Medical Tuesday Blog
Humanae Vitae by Paul VI
The Controversial Text That Saved Me
I’m a Catholic thanks to ‘Humanae Vitae.’ It’s about a lot more than birth control.
By Ashley McGuire, Author of “Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female”
WSJ | July 26, 2018
I first read “Humanae Vitae”—which Pope Paul VI published 50 years ago July 29—when I was 21. As a senior at Tufts University, hardly a bastion of Christian belief, sheer curiosity brought me to the controversial papal encyclical. I knew only that it banned contraception. How could a billion people around the world embrace such a backward religion?
Two years later, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. “Humanae Vitae” was my gateway. Disillusioned with a culture that habitually objectifies women, I found the document stirring—as did countless other converts—with its call to safeguard “the reverence due to a woman.”
Today you can call me a Catholic two-percenter: One of those few American Catholic women who have never used contraception.
The teachings on contraception found in “Humanae Vitae” are often described as arcane and anti-science. To the contrary, the science on female fertility is slowly catching up with the document. As Paul VI argues, there are natural ways to preserve a woman’s fertility while still respecting her and her family’s needs in limiting and spacing births. The church calls it “natural family planning,” though thanks to its increasing popularity with the organics crowd, “fertility awareness method” has become more widely used.
This method isn’t antiscientific by any means. Rather, it complements the scientific understanding of a woman’s rhythm of fertility—instead of using potentially harmful pills or devices. As a friend and fellow adherent recently told me, “The pill cost women five decades of science on authentic female fertility. Finally, that’s beginning to change.”
Women who adhere to the church’s teaching on contraception are often described as something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In reality, they are embedded among us as everything from law-firm partners to stay-at-home moms. Today a suite of fertility apps and laboratory-grade ovulation test strips make natural family planning more accessible than ever—not only for the religious, but also for the countless women who have grown wary of hormonal birth control.
The teachings in “Humanae Vitae” extend beyond organic sex. As those who benefited from its wisdom attest, holding nothing back from your spouse is a choice that can be transformative. Another fellow adherent, a lawyer, told me that embracing the teaching caused her to see not only her spouse, but everything, as sacred. Married love, Pope Paul VI wrote, is a “compound of sense and spirit.” He added, “It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything.”
The trust spouses place in each other imitates the transcendent trust that faith teaches us to put in the divine when things aren’t fully within our control. This sounds insane to a culture where the individual reigns supreme, but marriage is, after all, a call to abandon ourselves fully to another in love.
Women in particular stand to benefit from Pope Paul VI’s prescient teachings about men, women and love. “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman,” he wrote. This risks reducing a woman to “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” In the #MeToo era, his words are more relevant than ever. Removing contraception from the equation frustrates selfishness and demands of men that they always account for the whole woman. Women appalled by the prevalence of sexual abuse might give the document a look.
The Catholic Church, to the frustration of many, including many Catholics, will never alter the teachings put forth in “Humanae Vitae.” Yet the challenge to defend those teachings has never been greater. Half a century after its publication, Catholics should reflect on its wisdom but also consider why the communication of its teachings has been ineffective. In addition to the 2% of sexually experienced Catholic women who have never used contraception, one study found that only 13% of Catholic women completely accept the church’s teaching on the subject.
Yet there’s hope. More than a third of Catholic women who regularly frequent the sacraments embrace the teaching. Surprisingly, receptivity to the church’s teaching on contraception is highest among millennials. That might be because “Humanae Vitae” is as radical today as it ever was. And a small but passionate cohort of Catholic youth stand ready not only to defend it, but to share its truths with a world greatly in need of them.
Ms. McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association, is author of “Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female” (Regnery, 2017).
Appeared in the WSJ, July 27, 2018, print edition. Re-printed without any alterations as requested.