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Humanae Vitae After Twenty-Five Years: Responses to Some Common Difficulties
PAUL FLAMAN, S.T.D.
This paper considers some common difficulties with respect to Humanae Vitae and its teaching regarding family planning, especially with respect to its approval of NFP and its disapproval of all forms of direct contraception.
While many have understood and agreed with Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) on birth control published in 1968,  many others have found difficulty with some of its teaching. Concerning this Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio on the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (1981) has noted that “many couples encounter difficulties not only in the concrete fulfilment of moral norm but even understanding its inherent values.” (33),  The purpose of this paper is to respond to some of these difficulties.
In a General Audience on April 2, 1980 Pope John Paul II said that in order to respond adequately to the many questions raised today regarding marriage and procreation, it is necessary to have an integral vision.  Humanae Vitae itself presents an integral vision. The whole area of the responsible transmission of human life is treated by Paul VI in light of an integral Christian understanding of human life, conjugal love and marriage related to God, as their source and ultimate end. The theological doctrines of creation, sin, redemption and grace underlie the teaching and pastoral directives. Of note, Paul VI outlines a holistic model of marriage and conjugal love (8-9) before focusing on certain specifics concerning responsible parenthood, and illicit and licit ways of regulating birth.
A number of noted authors have developed lines of argument in support of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. For example, Dietrich Von Hildebrand treats birth control in light of the meaning of the conjugal act as an expression of the loving mutual self-donation of husband and wife and its superabundant finality whereby spouses participate in God's act of creation.  Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, William May, and others have developed a line of argument related to respecting basic human goods, including human life in its transmission or procreation, and the openness required for integral human fulfillment in Christ.  Paul Quay has developed an argument in light of sexual symbolism and sacramentality.  Pope John Paul II has developed several lines of argument especially in light of the “language of the body”.  In a recent comprehensive study, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, Janet Smith discusses the background of Humanae Vitae, analyzes the encyclical itself, and discusses some of the main lines of argument in support of the encyclical and some of the main objections raised against it. 
1. THE GOAL AND MEANS OF THE AGENTS
A difficulty often encountered concerning the teaching of Humanae Vitae that direct contraception is always illicit, but Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be licit in marriage for good reasons, concerns the question of human goals and means to achieve these. “If the goal of using contraception and NFP is the same,” that is, one intends to avoid conceiving a child, many ask, “What is the difference?” First of all, it should be noted that NFP can be used as well to try to achieve pregnancy. Also certain “pills” that can be used for a contraceptive purpose are sometimes used for therapeutic purposes. Humanae Vitae, 15, speaks of the licitness of such therapeutic means provided they are necessary and any impediment to procreation is not directly willed. When NFP is used to try to avoid conceiving, there is indeed some similarity of goal or remote intention on the part of the human agents with the use of contraceptives. The goal, however, is not the sole determinant of the morality of a human action.
Compare two students who both have the same “goal” to get a good mark in a course. One tries to achieve this by attending lectures, doing adequate research for the essay and studying well for the examinations. The other tries to get a good mark by handing in under one's own name a “well-written” essay by someone else and by trying to devise a method of cheating on the examinations without getting caught. Although the goal of the two students is the same in a sense, the means of the two students are very different. The first student uses honest means; the second dishonest means. Honest or good means, while sometimes difficult, tend to ennoble the character and personality of the person who chooses them. In this case, the first student, unless improperly motivated, will grow in virtues such as honesty and hard work. He or she is also likely to learn much more. This in itself is conducive to other good goals for taking a course in the first place (e.g. to gain theoretical and/or practical knowledge related to life and work). Dishonest or evil means, often chosen because they are easier, tend to harm the character and personality of the agent. Even if the second student is not caught, he or she reinforces vices such as dishonesty and laziness, and may have missed learning knowledge important to one's future quality of life and work. Cheating is counterproductive regarding the longer term goals of education related to taking a particular course. The choice of different means can also involve different proximate intentions with respect to an important value or values. The first student's choice of means is compatible with a proper respect and promotion of the value of truth. The second student's choice of means necessarily involves a proximate intention that is incompatible with a proper respect and promotion of the truth. .
NFP and the use of contraceptives are profoundly different means of regulating conception. NFP tends to foster better communication between the spouses, respect for their bodies and the God-given gift of fertility, and hence, a better image of oneself and partner. It is also healthy and tends to foster the virtue of chastity (self-control in the sexual area according to the requirements of a properly ordered love of God, self and others). One's proximate intention in the choice of NFP, also when used to avoid conception, can be compatible with a proper respect for the basic value of procreation (human collaboration with God in creating new human persons) and the total mutual giving of self naturally symbolized in sexual intercourse. 
The use of contraceptives often involves health risks, in particular for the woman.  Contraceptives, which involve deliberately making human sexual intercourse infertile by human initiative, necessarily involve a direct proximate intention contrary to the wonderful God-given gift of human fertility.  They thus tend to lower esteem for one's body and self and the body and self of one's partner. Direct contraception necessarily involves a lack of proper respect for both the procreative and unitive meanings, values and God-given purposes of human sexual intercourse. It is, therefore, counterproductive with respect to growth in the virtue of chastity, integral human fulfillment and union with God. 
2. REALISTIC APPROACHES TO SERIOUS PROBLEMS
For many people, to present contraception as always immoral and never to be promoted seems very unrealistic. The realities of world population growth, pregnancies out of wedlock especially involving teenagers, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and certain difficult marital situations are frequently mentioned. Compare certain pragmatic, utilitarian, consequentialist and proportionalist approaches.
a) Population Growth Concerns
Concerning world population growth, it should be noted that while some places in the world are experiencing rapid population growth, many other places including most Western countries have birth rates of less than what is needed to keep the population at its present level. In any case, modern means of NFP are effective enough to lead to even a decline in population if that were desirable. The Ovulation Method of NFP, for example, is easy to learn, inexpensive and ideal for illiterate and poor people, among others. Some of those who know of the effectiveness of NFP if properly used, however, say that many people lack the motivation to use them. Many of these same people though lack the motivation to want to use other methods. For example, a couple in a poor country without adequate pensions and assistance for the elderly may be motivated to have many children with the hopes that a few will survive to provide for them in their old age. In light of such attitudes, some have even tried to impose coercive and/or deceptive programs of contraception and/or sterilization, for the “greater good” . Such programs (e.g. Indira Gandhi's in India), however, have been resented and have been correctly criticized as a violation of the right of free and informed consent. Problems related to poverty and population growth need to be addressed instead with good means such as programs of integral development. These include improving living conditions for the poor; adequate health care, social and moral assistance, and adequate pensions for the elderly, where these are lacking; and holistic moral education and cultural formation. Correcting injustices, land reform and better agricultural methods are needed too in many places. NFP is a moral means well-suited to integral human development, whereas contraception is not. 
b) Adolescent Pregnancies
Concerning pregnancies out of wedlock, especially involving teenagers, there is indeed an enormous problem, and not only for the persons directly involved. There are also high costs for the wider society. There is much evidence that simply promoting contraceptives, including providing them in schools free of charge with factual information, does not solve the problem. Many studies show that adolescent pregnancies often increase in conjunction with introducing such programs. Such simplistic programs do not address the psychological, moral and spiritual harm of premature and non-marital sexual relations. Paul VI's speaking of the consequences of methods of artificial birth control including “the general lowering of morality” comes to mind. Concerning this he says in part, “Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men [and women] - especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point - have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance.” (HV, 17) What is needed to address this problem is holistic sexuality education that promotes true values and the virtue of chastity. There is evidence that holistic sexuality programs for teenagers that promote abstinence and/or chastity (e.g. Sex Respect, Teen-Aid and Teen STAR), while not eliminating all problems in this area, are quite effective. 
c) Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Contraceptives, in particular condoms, are often promoted as a means to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Again, we are faced with serious problems not only for the people directly involved (cf. not only the risk of death, but also of bodily harm including infertility, discomfort, etc.), but of enormous costs to society as well. Concerning this issue, it is important to be informed of the relevant facts and values.
Condoms are not a very effective means of birth control, and there are reasons to think that they are likely to be even less effective with respect to preventing the transmission of STDs including AIDS. There also exist a number of STDs including the common human papilloma and herpes simplex viruses for which the condom offers little, if any, “protection” .  Although it may be true to say that “proper” use of a condom reduces the risk of transmission of some STDs including AIDS by sexual intercourse involving an infected person, the risks are still significant. For example, the United States Public Health Service has cautioned “that - even with a condom - any type of intercourse with a person known to be infected with the AIDS virus is so dangerous to an uninfected partner that anyone in such a situation should 'consider alternative methods of expressing physical intimacy.'” 
A number of important values are relevant to the use of condoms. Although the goal of their use may be to promote good values such as health and/or responsible parenthood, they are a means that fails to respect properly both the unitive and procreative meanings, values and God-given purposes of human sexuality. As a barrier method, the use of condoms is a real physical and symbolic barrier to intimacy, to becoming “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). This obviously contradicts the total mutual giving and receiving naturally signified by sexual intercourse. Even if condoms are not used with anti-procreative intent, the intention to obstruct the transmission of bodily fluids including semen and sperm is incompatible with sexual intercourse's remaining “open to the transmission of life.” (HV, 11)
If Christian and other teaching on sexual abstinence for the unmarried and sexual fidelity for the married were universally practiced, human STDs would virtually disappear. Many educators see that to promote such lifestyles is not only the moral way but also the best way to reduce the transmission of STDs. Some people, however, while they say that they agree that non-marital sex is irresponsible, argue that it is proper to promote the use of condoms for those who will be promiscuous in spite of educational attempts to the contrary. Concerning this issue though, a proper application of the Principles of Professional Communication and Legitimate Cooperation,  is needed.
Professionals and others teaching and counselling in this area should first of all try to establish and preserve a trusting relationship with the people they are serving. They should also communicate the truth that others legitimately need, according to their age and level of maturity, to form their consciences properly. This includes not only accurate relevant factual information, but also sharing the relevant values and norms. Good norms guide us to respect values properly. One should also avoid formal cooperation in evil. That is, one should never directly intend that another do evil, for example, to engage in non-marital sex and/or to use means including condoms that violate the marital/unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. If others choose to do immoral actions, which we should never approve, we should not condemn them. Rather, we should pray for them and seek to maintain a trusting relationship with the hope of their conversion in the future. It can also be helpful to understand any psychological factors (e.g. disordered attachments, insecurities, compulsive sexual behavior, prejudice) relevant to a case and how best to deal with them.
d) The Difficulty of Using NFP for Some Married Couples
The periodic abstinence required for NFP to be effective, with respect to avoiding conception, can be difficult for some married couples. While many people see NFP as having many advantages, some of these people argue that using contraceptives can be justified for some married couples. We will consider two types of difficult situations here: difficulties in exercising self-control and situations that require extended periods of abstinence.
It should be recognized that some spouses will find the self-control of the periodic sexual abstinence during the fertile time involved in using NFP to avoid conception more difficult than others.  Compare some people finding the self-control necessary to meet the requirements of an integral love with respect to other behaviors (e.g. eating, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, expressing anger) more difficult than others. In all of these areas, including the sexual, it is important to understand and appreciate the important values at stake such as health, the dignity of persons and/or the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. If one truly appreciates the inherent significance of such important values, then one will be motivated strongly, for the right reasons, to try always to respect properly such values. It is important to realize that we are not talking about self-control for the sake of self-control, or self-control motivated by reasons such as vanity or following some arbitrary rule, but of what an integral love of God, self and others objectively requires of one.
Even if one is well-motivated, it may sometimes be difficult to exercise the required self-control due to human weakness, especially if one has developed certain bad habits of thinking and acting. Here it is important to try to apply the recommended means of overcoming such weaknesses and bad habits such as avoiding unnecessary situations of temptation for oneself, good spiritual reading, a balanced life of work and healthy recreation, ascetical practices suited to oneself, and especially prayer. Regarding the latter, it is important to realize both our impotency to overcome sin by our own resources alone, and the infinite power and desire of God to heal and transform us in Christ, if only we freely cooperate. Patience is also important. If we fail, in spite of our best efforts, we should not become discouraged, but entrust ourselves to the mercy of God and always be ready to begin again. God can use our failures to help us grow in other virtues such as humility. We should never forget that God works out everything for the best for those who love Him. (see Rm 8:28) 
Some marital situations may require extended periods of abstinence in using NFP to avoid conception. Consider the case of someone who alternately works away from home for two weeks and then is home for a week. It could happen that for an extended period of time (i.e. several months) one is away from one's spouse during the infertile times and at home during the fertile times. In such a case some people would argue that, even though NFP is an ideal form of family planning, contraception is justified here, so that the couple can regularly express their love fully. Certainly one should be sympathetic to such cases. First of all, one could explore whether there are any alternatives within the couple's means to harmonize better the use of NFP with work schedules, etc., such as rearranging one's work schedule or the other spouse visiting after hours at the job site. In any case, other types of situations sometimes exist, unrelated to using NFP, that require one to abstain for extended periods if one is to respect properly important values. Consider the case of a spouse away for several months or longer (e.g. due to war). Both may be tempted to have sexual relations with someone else or to masturbate, but are called to abstain to be faithful to each other, their marriage promises and God, and so not to violate the marital/unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality. Or, consider the case of one spouse who becomes incapable of sexual relations for an extended period due to illness or an accident.
Some situations call us to respond generously if we are to love integrally. It should be remembered that God always offers us the help and grace we need to live according to the requirements of His love, including when this requires sacrifice on our parts.  Although integral love may call for extended periods of sexual abstinence in some marital situations, the couple can still express their love and affection in many other ways and continue to grow in mutual love, intimacy and unity. These are not equivalent to genital relations. Genital relations can foster these if the couple respects all the important values involved including God's purposes for human sexuality. Genital relations, also for married people, however, that fail to respect properly such values as marital fidelity, the total reciprocal giving and receiving of persons that they naturally signify, their procreative meaning, the dignity of persons, one's body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, truth and justice, contradict rather than promote true love and unity, genuine intimacy and a true communion of persons.
Many people have difficulty understanding why the Catholic Church teaches that contraception is wrong, because to them contraceptives seem to interfere only with the physical structure of sexual intercourse (cf. condoms) or with natural biological processes of the human body (cf. birth control pills, e.g.). Along these lines, a number of moral theologians have accused Humanae Vitae of “physicalism” in its exclusion of contraception. In general, they think that official Catholic teaching here places too much importance on respecting the natural physical structure of sexual intercourse and biological processes and does not adequately appreciate that morality encompasses a whole range of factors and values.  If one carefully reads Catholic teaching here, however, one very much sees an appreciation of other relevant values. For example, Humanae Vitae teaches that by safeguarding both its unitive and procreative meanings, “the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's [and woman's] most high calling to parenthood.” (12) This encyclical teaches too that “it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good” (14), and it speaks of the licitness of therapeutic means, even though they have a sterilizing effect, provided this is not directly willed.(15) It is quite clear that the morality of the act in question is not simply identified with respecting biological processes and the physical structure of the act. The intention of the agent with respect to various values is very significant.  Compare also Paul VI's teaching that, “The responsible exercise of parenthood implies ... that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family and toward society, in a correct hierarchy of values.” (HV, 10). Surely, this is not physicalist.
The charge of “physicalism” implies that the disorder or evil involved in contraception is at most only physical. Concerning this compare the case of homicide. Suppose someone argued that in deliberately killing someone they are only causing a physical evil, tampering with biological processes and causing the death of the person's body. Murder, after all, per se does not kill the victim's soul. The person is immortal and continues to live, perhaps even in a better state. The victim may now be enjoying heaven! Such an argument, however, fails to appreciate the full value of our bodies and bodily human life. Bodily life is not the most important value, but it is basic to realizing many other important values. Bodily life of persons is an inherent and priceless good of persons. One's biological dimension is closely interrelated with one's psychological, social, moral and spiritual dimensions because of the profound unity of a human person. Therefore, the destruction of human bodily life by deliberate human intention involves more than a physical evil. Procreation, collaborating with God in creating a new human person, a new member of the human community meant to enjoy eternal happiness with God, involves good on more than the biological level. Therefore, directly attacking this good by directly contraceptive means necessarily involves more than physical evil. Failing to see this involves failing to appreciate the deep unity of the human person and the intrinsic relationship between the biological and other dimensions of human persons created in God's image. 
4. DOING WHAT NATURE DOES
Some people have difficulty understanding the teaching that contraception is wrong, because to them contraceptives seem to do merely what nature does. That is, nature itself provides women with infertile times during their fertile years and later renders them sterile. Direct contraception and sterilization cause by human initiative a woman to have infertile times or to be sterile. Concerning this line of thinking though, could not one also say that murder and even genocide do what nature does? Nature causes human persons to die (cf. murder) and sometimes natural disasters (e.g. floods, earthquakes, plagues) kill thousands of people (cf. genocide). The fallacy of this line of thinking is that it fails to appreciate that we should not do everything that nature does. Nature, in the sense being used here, is not a moral agent. Physical nature is not called to respect certain values as human life and it does not have the capacity to choose to respect such values. But, we as persons, who are capable of being moral agents, are called by God to love and respect God, the absolute value, and other genuine values which reflect the goodness of God.  Murder, genocide, and direct contraception and sterilization involve human persons deliberately violating such wonderful values as human life, the dignity of persons, and the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act.
5. USING TECHNOLOGY FOR HUMAN GOOD
A type of question often raised concerning contraception is, “Should we not use our God-given intelligence and ability to create technology and control nature for human good?” Compare the use of technology in agriculture, construction, medicine, and so on, that has increased the length and quality of life of millions of people. Concerning this we can first of all note that technology is not always created and used for human good. Consider the use of technology for torture or murder. Consider also the fact that even some technology that is designed for basically good purposes (e.g. to produce more food or to increase human mobility) can have some harmful consequences (e.g. damage the ecosystem on which human life depends). Human intelligence, creativity and technology should be used ethically, in a way that properly respects important values including the value of our ecosystem. The development of the newer methods of NFP have involved technology. Their use may also involve the use of technology (e.g. a thermometer, charts). NFP involves human artifice. Contraception is not immoral simply because it is artificial. Rather, direct contraception necessarily involves a human choice that can not properly respect the God-given values, meanings and purposes, unitive and procreative, of the conjugal act. NFP can be used in a way that properly respects these values. Concerning this Paul VI himself taught that, “the church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his [or her] Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God” , and that the married couple may choose not to have sexual relations during the fertile periods “when for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love.” (HV, 16) He interprets the fact that “not every conjugal act is followed by a new life” as God having “wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity” .(HV, 11)
One major obstacle to the much wider use of NFP and the application of correct morality in the area of family planning is that hedonism is widespread. Hedonism is an approach to life that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. An action is considered moral if it contributes to this. It is not difficult to appreciate that if one takes such an approach, that contraception can appear to be a good option. It can allow one more opportunity for sexual intercourse and the pleasures associated with it including orgasm. What is wrong with hedonism is that it makes pleasure to be the goal of life and persons to be mere means to gratification. Hedonism fails to appreciate the great dignity of human persons and God. A proper moral approach is grounded in loving God and human persons and the rest of creation in a properly ordered way. Such love will allot pleasures their proper place. Our seeking and deliberate enjoyment of pleasure should always be subordinate to the requirements of true love, which, among other things, exclude the use of contraception out of respect for important values. 
7. ATHEISM (THEORETICAL AND PRACTICAL)
Another major obstacle to the application of Catholic teaching in the area of family planning is that atheism, at least practical atheism, is widespread. Although some people are atheists in a theoretical sense (they reject the existence of God ideologically), it seems that many more people are atheists in certain practical senses. They may theoretically acknowledge that God exists, but this belief does not affect their lives, or at least certain areas of their lives such as choosing a method of family planning. This is not surprising since many religious pastors, including many Catholic pastors, simply leave the matter to the individual's conscience without offering adequate guidance concerning the relevant values and moral norms. Also, many in the medical profession, which has been generally highly regarded, recommend the use of contraception. It is understandable that many people do not consider the use of contraceptives to be much of a moral issue, except as concerns health risks. On the other hand, Catholic teaching very clearly relates morality, including the area of family planning, to God.
God is love and He calls us to love as He loves. Unless we become like God and love as God does, we cannot be united fully to God.  Loving as God does necessarily involves loving and respecting values such as human life, the dignity of persons, truth, justice, and the total giving of oneself to another in love, values that are rooted in who God is. Loving as God does also necessarily involves loving and respecting God's purposes for everything including our sexuality. Since God has created human sexual intercourse to foster the unity of spouses, to become one flesh in marriage (cf. Gn 2:24), and so that they may procreate, to be fruitful and multiply (cf. Gn 1:28),  then for God to choose deliberately not to respect these purposes would involve God contradicting Himself. This is an impossibility.
If we want to be united fully with God forever, we should try to become like God (see 1 Jn 3). To choose deliberately something that harms the dignity of a person (including oneself) created in God's image and that fails to respect properly God's purposes for something, including our sexuality, necessarily involves an objective impediment to our union with God. Subjective factors, such as ignorance through no fault of one's own or factors that weaken or eliminate one's freedom of choice and action, can mitigate or even eliminate a person's culpability in certain circumstances.  In any case, it is important that people, who have a good appreciation and understanding of the relevant values and norms, help others, while respecting their legitimate rights regarding conscience, to see the connection between our choices and actions and our relationship with God. It is also important that we learn and make use of the means to overcome obstacles to true love such as prejudice, pride, moral blindness, selfishness, bad habits, and human weakness. Such means include holistic education, appropriate self-discipline, and above all sincere and humble prayer.  God, who is all-loving, certainly is willing to help us to grow to love integrally and to transform us in Christ, provided we freely cooperate. He, who is all-powerful, certainly is capable. 
This paper has considered some common difficulties with respect to Humanae Vitae and its teaching regarding family planning, especially with respect to its approval of NFP and its disapproval of all forms of direct contraception. Some responses, hopefully clear and balanced, have been given to these difficulties. Certainly much more could be said in response to the difficulties treated and other difficulties not treated. In light of the above reflections and the references made to Humanae Vitae, it can be seen that this encyclical itself contains the foundation on which to develop responses to difficulties and objections raised against it. Pope Paul VI evidently had a good understanding of the issues surrounding family planning and treated these carefully, sensitively and wisely. Humanae Vitae thus remains as relevant today as it was when it was published twenty-five years ago.
Flaman, Paul “Humanae Vitae After Twenty-Five Years: Responses to Some Common Difficulties.” Paper presented at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars' Canadian Convention at St. Michael's College, Toronto, October 16, 1993.
This paper was given at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars' Canadian Convention at St. Michael's College, Toronto, October 16, 1993. It was subsequently published in Humanae Vitae: On the Twenty-fifth Anniversary, Proceedings of the Second Convention of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars / Amicale des Savants Catholiques du Canada (16 Oct. 1993, University of St. Michael's College, Toronto), ed. by David L. Sands, L.Ph., Ph.D.. (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Pubs., 1994), pp. 35-46.
Reprinted with permission of Paul Flaman.
Paul Flaman is an Associate Professor of Christian Theology at St. Joseph's College, a Catholic College affiliated with the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada. Paul Flaman is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1994 Scepter Publishers