of the conjugal act must remain always intact.
St. John Paul II in his beautiful teaching on the “theology of the body” reaffirmed in the strongest terms this constant teaching of the Church. As human beings, we are body and soul, and the physical dimension of our being is not accidental to us or superfluous. What we do in the body speaks a language of the whole person, and in the conjugal act within marriage it speaks the language of love and total self-gift of the spouses for one another. It is a “lie” to seem to totally give oneself over to one’s spouse in sexual union, but then say, “I give you my total self and all that I am, except my fertility. That I will hold back from you.”
Now the Church clearly teaches that married couples are free to carefully plan their family size and space the children God may wish to give them, but they must do so using natural means that make use the woman’s cycle of fertility as designed by God. For good reason, the couple may abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile times of the woman’s natural cycle. This certainly takes courage, strength and virtue, but couples who practice “natural family planning” testify to the powerful and positive impact this has had on their marital relationship.
We all know this is a difficult and challenging teaching to embrace and live. Everyone, including the Church’s sacred pastors, understand that. But Blessed Paul VI gives encouragement to couples in embracing this teaching for the good of their marriage, their family and society as a whole:
“…husbands and wives should take up the burden appointed to them, willingly, in the strength of faith and of that hope which ‘does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ Then let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance. In this way, for sure, they will be able to reach that perfection of married life…” (Humanae vitae, n. 25)