Fifty years ago — on July 25, 1968 — Pope Paul VI reiterated the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception in his encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae.” It’s an opportune time to say something about that teaching.
The Church doesn’t object to contraceptives because they’re artificial. (There are plenty of artificial things of which we approve.) The Church objects to them because they’re contraceptive.
Well, in the more precise language of “Humanae Vitae,” it’s because each and every act of sexual intercourse has both a unitive and a procreative meaning. To deliberately undermine either of those aspects is to sin against the nature that God has written into the sexual act. In the more personal language of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, it’s because sexual intercourse is a way of speaking with the body, saying: “I give myself completely to you.” Contraception undermines that truth by deliberately holding something back.
It’s equally important, though, to understand that the Church wants us to say “yes” in her teaching on contraception. In the Eucharist and on the cross, Jesus made a complete gift of Himself to us: He gave us His body and blood, holding nothing back, so that we might have life. The Church wants us to follow Jesus — even in marriage, even with regard to our sexuality.
In addition, just as the Trinity is a communion of persons whose union brings forth life — physically, in creation, and spiritually, through grace — the Church wants us to live in the image and likeness of the Trinity — even in marriage, even with regard to our sexuality.
In other words, the question of contraception isn’t peripheral to the life of faith. Rather, it touches on the very heart of the faith: the Trinity, the Eucharist and the cross.
Naturally, there are some objections to this teaching. Let me touch on just two of them:
Is the Church saying we need to have as many children as possible? What about family planning?
Humanae Vitae very clearly teaches the necessity of responsible parenthood. There may be legitimate physical, psychological, economic and social reasons to limit the number of children a couple has. The question is not whether to be responsible but how to carry out that responsibility.
Isn’t the Church duplicitous when it says no to contraception but yes to natural family planning — isn’t that just “natural contraception?”
The difference between natural family planning (NFP) and contraceptives isn’t on the level of intention. Both can be used — with the same effectiveness — to limit and space children. But NFP involves paying close attention to the natural cycles of a woman’s body, respecting her body and cooperating with it. Contraception, on the other hand, involves treating a woman’s fertility as a disease, and flooding her body with hormones to override its natural cycles. There’s a big difference there, and each shapes how we treat women.
There are many nuances to the Church’s teaching on contraception. I encourage you to learn more about them — both the medical and the moral — by further reading or by contacting our Office of NFP. But the main objections to the teaching today aren’t really about the nuances, they’re about the very existence of the teaching at all. And so it’s time to say: the Church’s teaching on contraception remains valid, touches on the central mysteries of the faith and is a question of whether we’re really committed to following Jesus’ example in the Eucharist and on the Cross.