Humanae Vitae turns 50

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Why I’m grateful for the much-maligned papal encyclical on sexuality and marriage

Fifty years ago, in 1968, the sexual revolution was just getting traction. It was starting to convince the culture that sex, babies, marriage and sexual difference don’t need to go together. No problem if they’re separated! It will be fun! Thus, on July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI was widely viewed as a big party pooper. Despite his record as a progressive for reconvening and implementing Vatican II, addressing the United Nations, and urging solidarity with the poor, his popularity was instantly diminished that day thanks to the document he issued reaffirming the consistent teaching of the church on sexuality and marriage. In Humanae Vitae, he reiterated that the unitive and procreative powers of sexuality (“bonding and babies,” colloquially) are intrinsically integrated. He warned that putting asunder these things that God has joined will not be fun, but will be harmful and dangerous, with serious consequences for women, marriage, the young and all society.

As the philosopher Janet Smith says, Humanae Vitae was right.

The predictions Paul VI made about what would happen if birth control were widely accepted have all come true. Just look at paragraph 17:

1. He warned that marital infidelity would increase. 
Check. It has.

2. He warned that men would treat women as objects. 

3. He warned that governments would use the coercive power of the state to impose contraception on people.

The sexual revolution’s big party is turning out to be not as fun as promised. It’s based on using and discarding women, without giving them a love that lasts.

Pope Francis has praised Paul VI’s prophetic stance about contraception. During a January 2015 trip to the Philippines, he said, “Paul VI was courageous. He was a good pastor, and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens he blesses us today.”

When I consider how much this teaching has provoked dissent, silence, misinformation and caricaturing (as in the Monty Python song “Every Sperm is Sacred”), my heart overflows with gratitude. Gratitude that the teaching is there. That it endures. That it reflects the truth that man and woman are created in God’s image for love, to be a fruitful self-gift and communion of persons. I am grateful for all those women and men, laypeople, religious and clergy, who have kept the flame of this teaching alive through a very hostile generation or two so that it can enjoy the renaissance it is seeing today.

I am grateful to the natural family planning teachers, faithful theologians, Catholic speakers, Catholic radio stations and other Catholic institutions that have promoted and defended this teaching. I am grateful to every married couple that lives it out. I am grateful for the big families, and little ones, too, whose children would not be with us had their parents been contracepting. I am grateful for the work of the Pope Paul VI Institute for pioneering authentic women’s reproductive health care that treats the whole woman, rather than masking her symptoms with the Pill. I am grateful for the research and advances in NFP methods, such as the Creighton Model, the Sympto-Thermal Method, Billings and Marquette. A recent study in the European journal Human Reproduction showed a 99.6 percent effectiveness rate for avoiding pregnancy with the Sympto-Thermal Method. (These methods leave the outdated calendar rhythm method in their taillights.)

NFP is not all hearts and unicorns — as Jennifer Fulwiler puts it, it is a “sacrifice-based system,” and it takes effort and communication between husband and wife. Simcha Fisher’s book The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning takes a frank and humorous look at the difficulties involved. But, like training for a marathon or saving to pay off debt, sacrifice and effort are often required when something is worth it.  

The last week of July is always NFP Awareness Week, and the USCCB website lists a host of resources. The Archdiocese of Seattle lists local NFP teachers on its website. Now is a great time to learn about the modern methods of NFP. Now is a great time to share copies of Janet Smith’s talk “Contraception: Cracking the Myths.” Now is a great time to be more open to love and life than ever.

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2018

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is