Humanae Vitae and True Sexual Freedom
This column concludes my series of reflections on Pope Paul VI’s document Humanae Vitae, which we have been reviewing in light of it’s fortieth anniversary. In the last installment we examined the difference between rendering sex sterile with contraception and choosing to abstain from intercourse during the fertile time. If one can see the difference between telling a lie and remaining silent, one can tell the difference between contraception and periodic abstinence.
One of the main objections to Humanae Vitae is that following its teaching (that is, practicing abstinence when avoiding pregnancy) impedes couples from expressing their love for one another. But of what “love” are we speaking: authentic conjugal love that images God, or its perennial counterfeit—lust?
God is the one who united marital love and procreation. Therefore, since God cannot contradict himself, as Vatican II taught, a “true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to the fostering of authentic conjugal love” (Gaudium et Spes 51). It may well be difficult to follow the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but it could never be a contradiction of love.
Following the Church’s teaching is difficult because of the internal battle we all experience between love and lust. Lust impels us, and impels us very powerfully, towards sexual intercourse. But if sexual intimacy results from nothing more than lust, it’s not love. On the contrary, it’s a negation of love. Love is ready to sacrifice oneself entirely for the good of the beloved, and for the good of the offspring that might result. Lust seeks the pleasure and sensation of the sexual act, but without the sincere gift of oneself.
If one is unprepared to receive a child, the only responsible choice is to abstain from that act that leads to a child. And as any married couple knows, abstaining from sex can be a profound act of love. In fact, there are many occasions in married life when a couple might want to engage in sexual intercourse, but have a serious reason to abstain. Maybe one of the spouses is sick. Maybe it’s after childbirth. Maybe they’re at the in-laws and there are thin walls. If a couple can’t abstain in these situations, their love is actually called into question. It’s the same thing with needing to avoid a pregnancy. If the couple cannot abstain, their love is called into question.
What purpose does contraception really serve anyway? This might sound odd at first, but let it sink in. Contraception was not invented to prevent pregnancy. We already had a 100% safe, 100% reliable way of doing that—abstinence. In the final analysis, contraception serves one purpose: to spare us the difficulty we experience when confronted with the choice of abstinence. When all the smoke is cleared, contraception was invented because of our lack of self-control; in other words, contraception was invented to serve the indulgence of lust.
Why do we spay or neuter our dogs and cats? Why don’t we just ask them to abstain? If we spay and neuter ourselves with contraception, we’re reducing the “great mystery” of the one flesh union to the level of Fido and Fidette in heat. What distinguished us from the animals in the first place? Freedom! God gave us freedom as the capacity to love. Contraception negates this freedom. It says, “I can’t abstain.” Hence, contracepted intercourse not only attacks the procreative meaning of sex, as John Paul II observed, “it also ceases to be an act of love” (TOB 123:6).
If you can’t say no to sex, what does your “yes” mean? Only the person who is free with the freedom for which Christ set us free (see Gal 5:1) is capable of authentic love. Authentic love, as the Catechism observes, requires “an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339).
This is what is at stake in the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae: man’s true peace and happiness. I’m convinced that the teaching of Humanae Vitae – which is still being rejected in the name of sexual “liberation” – will one day be vindicated as the only path to authentic sexual freedom: the freedom to love.