By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Humanae Vitae is not an elegant treatise on the Church’s traditional teaching against artificial contraception. It lacks the philosophical brilliance of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, which appeared a decade or so after Pope Paul VI absorbed crushing criticism of his encyclical “on human life.” Cardinal Ratzinger himself regarded the document as something of a missed opportunity to present the church’s understanding of natural family planning in a more positive light.
Of course, one could criticize the prophets of Israel for the same terseness of language, the identical preference for the blunt statement of the facts guaranteed to meet with disdain over a flowery platitude-fest designed merely to avoid controversy. But just as the prophets burned with the urgency of the Lord’s message and experienced the isolation that message ensured, so too Paul VI channeled fearlessly a teaching he had been severely pressured to abandon by priests and laity alike. He doubled down on the prophetic power of the church’s past teaching as he looked to the future and the consequences for society of what he called the “contraceptive mentality.” His forecast in 1968 of greater marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards given the widespread use of contraception has been amply demonstrated in sociological studies. His warning about the reduction of women to the status of pleasure-givers for men sadly anticipated the #MeToo movement, as well as the explosion of Internet pornography, a cancer eating away the heart of humanity while destroying lives and marriages.
The furious rejection that greeted the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968 has, for the most part, yielded to snickering at the antiquated stodginess of the Catholic Church or, more commonly, to ignorance, sometimes genuine, sometimes willful, about why the church teaches what it does about marriage, contraception, and natural family planning. In light of the 50th anniversary of the encyclical, surely worth noting is the fact that the Catholic Church, virtually alone among the Christian communities, has consistently voiced its opposition to the relentless trend and pressure to impose a more “liberated” view of sex and marriage on enlightened believers. Surely worth pausing over is the statement made by Chesterton in a different context, but still strikingly relevant for this discussion: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
Should the preachers championing tolerance of any and every sexual preference not embrace the backwards Catholics who insist on the natural goodness of the male and female bodies and the married love that unites them?
I am not naïve about the incredible demands Humanae Vitae places on married couples, and women in particular. Many have admitted to me how difficult the church’s teaching is to live out, how tempting it is to cut corners with contraception, how frustrated they feel at the frequent lack of resources and sympathy for their honest efforts. Yet these women also acknowledge the crazy brilliance of the church’s defiant stance against a culture of contraceptive convenience; these mothers feel immensely grateful to Paul VI and subsequent Popes for their courageous defense of what the church has always taught to be true about life and love.
They understand the grace and joy that comes from embracing the challenge of living in accordance with the church’s teaching, and some are fearless in wanting to share their joy with other women, other mothers. One such group that has just begun its work in the DFW area goes by the name Mighty Is Her Call (www.mightyishercall.com). Their website features testimonials of the burdens and privileges of motherhood rooted in the love of Christ, and the organizers offer retreats throughout the year to counsel and encourage fellow mothers in this most noble vocation. The women committed to this ministry are the face of the church at its most pastoral and beautiful; they are prophets of a desperately needed joy that flows from the desire to follow the church’s teachings. I would encourage all mothers to seek and find a welcome community among these noble women eager to share the redemptive sufferings and joys of motherhood with each other.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.