The original genesis – so to speak – of the concept for this note was the Catholic Church’s celebration of “Natural Family Planning Awareness Week” in late July, a national educational campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that “promotes awareness of Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods” [i.e., the rhythm method]. At least this year (and perhaps every year), it’s timed to coincide with the anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 issuance of “Humanae Vitae” (Latin for “Of Human Life”), in which His Holiness declared generally “unlawful” the use of artificial contraceptive methods, going against the 1966 conclusions of a significant majority of the members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control established by Pope John XXIII and that Paul later expanded.
Retirees have time to pursue long-delayed interests; although I understood the gist of Humanae Vitae, I recently actually read it. A couple of general impressions emerge. First, the Church, given passages such as the “Value of Discipline” and “Promotion of Chastity” (these in the context of marital relationships), considers sex inherently wrong, and can intellectually justify the act only as the unavoidable means to procreation; that the conjugal act can have value in and of itself as a manner in which a committed couple can manifest their love and support for each other is entirely foreign to its thinking. Second, Pope Paul – clearly a good man torn between satisfying his own bureaucracy wedded to longstanding doctrine and addressing a technologically and scientifically evolving world unimaginable during the centuries when the Church formulated its body of rules – was attempting to counsel married couples in the conduct of their relationship and family responsibilities while having no better grasp of their struggles than I have of the challenges faced by a Somali farmer or a Cambodian woman.
While reading the Encyclical was intellectually instructive, studies indicate that most Catholics are making their own decisions about their conjugal lives and the formation of their families; the main point of the note as I originally considered it was a lament that the Church remains in such stubborn opposition to a practice in which the majority of the married faithful reportedly engage and, unlike abortion, results in no sacrifice of generated life. However, the release this week of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report indicating that hundreds of priests had sexually abused over 1,000 children over a period of 70 years – and that Bishops and other leaders of the Pennsylvania Catholic Church had covered it up – caused me to think about several of the Encyclical’s passages from a different perspective.
Twice in Humanae Vitae, Paul mentions how the world’s (in 1968, mind you) increasing economic and educational demands made it difficult to provide for a large family. He even states, “We have no wish at all to pass in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples,” … but in fact, he did pass over them.
In the parable of the Sower found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ describes how seed spread by the wayside dies, how seed spread on rocky ground sprouts quickly and then dies out, how seed spread among thorns grows and is choked, and how seed on good soil flourishes. The seed in the parable represents the Word, not children, but I would submit that the message applies every bit as well to child rearing. Very few children mature into well-adjusted adults without nurturing. To get strong offspring, a loving parent does his/her best to get a child in danger of being lost by the wayside into better circumstances; does his/her best to alleviate physical, emotional, or other obstacles impeding the child’s growth; tries to block bad influences that might strangle the child. Just as plants need tending to grow, children do as well. The Church views children as a “Good” in the abstract, but His Holiness’ advice that unmarried couples rely on the rhythm method to manage their family size was a copout; he had to know that it was far from foolproof, and that unintended children would result. He didn’t – nor does the Church today, by clinging to Humanae Vitae – demonstrate an understanding that parents need to be able to lovingly nourish each other when and as best while having only so much time, energy, and resources with which to raise children well. I would submit that taking your chances with how many bushes you plant and then watching a number wither for lack of care is more than reckless; it’s immoral.
I fear that too many in the Church hierarchy view children as objects to be celebrated at a distance rather than as people requiring nourishment close at hand. Part II of this lengthy note will look a bit more at Pope Paul’s comments in Humanae Vitae in relation to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report issued 50 years later.