There has been and will likely continue to be a fair amount of “digital ink” spilled over the 50th anniversary of Humane Vitae and its impact on modern culture; or should I say the impact of its rejection.
Humanae Vitae means “Human Life” in Latin. Nostra Hominum Vita means “our human life”. I’m normally a Big Picture kind of guy, looking more at the metaphorical forest, but for the 50th anniversary I wanted to share something about a couple of “trees” …namely my wife and I
The following is (basically) an excerpt from my book, Faith with Good Reason; and was born of the marriage ministry at our local parish. One of the things my wife and I have done for engaged couples at our parish over the years is give a talk on sex and intimacy. We relate how human sexuality relates to Theology of the Body, which relates to how we are made in the image and likeness of God, which relates to the way God loves.
God is pure spirit and our souls are pure spirit. God has both a will and an intellect, as do we. The Holy Trinity is another way that is not so intuitive, but perhaps the most profound. One way to think of God or the Trinity is as an eternal exchange of love. From the perfect and eternal exchange of love between the Father and the Son proceeds a third person called the Holy Spirit. How can that possibly be like us? In the union of Holy Matrimony, the love between a man and a woman generates a third person called…a baby. The purpose of sexual desire is not only propagation, but also the very power to love as God loves. 1
The above Trinity connection tends to raise some eyebrows (in a good way). From there we ask the group to consider the Catholic wedding vows:
- Have you come here freely? God loves freely, so we should love freely. Love is an act of the will that cannot be forced. “No one takes it from me (my life), but I lay it down on my own” (John 10:18).
- Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives? God holds nothing back in loving us totally and permanently. “…he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
- Will you accept children lovingly from God? God’s love is always fruitful and brings life. Marriage does the same. “…I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). “Be fertile and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1).
We explain that procreation is an indispensable part of marriage and the one flesh union should always be something totally self-giving that holds nothing back; it should be “God-like”. When procreation is mentioned as part of marriage, even on only a theological level, infertile couples are sometimes called out on the carpet. For example, why are infertile couples allowed to marry in the eyes of God and the Church and not gay couples? We explain that an infertile male and female union is still of the same procreative “type” just like any male and female union.
Ponder a baseball analogy for a moment. A baseball team is orientated to winning baseball games. Even if they never win a game, no matter how much they try, they are still a baseball team and are always allowed on the baseball diamond. A football team also never wins a baseball game, but a football team is not relevant to winning baseball games and is not allowed on the baseball field, neither is a soccer team, or any other kind of team other than a baseball team.
We then share about “nostra hominum vita” (our human life) ….
My wife and I explain NFP (Natural Family Planning) and how we have used it our entire marriage. We have three children and used NFP to help achieve our first pregnancy; and our son was born about eighteen months after our wedding. Not long after, we used NFP again to achieve our second pregnancy. Our first daughter was born twenty-five months after our son. Around this time a co-worker said something to me (in jest).
- Co-worker: Nicely done; you have your boy and your girl. You’re getting “fixed” now, right?
- Me: I’m not broken.
- Co-worker: Sounds like something is working a little too well.
- Me: I’ll see a doctor about a medical procedure when something is wrong with me, not when things are normal.
We both laughed, but it brings up the point that we treat fertility much like a disease; we get prescriptions, have surgery and buy “gadgets” to stop it. If fertility is a gift designed by God, it would be unreasonable to treat it this way. Going beyond unreasonable, we have reached the point where not using artificial contraception is viewed as ignorant and irresponsible. My wife and I take the precise opposite view. Many are ignorant about natural law and irresponsible about sex, so what is the result in terms of contraception? No birth and no control.
Once couples hear the logic, they may think it’s a nice theory that perhaps belongs in the heavens somewhere, but it’s not practical for real people living on Earth. We then get into the practical benefits of NFP, which have helped us.
More knowledge fosters better family planning:
It’s not only for avoiding pregnancy and spacing children, but also achieving pregnancy. When a couple has trouble conceiving, one of the first things a doctor may do is have them try some aspects of NFP. You’ll know if you’re pregnant before a doctor can know. Many women miscarry without even knowing they were pregnant. We knew we were pregnant with our third child not long after conception and noticed some unusual signs, so my wife consulted with a doctor. A prescription to boost a hormone may have prevented the miscarriage of our youngest daughter.
It’s free and natural. In fact, there are those who use NFP simply because they prefer to do things naturally instead of artificially (no theological reason). It’s really just common sense. Ironically, as we become more health conscious, we’ll avoid natural things like fat, salt, sugar and pay extra for organic foods, but at the same time gladly encourage women to pump themselves with artificial hormones via pills and patches.
It fosters better communication between couples. NFP couples have very low divorce rates. Think about it; whether avoiding or achieving pregnancy, if you’re going to be intimate with each other, you’ll need to stay in intimate communication on a regular basis.
Better with Time:
We experienced how a women’s cycle can become more regular after having children, which makes NFP easier to do. As you start having children, spacing them out can become more and more important, so the woman’s cycle becomes easier to read. God knows what he’s doing when He designs something. Also, if avoiding pregnancy, the cycles of abstaining and being together mirror a natural dating-honeymoon cycle that continually breathes new life into a marriage.
From here we get more into the two purposes of sex that should not be separated—babies and bonding. We use an analogy with food. Food has two purposes; nutrition and social bonding. Suppose you go to a party for pleasure and eat all the food you want, but you don’t want all those calories, so you head over to the restroom afterwards and make yourself throw up. That’s not the purpose of food! Now consider the other extreme; suppose a new one-a-day pill was invented which would provide all the nutrition you would ever need, and you decided never to eat again. No restaurants, no party food, no dining with family and friends, nothing at holidays, no food ever. This would disorder your social life. We also explain how NFP is not like artificial contraception when avoiding pregnancy because you are using the gift of fertility the way God designed it. It’s the difference between intentionally blocking something vs. just not participating in something.
Relating Back to The Big Picture:
If marriage is for the personal happiness and pleasure of two individuals, then having children is obviously an unnecessary by-product, and we are currently reaping the consequences of this lie. The Truth is that marriage is meant to be unitive, procreative, mutually-exclusive and permanent and none of these aspects can be intentionally separated. This is not true because the Catholic Church teaches it. The Catholic Church teaches it because it’s true!
When we look throughout salvation history we see a reoccurring theme that is really a reoccurring question. It started with Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden and continued with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all the Israelites, the kings of Israel, all the way up to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The question was and still is: Will you trust God?
My wife and I were also in a “trusting” situation with “nostra hominum vita”. When we started NFP all we had was a Church teaching in one hand and an NFP class we took in the other. No one we knew was using NFP. No family; no friends. It was hard at times, so we had to face the question head on more than once; will you trust God? We did, and we are forever grateful!
- Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners (West Chester: Ascension Press, 2004), pp. 27-29.