Humanae Vitae: Another Approach

In his interview in early March, Pope Francis was asked about Humanae Vitae and supported its teaching as I indicated in my previous blog. Here I would like to focus just on a few words of his response as follows: “The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth. . .”

Blessed John Paul II did that quite extensively in his series of 129 lectures (1979 to 1984) known as the papal Theology of the Body, but they are not easy reading. Ten years later in an effort to reach out to ordinary people, he wrote his Letter to Families from Pope Paul II, and of special relevance to Humanae Vitae he wrote:

“In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. The logic of the total gift of self to the other involves a potential openness to procreation: in this way the marriage is called to even greater fulfillment as a family (n.12, Feb 2 1994, italics in original).

“…called to confirm the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant.” I was thrilled to see those words the first time I read them because they seem to be saying in different words something that I have been saying since 1967: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant.” Let’s call that expression the “covenant theology” even though it would be more accurate to call it a “renewal-of-the-marriage-covenant” theology.

Perhaps one of the problems with the transmission of the biblically-based teaching of the Catholic Church on love, marriage and sexuality—including birth control—is that these teachings are sometimes seen as separate entities and not as reflecting a basic truth about the meaning of sexual intercourse. Perhaps the covenant theology can be helpful in this regard.

First of all, if, in God’s plan, sexual union ought to be a renewal of the marriage covenant, then it is easy to see the immorality of bestiality, adultery, fornication, incest, solitary masturbation, and sodomy. Obviously, none of these are a renewal of the marriage covenant. Sexual union has a God-intended meaning:  it ought to be exclusively a marriage act.

Within marriage, sexual union ought to be a true marriage act. It ought to renew the faith and love and permanent commitment of the couple’s original marriage covenant, for better and for worse. No, couples do not have to have all of this on their mind as they approach the marriage bed; that’s the meaning of the phrase “at least implicitly” in the covenant theology statement above. But notice what the body language of contraception says (and this includes contraceptive behaviors such as mutual masturbation and marital sodomy). The contraceptive marital embrace says, “We take each other for better but definitely and positively NOT for the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.”

Thus contraception does not renew but instead contradicts the marriage covenant. It is dishonest. And that, in my opinion, is what makes it immoral.

I do not claim that internalizing this concept of the marriage act somehow automatically makes periodic abstinence easy. On the other hand, when a person sees the intrinsic covenantal meaning of the marriage act, Catholic teaching about the moral wrongness of marital contraception may become easier to accept and understand. This was the experience of Kimberly and Scott Hahn when they were still Protestants, and they are certainly not unique.

Coming next: What God has put together…

John F. Kippley
http://www.nfpandmore.org where Sheila blogs every week.

 

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