When talking with engaged couples, I like to compare two people with widely different expectations of what widespread contraception would mean to our society. On the one hand, I refer to Margaret Sanger, founder Planned Parenthood. Sanger claimed that the widespread use of contraceptives would greatly reduce divorce, since couples would have one fewer worry in their marriage. Contraception would also eliminate teenage pregnancy and would put an end to abortion. The reality, of course, is that all three of those problems have become much more widespread since contraception has become so much a part of our society.
Blessed Pope Paul, on the other hand, warned that contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” He also said that by ignoring one of the main consequences of sexual activity, a man would more easily see a woman as “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” Certainly that temptation is always present, but it is so much easier to accept it in our current culture. Blessed Paul also saw contraception leading to an abuse of power if it becomes a tool of government. While we see signs of that abuse in our own nation, we can see it very clearly in a place like China, with forced abortion and a strict one-child law for families. In addition, the Pope saw contraception leading us to believe that our bodies are strictly our own, to do with as we wish, as we ignore God’s dominion in our lives. Sadly, everything that Blessed Pope Paul VI has warned us about has become fact in the last fifty years.
But there is hope. After the publication of Humanae Vitae, various groups of Catholic doctors felt that God was calling them to help develop methods of birth control that were in keeping with the Church’s teaching and were just as effective as artificial methods. Until then, Catholics had relied upon “the rhythm method.” Since then, these doctors have devised what has come to be called “Natural Family Planning,” or NFP. In the past, I worked with some couples trying to promote the Church’s teaching, and I always found it heartening to hear of how NFP made their marriages stronger. As convincing as Blessed Paul’s writing was, the witness of their lives and of their married love was what really showed me how much wisdom is present in the Church’s understanding of sexuality. I find it very fitting that this year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, is the time when the Church will recognize Pope Paul VI as a saint.