Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). Newspaper columnist John Nery nicely dubbed it “Pope Paul VI’s ardent, anguished love letter to an unchaste world” (Newsstand, “Worrying ‘Humanae Vitae’,” PDI 7/22/2008). Humanae Vitae is indeed addressed to the world (and 1968 was the heyday of the Pill, “free love” and hippie culture), not just the faithful, which probably accounts for its leaning towards “human reason”, rather than theology, in explaining the immorality of contraceptive sex.
The encyclical essentially teaches that the human sexual faculty is ordained by nature towards both procreation—the begetting and rearing of offspring—and the union of the spouses; that these “unitive meaning and procreative meaning” of the marital act are inseparable; and that the use of the human sexual faculty in denial of these ends is contrary to the natural moral law. Thus, contraception, i.e., “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (HV, No. 14) is immoral. Incidentally, just to be clear, this includes “withdrawal” (coitus interruptus), the “sin of Onan” when he “spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother,” an act “displeasing in the sight of the Lord” for which Onan was slain (cf. Gen 38: 1-10).
On the other hand, the encyclical also teaches, “If there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births,” couples may “take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile” (HV, No. 16) Mr. Nery rightly points out the difficulty in understanding the distinction between contraceptive sex and “recourse to the infertile period”. He asks: “If both the unitive and procreative dimensions inhere in the conjugal act, why should spouses perform the act during infertile periods?”
Perhaps the threshold issue and key to understanding the encyclical is the inseparability of the “unitive meaning and the procreative meaning” of the marital act. Why should the procreative purpose of sex be inseparable from its unitive purpose? Why can’t sex be solely for love or solely for procreation? The quick answer is: If sex were not for procreation, homosexual intercourse would be morally okay (as long as there is love between the partners), but it is not (Sodomy is explicitly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments); and the institution of an indissoluble marriage would be meaningless (since the indissolubility of marriage is a demand of the welfare of the offspring, of the procreative purpose), which cannot be the case (Divorce is prohibited in the Gospels). On the other hand, even if open to the possibility of offspring, sex without mutual love would be rape (or at least dehumanizing of both partners), which cannot be moral, either. Therefore, the marital act is ordained to both procreation and union.
It is not insignificant that societies drawn into a “contraceptive mentality” have also turned to “divorce” (breakdown of the marriage institution) and “same-sex unions”. The same philosophy underlying contraceptive sex would justify these phenomena.
An indissoluble marriage is necessary precisely because sex is intended by nature for procreation, which includes the upbringing and education of the offspring; and because human life, in its totality, is so fragile in its developing stages. The good upbringing and education of the human offspring requires a lasting partnership of the father and mother, i.e., lasting independently of their changeable preferences and circumstances. Thus, if sex is not for procreation, the institution of marriage would be meaningless.
It is because of the obvious procreative purpose of sex that even primitive cultures have some sort of marriage. The common good requires a social mechanism to ensure the welfare of the human offspring. Thus, to hold the conjugal act separable from its procreative purpose would justify contraceptive sex, but also divorce (no need for permanence in the partnership of the spouses) and homosexuality (no need for procreation), and so open the floodgates for the unwholesome scenarios arising from these (broken homes, juvenile delinquency, AIDS, etc.), not to mention the “demographic winter” (shrinking and aging populations) resulting from birth-control policies in those societies which had confused issues of social-justice, economics, etc., with supposed over-population.
Contraception is the removal of the procreative end from the sexual encounter by positive human action. On the other hand, sex during the infertile periods involves nothing of that sort: even if foreseen or availed of by the spouses, the impossibility of achieving the procreative purpose of the sexual encounter is “independent of their will”. Indeed, even during the fertile periods, “new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” (HV, No. 11) Thus, sex during the infertile period is morally good in so far as it serves the unitive purpose (alone) of marriage, since it is not by human intervention that the procreative purpose is removed from the sexual encounter. It helps also to consider that “recourse to the infertile period” is actually, essentially, abstention or the non-use of sex during the fertile periods, in which case there is no abuse (wrongful use) of the sexual faculty; hence, no moral disorder.
One last point. Much is often made of the idea of contraception as the only way to check population growth which supposedly condemns families to poverty. But this proposition unduly shifts the blame on the poor (for reproducing); whereas the causes of poverty lie elsewhere. Moreover, population control programs assume an authority to determine (by arbitrary, subjective criteria) who (or which economic classes, ethnic groups, or sectors) may multiply and who should eventually become extinct as a group. Christian social philosophy says the State has no such authority. To hold otherwise would justify China’s one-child policy, forced sterilization, even genocide/ethnic cleansing. Thus, it makes better sense to leave “the proper regulation of the propagation of offspring” to the right consciences of married couples, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity; that is, without the undue influence of propaganda and other inducements or coercive measures, whether state-sponsored, foreign funded or financed by big business, and certainly without recourse to immoral acts.