There is no document issued by a pope in the last 50 years that has been met with as much conflict as Humanae Vitae. Countless couples have bought into the lie told by the culture—along with the erroneous teaching handed onto them by some members of the clergy, religious, and the laity—who told them contraception use is acceptable and that sex is the highest good.
Contraception is opposed to Christ’s teaching and its use is a mortal sin that cuts us off from the happiness we are made for in God. God’s moral teachings are not meant to be a list of “thou shalt nots” that seem to keep us from enjoying things in this life; rather, the moral law leads us to our ultimate happiness. It is God alone who knows what will ultimately make us happy.
The opposition to Humanae Vitae by so many within the Church stems from an erroneous understanding of the happiness we are made for by God. Too many people have convinced themselves that the goods of this life must negate any suffering or sacrifice on our part. Our happiness should come at all costs, which is closer to utilitarianism than it is to authentic Catholic teaching. The idea is, since sex is meant to be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed freely without any impediment. This same view undergirds those who think contraception should be allowed in marriages since—in theory—sex should be freely enjoyed without any restrictions within a marriage.
This view contradicts central aspects of Christianity, most especially the reality that the very center of our faith rests on the crucifixion of Our Lord, Jesus Christ; the Son of God who told us to pick up our cross and follow Him. Authentic love is most fully expressed through a participation in the Cross of Christ offered freely in love. The self-emptying love couples promise to one another on their wedding day is a reflection of our call to the Cross. We are called to lives of self-emptying love that is grounded in sacrifice. It is through this self-emptying where we grow in deeper union with God and our ultimate happiness is realized.
Humanae Vitae reiterates the call to the happiness we are made for in Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Marriage is not an end in itself for our own satisfaction. It is a vocation that leads us to Heaven. The happiness we experience within our marriages is a reflection of the love of the Most Holy Trinity and it is meant to draw us into deeper communion with God and with others. Our ultimate happiness can only be found in loving and serving God.
Servais Pinckaers, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness—God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes, describes how we find true happiness in God:
“God has placed the desire for happiness in the heart of every man as a fundamental thrust, and He wants to respond to it by sharing His own happiness with us, if we will allow ourselves to be led by Him along paths known to Him alone. He does not love unhappiness. He takes no pleasure in tragedies and terrors, as the devil would have us believe when he arouses the anxieties and fears hidden in our depths. God always has happiness and joy in view. He wants us to believe this for His sake, on His own word.”
The happiness we are called to—as taught in Humanae Vitae—is a call to rely fully on God in His will for our families. He knows what is best for our own sanctification and spiritual growth. This means that He is the one who ultimately decides our family size. We are called to seek His will within our families through prayer and surrender to His plan even when we can’t see the outcome. This surrender and trust on our part will lead to our ultimate peace and union with Him.
The more we cling to our own desires and plans, the more fear will grip our lives. The devil uses our lack of trust against us and it is in those moments when he is able to sow division and temptations to grave sin. God convicts us, He does not lead us to fear Him. God wants us to follow Him and this means a relinquishment of everything—including our sexuality and fertility—to Him.
Christ will ask us to go down paths where we cannot see the end results. It may mean more children, less children, or no children. Regardless of what our culture tells us, it is God who is ultimately in control of our fertility. The key to walking this path with God is through a life of prayer for both spouses. Humanae Vitae makes clear that couples are called to prayerful discernment in regard to their family size, especially in discerning when periods of Natural Family Planning or abstinence may be required. This discernment never includes the use of contraception for reasons other than the treatment of medical issues directly related to the female reproductive system and never as prevention for pregnancy even with other medical issues unrelated to reproductive health.
Discord, tension, and fear arise within our marriages when we no longer trust in God and His desire for our ultimate happiness. An area we all struggle the most is in understanding how God uses sacrifice and suffering to bring about higher sanctification within us. Even though the Church teaches that sex is a good to be enjoyed within marriage, the reality is, there will be periods within many marriages when God may be using NFP or periods of abstinence to help couples grow spiritually.
Detachment is necessary in this life—even from the highest of material goods—so that we can progress in our love of spiritual goods. If we look at periods of NFP or abstinence in this way, it helps us to understand what God is doing within our marriage even though it is not necessarily easy to accept. In fact, this acceptance can be deeply difficult. We can trust, however, that God is seeking our ultimate happiness, which only comes from union with Him. It’s in moments of doubt and confusion that we must rely in faith on Him and seek to follow Him no matter what may happen.
The only way we can find the peace and happiness we are made for is to seek the will of the Father. Our Lord shows us this truth by His example in the Garden of Gethsemane. He endured agony to the point of sweating blood as He prayed for the chalice of the Cross to be taken from Him, but He turned in kenotic love to the Father and submitted to His will. We are called to do the same with every aspect of our lives, including the size of our families. Our ultimate happiness is found in this relinquishment of our own will and submission in love to God’s will. He is the one who knows what is best for each one of us.
There will be periods in our lives when our relinquishment will require radical trust, but if we do not constantly seek to put God at the center of our marriages, then we will be opened up to a wide array of temptations. Many Catholic couples give into mortal sin and begin using contraception in their marriages because of fear and a lack of trust in the happiness God has made them for; a happiness that ultimately can only be fully realized in the next life.
When we abandon God’s will for our lives, we cut ourselves off from Him and our spouse. To give into the temptation of using contraception or reducing sex to our own pleasure and gratification is to choose unhappiness. Contraception—in all of its forms—cuts us off from God and from our spouse. Humanae Vitae is a reminder that sex is not where our ultimate fulfillment lies: It is in God alone. We are meant to enjoy this sacred gift within our marriages, but always with God’s will at the very center of all of our actions. Seeking the will of God within our marriages is the path to happiness because it will lead to the union of both spouses with the Most Holy Trinity. That is the very reason the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony exists.