July 25th marks the 50th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. I’m the social media manager for the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s Office of Natural Family Planning. Being focused on promoting NFP, everyone in the office is especially excited about this anniversary, but this is something that the average Catholic should be excited about…especially Catholic millennials.
Catholic Millennials as Counter-Cultural
As a social media manager and blogger, I spend a lot of time on social media. In the past few years, I’ve seen increasingly heated debates in Catholic Facebook groups I belong to. Young men and women are trying to make sense of the Church’s teaching considering the situations they’re encountering, and it can lead to a lot of confusion.
The first area of confusion is usually family life. Many Catholics of my generation are choosing to practice NFP, and many of them discern the call to be open to more children than is typical. (Of course, some couples discern this and are unable to have children or have a large family due to infertility or subfertility.) The internet is full of anecdotes from Catholic moms, out shopping with a brood of littles and being asked, “Do you know what causes this?”
But there are also couples that do experience infertility or subfertility. These men and women are either assumed to be using contraception (even if they are using NFP) or are being asked by the culture at large, “Why don’t you just do IVF?”
Of course, there is marriage itself. Our culture is baffled by couples that chose to periodically abstain (some for very long stretches of time) to avoid pregnancy. Even some fellow Christians criticize this, saying that it is “asking too much” of a married couple.
There is the single woman or man (but especially woman, since women are typically responsible for contraception) choosing not to take the pill or have sex. She is viewed as prudish and naïve by her doctor and by family and friends.
But then there is an even larger picture. When faithful Catholics look out at a culture gone mad regarding sexuality, we fear we are the crazy ones. We try to (lovingly) express Church teaching on sexuality to family, friends, and social media and are called “bigots,” “homophobic,” or “brainwashed.”
In all of this, Catholics (especially young Catholics) need a reminder that they aren’t crazy, or backward, or hate-filled. They are, hopefully, seeking love in the form of the cross. Practicing chastity in all states of love is a cross, but it is also love in its purest form.
Pope Paul VI to Millennials
For those of us living amid our current confused world, the words of Humanae Vitae are balm for our weary souls. What Paul VI teaches is what the Church has always taught, and he conveys the teachings of the Church on sexuality with beauty and love.
For those of us faced with confusion about what constitutes marriage, Paul VI reminds us of the place of marriage in God’s plan for the world, placing marriage in the context of a need for both union (through complementarity) and the raising of children:
“Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.”
Similarly, when considering what married love must consist of, Paul VI clearly states that it must be open to life and do nothing to block conception. (He does make especial mention of couples facing infertility, and the fact that these couples are still open to life, even when they are unable to conceive.) In his time, it was intended to shed light on why contraception was morally unacceptable, but in our own time his words also shed light on why the Church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman:
“If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life.”
For those questioning the value or goodness of chastity and even periods of abstinence in marriage, Paul VI reminds us that this kind of sacrificial love only leads to deeper love:
“The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.”
That final sentence is especially confusing to modern ears. In a society obsessed with sex, it makes no sense that to be “more truly human” we must sometimes abstain from it. But to be fully human is not to give in to our every desire – it is to have mastery over those desires.
This is where Humanae Vitae is both challenging and reassuring. The sacrifice and love that Paul VI describes is nothing less than the cross. A misunderstanding of the cross (which has appeared “foolish” from the beginning) means that what we are doing won’t make sense to the rest of the world.
This World is Not Our Home
When viewed only considering life in this world, the Church’s teaching on sexuality may not appear to make much sense. Why not choose what is more convenient (i.e. contraception, IVF, etc.) to achieve our ends? Aside from the moral implications of possible loss of life of an unborn child and side effects to the health of the mother, there is also this bigger picture. We are, as Pope Paul VI reminds us, called to be fully human. What human being was the most fully human of all? Jesus. How did Jesus love authentically? He laid down his life for his bride.
Sacrifice and suffering are integral to real love. They are essential to living out of a holy life. That doesn’t mean that we need to seek them out; it means that when we try to live out our faith, we will encounter the need for sacrifice and suffering. To the world, this does seem foolish, but the world is not our home. We are made for something greater, and Humanae Vitae reminds us to live with an eye to heaven.
image: Vatican City by Kai Pilger