This week was the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most controversial letter ever written by a Pope. On July 25th, 1968, Pope Paul VI released the letter Humanae Vitae, answering the question of whether or not artificial means of preventing birth—most especially the birth control pill—violated Catholic moral teaching. Fifty years later both the teaching and the public response to it remain hot topics. In 2012, the controversy heated up again when the Health and Human Services Department mandated that Catholic institutions like schools and hospitals would have to pay for employees’ contraceptive plans under the Affordable Care Act. The bandages were torn off the old wounds about the Church’s teaching as the Bishops and even the Little Sisters of the Poor challenged the Obama administration in court. But I think we, and here I especially mean we priests, have failed to explain this teaching adequately. In 1968, we tended to explain it as a matter of obedience to Apostolic authority. And in the last decade we tended to just make the argument that our religious freedom and our Catholic consciences were being taken away by government mandate. What we need to do, and should have done for 50 years, was actually make the argument of why contraception, in all its many forms, is not good for a woman, for a family, or for a society. We Catholics need to understand it for our own sake and so we can give a response to others who might think us scientifically backwards or morally Puritanical.
Fear not about your kids here; my language will be carefully chosen and veiled for this. And anyone who can understand it, has the right to know it.
About words: I’m going to use the phrase “open to life” to mean the opposite of contraception, which would include both using Natural Family Planning to make good, prudent decisions, and also simply saying “Ok, God, we trust you; whatever You think.” Also, I don’t see this homily as a final answer; I see this as the beginning of a conversation.
And finally about my approach: This is a journey of the heart. I won’t be quoting Scripture passages; I will be ignoring the Catechism. This is between two people, you and me. Any person who has even just an inkling that there’s purpose in the universe should be able to hear these words and reason with us. In fact, the best resource I offer people is a book by two Protestants: The Open Embrace, by Sam & Bethany Torode. There is no “The Pope says; the Catechism says” here. This is a couple saying what your heart already knows.
Let’s take a look at the history of contraception. Previous to the 20th century, all major Christian denominations considered it immoral. And contrary to what you’ll hear maybe in popular history, it wasn’t because they wanted lots of people for the farming and for bulking up their church’s membership. No, it was because all churches saw it as a humongous invitation to promiscuity. No risk, no commitment. Adulterers would think they could get a free vacation from their spouse; those not yet married could have a test-drive. All Christian denominations rejected it, and most other religions agreed. You will find twenty-seven quotes by Gandhi against it. But in 1930, the Church of England decided at its every-ten-years conference at Lambeth to allow it: only in marriage, only with good reasons, only if not for “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.” It seemed the perfect middle solution: no fooling around, only for good motives, no selfishness. But of course, we all always have a good reason for doing what we want. We can imagine the conversation some night:
“Do you realize we met five years ago tonight? We were so…spontaneous, back then. Catch my drift?”
“Yes…but lemme see…six, seven, eight, nine months…nope that could put us in June, and we are set our big vacation in June.”
“True…so this would be a good reason to skip the pregnant part, right?”
And within a generation, the Catholic Church stood alone among churches, as every other church agreed to Lambeth’s “selfless” principles.
Things got interesting in the 1960s. Pope John XXIII had called the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1960 when Dr. John Rock, a Catholic OB/GYN and a daily Mass-goer put the final stamp on what today we just call “the Pill”. Now, we must try to see where Rock was coming from and why people got their hopes up. The question was not, “Will the Church allow contraception?” because assuredly it would not. You can’t rewrite Sacred Tradition in the morals department anymore than you can proclaim that God is a Quadrinity in the doctrine department. The question was whether the Pill is a contraceptive. Rock had actually based the Pill on Pius XII’s logic that it was fine for couples to have recourse to the non-fertile times of the month for child-spacing, et cetera. Rock’s pill was just extending that timeframe to the full month. In 1958, Pius XII had even said it was ok to use something like the later Pill for reasons that were exclusively medical—an approval that stands to this day. Pius had died that same year and John XXIII died five years later. In 1966, Pope Paul VI expanded the Commission to 58 people: doctors, married couples, theologians…and a 46-year old archbishop whom the Communists wouldn’t let out of Poland—Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II. It was the peak of the 1960s: “The Summer of Love”—1967, and “The Summer of Chaos”—1968. Much had changed in ten years, and now the majority of the Commission wanted open approval for all contraception. The future Pope John Paul was on the side of minority, but he differed from some of the objectors in that the ideas he mailed to Paul VI weren’t focused on human bodies, but on human hearts. In the end, Pope Paul went against the majority, and he took a few—but not all—of Karol Wojtyła’s ideas, and wrote Humanae Vitae, translated “Of Human Life”.
The year was 1968: the Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King Jr. shot, Bobby Kennedy shot, the Chicago Democratic Convention Riots, the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics…and group of cool, smart young priests and theologians were waiting to launch their own revolution in Washington DC. At Catholic University of America, 34-year old Fr. Charles Curran and his associates had gotten an embargoed copy of Humanae Vitae, read it, and already had a biting response ready to go in front of a press conference before most bishops had even read the papal encyclical. It was like Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960: one side looked vigorous, smart, modern; the other didn’t. It was a PR disaster for the Pope and the bishops, and Fr. Curran’s brand of theological opinion became the American norm as he took over as Theology Chair at what is theoretically the Pope’s own university here in America.
Meanwhile, Catholics in America were all too ready to hear why the Pope was wrong. The Civil Rights Movement had easily transitioned to Women’s Rights Movement and then more radical feminist movements. One of foundation stones of radical feminism was safe and accessible contraception. Now women’s futures could be planned without fear of fickle nature. Now women could double the income for their families. Now women could be as ruthless in the boardrooms as men, and as rude in the bedrooms. In less than five more years, “perfect equality” in America would be established as Roe vs. Wade was made law of the land. At last, no woman would ever carry a burden she didn’t want, no child ever grow up unloved, marriages would be strengthened by only having children on their terms, divorce numbers would go down, and per household income would go up. The American Dream was secured.
Oh, wait, no it wasn’t. Actually only one of those happened—women planning their futures more easily—and some research has shown that even that hasn’t created more happiness for them in the long run.
Why? Why did things go amiss, even in the midst of loving Christian marriages? What was it that Archbishop Wojtyła recognized, and that Pope Paul feared? The key is recognizing that human beings aren’t like the dogs we spay or the steers we snip. Human love runs differently. Take two dogs that have mated. If she later sees him mating with another female, you’ll never see her run to her mom bawling “Mom, he told me he loved me.” We’re different. We would go bawl. The human heart wasn’t made for half-hearted love. On some level, we truly can’t bear it. We are woundable—woundable because our conjugal relations have a very strong connection to a choice to love. If someone stops choosing to love you, then that past shared bliss becomes an ache and a wound.
What the future John Paul II saw was that it wasn’t about bodies and body parts. No, the heart was the real treasury of right and wrong —and the battlefield of those two— and our bodies are how we express what’s inside. And he started by saying that in our hearts the real opposite of Love isn’t hate, it’s Use. If I hate you, well, “So long, get out of here, I don’t care”. But if I use you, I keep you around for what I can get. And he defined Love, as we still do today, as “to make a true gift of yourself”. Love = to Give, but then to Use = to Take. The things that drive both of these come next. What allows you to Give, to Love, to take the chance, is Trust —trust you’ll accept this love and love me back. Its opposite, which gets people to Take and Use, is Grasp. I can’t trust, I can’t wait, I want what I want, and so I grasp. So you see the next one already: What I Want over here vs. What’s Good For You on this side. Likewise, Love and Trust think of the Other person and see them as an End in themself, while Use thinks of one’s Self and sees the other as a Means to my own happiness. Put them all together and you get: seeing someone as a Person vs. seeing them as an Object.
With that as background, let’s look first at contraception used outside of marriage. First, consider what kinds of relationships these are: the hook-up, the affair, the just-taking-a-test-drive living together couple. The whole reason they are kept not open to life is because there’s a lack of commitment. It’s a nice “you get what you want; I get what I what.” The reason they don’t want to risk new life is that they know this is Using. A contracepting woman is basically seen by men like a rental car: all of the convenience, none of the obligation. Perhaps you’ve heard of men chiding a buddy who’s dated or lived with a woman a long time but not proposed to her, and he quips to his buddies: “Hey, why buy the cow if the milk is free?” That’s a horrible worldview. And you know what? It is the contraceptive that makes sure that the milk is always free. Think about that. Contraception is not the modern woman’s best friend; no, it’s modern man’s dream come true. So my first question is: Why would you want to bring these kinds of products and their worldview anywhere near your marriage?
The second and more important question is why does contraception wound love?—because this was the problem the two popes saw. It’s because the marital act is different from most human acts. Hunger draws you toward food, and when you engage the food the result is you’re satisfied. Hunger has achieved its end. When you’re attracted to and love someone, you’re drawn toward them, but when you engage them the results are an intense bonding and the possibility of new life. And so we say the two ends of the marital embrace are babies and bonding, or life and love, or —most precisely— the procreative and the unitive dimensions of it. The fatal flaw in birth control is that it tries to isolate the two ends of marriage —“I’m just looking for bonding now”— and so, minutely, imperceptibly, unintentionally it damages them both. After 2,000 years of closely watching human nature, the Church’s conclusion was that you can’t intentionally close the door to life without inadvertently closing out love too. You may think you are getting that one still, but it’s being diminished.
Many people think that’s a stretch. Let me borrow an example from Dr. Janet Smith to demonstrate how openness to life protects openness to love. Picture a college age couple. They’re seniors; they’ve been dating about four months. They’re having a picnic one afternoon and the guy stares intently at the girl, and looks deep into her eyes and says: “We’ve been dating a while now, and, well I can’t keep from saying it anymore: I want to have a physically intimate relationship with you.” Ladies, don’t be too impressed. If you say “no”, there are a hundred more women on this campus who might say “yes”. But…if he stares at her and looks deep into her eyes and says: “We’ve been dating a while now, and, well I can’t keep from saying it anymore: I want to have children with you. I want my kids to be tucked into bed by you. I want the girls to act like you and the boys to want to stand up to defend you.” Ladies, call your mom. That’s a marriage proposal. We know the difference in a love that is open and willing to make another human being with someone.
And people will object: “But Father, we are going to be open to having children, but that doesn’t mean we always have to be open every time we touch! We’ll be open to new life at least 80% of the time.” Hmm… Would you say it’s a good marriage if the couple is faithful —physically— to each other only 80% of the time? Would it be a healthy marriage if 20% of the time one of them is abandoned by the other? Because the wedding vows of the Church ask if a couple is willing to 1) stay together for life, 2) be faithful to each other, and 3) be open to having and rearing children. Doing any vow just 80% of the time is not good. The heart knows when it’s being accepted fully and when it’s being seen as a timeshare condo. Natural Family Planning, which seeks to know when the least fertile times are, differs by saying “We’re always open to life; God can do whatever He wants. It seems unlikely He’d gift us with new life here, but that’s His decision.”
See, it all comes down to Trust, and trust is something that shrinks, and grows, and changes with only the minutest of observable signs. The root of Grasping is fear; fear ruins people and relationships. But St. John the Apostle writes to us: “But perfect loves casts out fear!” Tiny acts of Love and Trust keep fear out and make the relationship stronger, while not trusting erodes what looks like a good marriage.
I want to share with you a scene from one of my favorite movies, Four Christmases. The story is about Brad played by Vince Vaughn and Kate played by Reese Witherspoon. They are a couple that never wants to get married, get tied down, or have kids. Most of this stems from the divorces of their parents, which is why they have four Christmases to go to. On this one day though they begin to see little ways in which they aren’t trusting, aren’t loving openly, and are fearful. Here’s the key conversation after Kate takes a pregnancy test. It even uses the words I’ve been using:
Brad: Listen, if there's one thing we've learned by being forced to be around our families today it's about the dangers of procreating. Besides, that's not the things that we want in life.
Kate: Brad, I realized it today. I thought for sure, I'd always known that I didn't want to have kids and I took this test, I'm waiting to see if it's positive or negative and I thought, for just a second. I felt...different. You know? I felt hopeful. Like maybe it would just happen and we'd be forced to get over all of our fears.
We have spent so much of our relationship creating all these boundaries you know, and making sure that we don't limit ourselves with responsibility...and obligation, and I don't wanna live like that anymore. Because that's not loving at all.
I'm tired of being one foot in. I want us to be open, to love each other... however it's going to be. And if one day that means we get married if we have kids one day I feel like that's okay. I wanna be in a relationship... that goes where it needs to go.
Openness to life safeguards the openness to love. Even in marriage, contracepting is being “one foot in”; it’s a boundary created by worry about obligation. Openness in one part of a marriage extends into the others.
We long to be loved fully, unreservedly, unconditionally. Birth control says I love everything about you except one little thing: your fertility, your sperm, your femininity.
Do you remember maybe ten years ago a Dr. Pepper commercial featuring a song by the singer Meatloaf? For those who don’t, there’s a dating couple and she drags him to all the worst scenarios: she’s in the car all cramped up while he’s in the drugstore, they’re folding her clothes at the Laundromat, going to yoga, he’s holding her purse while she shops. And all the while, as he sucks it up out of love, the song is saying “And I would do anything for love, I would do anything for love….” But at the end —the last straw— she reaches for his can of Dr. Pepper, and he leaps off the couch and runs out the door as the chorus belts, “…I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that!” Dr. Pepper Love is not unconditionally love. There is one condition, one thing is off-limits: don’t take my drink! He loves her a lot, but not entirely.
Contraception in marriage is a Dr. Pepper kind of love. I say I love everything about you, but I don’t. I don’t want to give myself to you entirely; I’m holding one thing back. I can’t trust that you’ll love the whole me. Contraception is like saying: “I love you so much. I long for you. I want to make love to you. Now, would you mind putting this bag over your head first, though? Thanks. Now I can enjoy this without distractions.”
Some of you right now think I’m crazy. You’re thinking “not in the marriages I know!” To which I say: “Oh, really? Then why are there so many faked headaches in so many bedrooms across this country? Why can some comedians make a living out of jokes about being denied by their spouses? Why? Because we have antennae in us for when we’re being used. Humans —and I think especially women— have sensors for picking up tiny, imperceptible little hints that “this is not a gift”. And the surest way to shift from Give to Take is to disconnect the relationship from its openness to life. It says, “I want the bonus without the burden.” Sorry, honey, I love you, but not enough to risk there being another of you in the world.
And people may still say: “Well, our marriage is fine. Our group of friends are all in good shape.” I’d say: “That means you’re coping well.” Seriously, talk to a couple who has contracepted before and then quit. They literally had no idea what they were missing, what little bits of communication were skipped, what possible moments of Use were allowed to sneak by —bits and moments that they can see clearly now. I know probably a dozen couples at least, of various ages, who would love to tell you about how they’ve been changed. Seriously, give me your number, I’ll have them call you. I’m not kidding. There are some who literally consider the day they learned there were other options the best day of their last 25 years.
I could go on for another 20 minutes demonstrating how contraception actually took money away from families (see The Two-Income Trap by Warren & Tyagi), how much of our poverty today is caused by the single parenthood that contraception has made common, and how infidelity, divorce, and marital unhappiness have grown —not shrunk— since contraception became widespread. But I want to end with a story about how we know “what love is” by how it acts.
In Iowa, in the late 1940s or early 50s —before all these things were available— there was a farm couple that had had a very rough, incredibly dangerous last pregnancy. And as her body was returning to normal she went to see the doctor. And now she’s in the kitchen twisting her apron to bits waiting for her husband to come in from the field. He comes in and can see she’s upset and instantly wants to know what the doctor said. Her eyes already are brimming with tears as she says: “He said…he said I just can’t get pregnant again…not till we have some idea what’s wrong…it’s too dangerous…so we’ve either got to stop all together…or maybe there may be a day or two when we know for certain that it’s safe.” And the farmer’s brow gets all furrowed and his face turns red, and now she’s really crying as she turns away from him thinking, “I knew it. I knew he’d blow his stack. This is too much for him.” He meanwhile has sat himself down at the table and is clenching his fists and is just glaring straight ahead. She sits down and sobs to him: “Look, maybe there a chance…maybe we can be careful and…a few more times…” At that he slams his fist down and shouts, “No, I don’t care what that doctor says!” And she thinks, “I knew it! We’re over now. This isn’t…” But he cuts across her thoughts and says: “I don’t care what he says. We’re not doing it. At all. I’m not taking any chances. I don’t care how long we have to wait; I don’t care if it’s months or years. It’s not gonna happen. I don’t care if it’s hard on us, if it’s hard on me. I’ll get through that. But no, I’m not doing anything that could even begin to take a risk with you.”
We know love when we see it. I promise you, that that marriage was not hurt by this. They waited two full years before the doctors could discover and fix her problems, and I promise you that marriage did not grow weaker. It only grew stronger, because they saw what love was, and what love does, and what love doesn’t do.
We know Love when we see it. Paul VI and John Paul II saw it at afar even when the world didn’t.
The world said that unbridled freedom was the only thing and unsacrificial love was the only way to have it.
Did they deliver on happier, long-lasting marriages, less unplanned pregnancies, and less infidelity?
Or were the popes right: that affairs, divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, general immorality, and disrespect for women would increase?
We are not wrong on this.
We weren’t wrong 50 years ago, and we aren’t wrong now.
We have nothing to be ashamed of in this.
We should be proudly claiming it again.
We must be fearless.