Friday, July 11, 2008

Humane Vitae's 40th Anniversary - A Tough Reflection

You would be hard pressed to find a more ardent advocate of Humane Vitae than myself. Not only am I extremely vocal about this issue, I have 11 children to prove that I walk the talk. I could also list a dozen reasons as to why our medical, physical, financial, emotional, psychological, and even geographic situation all could have sufficed for a serious reason to limit the number of our children.

Add to this the counsel from (some) clergy, friends, relatives, and doctors to do exactly that (stop having children) and we find ourselves truly alone in our desire to persevere. But we perhaps find ourselves most alone witihin the pro-life community itself. Let me explain.

There is a plethora of literature, audio & video programs, and support groups of all kinds that gush over the wisdom of Humane Vitae and the beauties of Natural Family Planning, etc. But there are two major points that I've never heard addressed, even when I've directed these questions directly to the sources of said "gushing".

The first question has to do with the much lauded example of Paul VI, standing up to the commission that studied the birth control question, going against the majority opinion, and releasing Humane Vitae anyway. While Paul VI is heralded as a hero by the pro-life community for his action, the question I have asked and never had answered is:


It was the very fact that the Vatican authorized a commission to look into the birth control question that sent ripples throughout the Catholic world that there could be a possibility that artificial contraception would be allowed. Given the times (1960's), such a thought fell right in line with the current climate and expectation of change.

The bottom line is that the creation of the commission created the expectation of change. And for a Catholic populace that was both still very attuned to Church Authority (i.e. "whatever Father says...") and at the same time on the verge of a cultural implosion (at least in the West), it is natural to see how the Catholic world could have gotten quite exercised about this. (After all, it was the Pope himself who was looking into it!)

It is the Church, and specifically John XXIII (who initially created the commission), and Paul VI (who expanded it) that must take the blame for the crisis of Faith that has plagued the Church since July 10, 1968 (the date Humane Vitae was released).

While hindsight is 20/20, and it was certainly never the intention of the Popes (John XXIII, who created the commission, and Paul VI, who expanded it) to create the havoc and crisis of faith that has plagued the Church since July 10, 1968, the damage was done, is still with us, and in my opinion, the blunder was huge.

Even Paul VI's rational for overriding the commission's majority findings ("the findings were not unanimous") created even more room for doubt and havoc since saying that the findings were not unanimous gives the impression that,, had they been unanimous the Pope would have changed the teaching. This leaves us thinking that all we need is another commission and a unanimous decision, that the teaching itself is subject to a vote!

Want to know what the numbers were? Of the 72 members on the commission, the dissenters (opposed to the liberalization of birth control) included 4 theologian priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops. From the impression Paul VI gave, we were only 7 votes away from the change that the world had been breathlessly led to hope for.

I only bring this up because despite the major efforts and resources devoted to the promotion of Humane Vitae and NFP and all the associated issues, I believe we are making little headway. And why is that?

2 reasons:

1. Already mentioned.

The creation of the commission was a papal error. That has to be admitted. As long as we're apologizing for the Inquisition, the Crusades, and whatever else, we might as well apologize for this. The Church needs to let people know that this (the creation of the commission) was a mistake, that it falsley raised hopes, and that we are sorry for doing so.

(My feeling is that Paul VI was aware of his mistake and was sorry for it as he would never again release another encyclical.)

The Church also needs to aplogize for the Pope's second mistake of giving the impression that a unanimous decision might have led to a different encyclical. This is even more damaging as many continue to live in hope that eventually a change might come if another commission might come up with a unanimous decision.

And why not? The "people" have seen disobedience (communion in the hand, altar girls, eucharistic ministers, etc.) rewarded over and over by an indult from the Vatican.

(Note: "NFP'ers" referred to in the following does not mean those who employ NFP according to the strictures of Church teaching. With this term I am primarily referring to those who promote NFP in the Catholic media with a type of positiveness that seems to avoid any discussion of the cross and even leans towards positioning NFP as a norm for marital relations. The ensuing will give the context to this term which I do not intend to use in a demeaning way, but perhaps skeptical.)

2 "NFP 'ers" need to get off their high horse and talk about the Cross.
Ultimately NFP is allowed because it is still open to life. Notwithstanding that perhaps many, if not most, NFP advoates use it as a form of "Catholic birth control" (spacing or limiting births without serious reason as required by the Church), the reality is that, for most couples, another child represents an unimaginable burden at every level of life. I know.

The bottom line is that the use of NFP may, regardless of the best kept charts, lead to another baby. Because the majority of NFP-ers (in the Catholic media) are busy gushing over its glories and congratulating themselves for their "openness to life", we hear little about the actual cross that comes with the child..

While some may wonder how I could dare equate a child with a cross, I would say that it is ignorant and uncharitalbe not to. It is only in understanding and taking up the cross that the cross (the child in this case) can begin to be a source of grace. For with every cross comes sufficient grace.

But because all we hear about is the warm fuzzy stuff about being open to life, parents who actually are open to life, and who continue to bring new life into the world despite staggering hardship, are left to wonder "What am I doing wrong?" "How come this doesn't feel good?" "What am I going to tell my doctor now that I'm pregnant again and I still owe him for the last one?"

No, that's the stuff we don't get to hear about...and THAT'S WHY WE ARE NOT GETTING ANYWHERE.

The NFP-ers have made the same mistake as the liberal liturgists. They have taken what is essentially an indult, a permission, and a permission only granted for the gravest of reasons, and made it the norm. In fact, that is why non-Catholics snuff off NFP as simply Catholic birth control. They are closer to the truth than we are ourselves.

What Catholicism uniquely understands is the Cross. In the end, that is all we have to hold onto anyway. It is terribly uncharitable to pretend that this isn't so.

An account of the history of the commission as found on Wikipedia

With the appearance of the first oral contraceptives in 1960, some voices in the Church argued for a reconsideration of the Church positions. In 1963 Pope John XXIII established a commission of six European non-theologians to study questions of birth control and population.[3][4] After John's death in 1963, Pope Paul VI added theologians to the commission and over three years expanded it to 72 members from five continents (including 16 theologians, 13 physicians and 5 women, with an executive committee of 9 bishops and 7 cardinals).[3][4] The commission produced a report in 1966, proposing that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed.[3][4][5][6]

One commission member, American Jesuit theologian John Ford (with the assistance of American theologian Germain Grisez) drafted a minority report working paper that was signed by Ford and 3 other theologian priests on the commission, stating that the Church should not and could not change its long-standing teaching.[3][4][5][6] Even though intended for the Pope only, the commission's report and two working papers (the minority report and the majority's rebuttal to it) were leaked to the press in 1967, raising public expectations of liberalization.[5][7] However, Paul VI explicitly rejected his commission's recommendations in the text of Humanae Vitae, noting the 72 member commission had not been unanimous (4 theologian priests had dissented, and 1 cardinal and 2 bishops had voted that contraception was intrinsically evil--significantly Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission's president and Bishop Colombo, the papal theologian).[3][4][6] Humanae Vitae did, however, explicitly allow the modern forms of natural family planning that were then being developed.


  1. Tim,
    I have stumbled upon your blog today and I have read 12 posts of yours already and cannot seem to stop! I am facsinated by your insights. It has been a very long time since I have heard another Catholic so steadfast in his convictions as my husband and I are. You are actually challenging me today to think even harder about issues I had long since put to bed. I was shocked really to read your opposition to female altar servers, and extraordinary eucharistic ministers, which I hadn't really thought about up to now. What I am interested in, and have been thinking about for a while now, are the theological justifications for the practice of NFP. I have noticed the statements from the church (like Humanae Vitae) that mention "grave reasons" for spacing/delaying/preventing births, but I have not heard an explanation of this yet. What sort of "grave reasons" do we need? What conditions need to be met? What is the theological reason for needing a "grave" reason in the first place?

    I'd be interested in your response as a point of reflection. Thanks!

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for your kind words and I am happy to know that there are other Catholics out there who are willing to struggle with the question.

    As for my opposition to Altar Girls and eucharistic ministers. I believe you were reading excerpts from SACRED THEN SACRED NOW by Thomas E. Woods and published by Roman Catholic Books. I obtained permission from the publisher to republish those sections on my blog as I thought they addressed the topic better than I could myself. Woods simply presents the history and the facts. It is not his opinion, nor mine. But because I endeavor to be one with the magisteral Church in every regard, I of course, support the facts as presented in the book.

    "Grave reasons"? Excellent question. And no, I don't hear it addressed either, even in the most orthodox and conservative circles (e.g. EWTN). It's almost presented as a lifestyle. I don't even think they know that they are doing it. On EWTN the other day on some sort of family show, an expert used the phrase "open to life" and then followed it with the example of having 4 or 5 children. Given that the average period of fertility for a woman who marries at 20 is about 25 years, that makes one baby every 5 years. Or if they had them close together, then there's approximately 15 years of fertility "left over"...that is "closed to life".

    As mentioned in my blog post, my wife and I are a bit overwhelmed (okay, a lot overwhelmed). While we never planned this to happen, we, despite our efforts to space births, ended up with 11 children (so far) because we took the "open to life" seriously. But apparently "too seriously" according to the experts.

    The bottom line Jennifer is how we will stand before God in the end. I hope to stand there with my wife and all 11 children and hear "Well done good and faithful servant. Very well done!"

    I'd like to hear more about your story. You can email me directly at

    God Bless You.


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