Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy 40th Birthday, Humanae Vitae!

I have let this particular anniversary pass without comment thus far because the blog post I prepared on it has been spruced up, sent to The Brandsma Review and will appear in their next print issue. I'll post it here at some stage after the print copies are out.

On July 25th of this year, one of the landmark Encyclicals of the modern papacy marked its 40th Anniversary. I'm referring, of course, to Humanae Vitae. After all the gushing optimism of the 1960s both in the world and in the Church, this was the moment when the successor of Peter stood athwart history and yelled Stop!

Of course, the world at large to the extent that it even bothered to listen to what Paul VI had to say, dismissed it out of hand. There is little doubt that Paul was right, however, and the evidence for this comes on two grounds. One is the natural moral law. If we take it (as Christians by and large do) that God created us with a definite nature and made that nature good, then anything which damages or frustrates an integral part of that nature is, ipso facto bad. Thus when Pope Paul said that the physical act of love between spouses should always be open to life, no Christian who trusts in the goodness of God's creation can ultimately have a problem with that. As soon as we make a simulacrum of the most intimate act of total commitment between spouses, we falsify human love. When that sort of act between husband and wife is meant by its very nature to entail total openness, complete vulnerability of the spouses to each other and an absolute, unconditional trust, contraception makes of it a lie. "Safe sex" as someone said is a bit like "safe love", a contradiction in terms. Of course, I am here perpetuating (albeit unavoidably) the myth that contraception has any intrinsic connection with marriage. For the most part, it doesn't; rather, it exists to allow men to exploit women sexually.

And this leads neatly to the second sort of evidence that Humanae Vitae was right. In the Encyclical, specifically no. 17, Pope Paul points out what he believed then would be the harmful consequences of widespread use of contraception. The earlier objections could be made on the basis of philosophical assumptions or arguments; these latter claims are actually verifiable or rather falsifiable. We can, forty years on, test them against the world as we experience it and see if they hold true.

He said
... consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.
Can anyone claim, in good faith, that marital fidelity has not taken a hammering in the last forty years? Have moral standards, especially in matters of sexual conduct become more strict or less so?

He goes on
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
That speaks for itself!

But he's not done yet! He points out that
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
The whole point about contraception is that it makes a woman sexually available to a man at any time. There is no period that is off limits for sexual intercourse if there are no "consequences" to that act.

(For "consequences" read "children"; if anyone reading this is naive or silly enough to believe that the most intimate physical contact of which adult human beings are capable won't leave a deep emotional and psychological impression, then he or she needs to stay in more. Yes, you read that right, not "get out more" but stay in more. Do some quiet reading and careful thinking. Try starting with Humanae Vitae or if that's a bit steep for starters, try this or this and then perhaps move on this.)

When you add to that the harmful effects of the pill itself (it being the most widespread form of contraception) in terms of increased menstrual bleeding, increased incidence of depression, weight gain, and possible permanent or long-lasting damage to fertility, it begins to show its true colours as a very bad deal for women.

OK, so we can see that Pope Paul is two for two, so far. What about his third prediction?
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law ... Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.
I cite China and India, and rest my case! (Although as one commentator pointed out, in western democracies the people are the government, and the social pressure on parents of large families not to have any more children is extreme.)

Finally, if you want to read a much better researched and worked out analysis of the Humanae Vitae phenomenon then read Mary Eberstadt at It's the free article from this month's issue and is top class stuff. (So is the rest of FT and their blog isn't bad either.)

The most affecting and moving evocation of the value of Humanae Vitae I've heard though, on this 40th Anniversary, has been from this priest at this parish. You can download his 35 minute homily on HV from that site (about 5 minutes on broadband but maybe 30 minutes on dialup!). It's well thought out, personal without being idiosyncratic and straight from the pastoral heart of a priest who knows what he's supposed to be! Deo gratias!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Of your Charity ...

I received this message by way of the comments box, from the Fitzgibbons. Please continue to remember him and them in your prayers, and don't forget too that handling grief is often more difficult after the initial shock has worn off.

Dear Eamonn,
Thanks for posting a prayer request for our beloved Diarmuid.

We built a website in memory of him where any charitable soul may pledge prayer. The link is

God Bless,
Fitzgibbon Family

Original Post from June.This sad news comes from the Latin Mass community in Limerick. Yours prayers would be greatly appreciated by the Fitzgibbon family.

Dear Friends,

Please pray for the soul of Diarmuid Fitzgibbon who died tragically on Friday. His mother Antoinette attends our Latin Mass in Limerick and sings in our small choir. Some of you might also remember her from Chartres 2 years ago. The family has requested that people say the Divine Mercy for Diarmuid and if possible to try and gain a plenary indulgence for him. As you can imagine the family is devastated and implore your prayers.

Anima ejus et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum, per misericordia Dei, requiescant in pace.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Natural Family Planning

There was recently an explosion of NFP related blogging. Some of it was very interesting and informative, especially for those of us contemplating the rapidly approaching prospect of Marriage. Some of it was pretty unedifying and even rather bitter and spiteful. (I won't link to those posts, simply because they strike me as gratuitous and unhelpful.)

However most of it was interesting and well-intentioned. The one gaping hole, though, was in terms of an appreciation of the purpose of NFP. Specifically, most commentators (admittedly from a rather rigorist perspective) seem to think that NFP is principally concerned with avoiding pregnancy. Thus one blogger opined
I would say that these [serious reasons to use NFP] have to exist before one even begins to prepare or attempt to employ NFP. One has a positive duty to have children if married. In order to do this one need only ‘do what comes naturally’. There is no need to consider the number unless one already faces serious reasons dispensing one from this duty.

This is touchingly naive. As one person explained to us, there is no guarantee that a couple can have a baby any time they like, just by "doing what comes naturally". She related her own experience of assuming that she would have a honeymoon baby; she and her husband had to wait four years for said baby to arrive. I'm also reminded of a friend from the UK who is rather bloodyminded about wanting lots of children, when she marries. (She thinks seven would be a good number. She's not even a Catholic!) She's used to explaining this attitude rather defensively but on one occasion she was reminded rather sharply by the mother of an only child that she should accept gratefully what she was given! This woman had one daughter, and would have liked more children but it wasn't to be.

There are a number of versions of NFP out there, from Billings to Sympto-thermal to NaPRO but what all of them have in common (as far as I can tell) is that they are about planning FOR a family by understanding the process of human fertility. This is emphatically NOT about avoiding pregnancy, as the be-all and end-all but is instead about knowing when you can or cannot conceive. Many couples can conceive simply by doing "what comes naturally" but to suggest that this is an unproblematic automatic process is simply nonsense. Male fertility is to some extent a delicate process which is relatively easily upset. (Useful hint from one NFP source - wear roomy underwear! They told us the same thing in school. Also - which I didn't know - avoid plastic seating. It overheats delicate parts that need to be 2 degrees colder than the body core.)

Female fertility on the other hand is an unbelievably complex process, which ensures that MOST of the time a woman's body is intensely hostile to achieving a pregnancy. NFP thus is not about avoiding pregnancy by some sort of devious, "guilt-free" contraception. It is concerned with being able to conceive when we're ready to do so but above all, in terms of conjugal relations, the fundamental principle is one of consistent openness to life, without exception. It also means that if a couple have difficulty conceiving, they have natural and morally unobjectionable means to increase the likelihood of their doing so.

One wonderfully commonsensical NFP stalwart pointed out that her preferred method was one which helped her to conceive, to avoid conception for a time and to recognise & manage menopause when she reached that stage in her life. The whole mindset was one of awareness of, and co-operation with, a natural process. Thus the blogger who suggested that one ought to have "serious reasons" before "one even begins to prepare or attempt to employ NFP" is a bit like someone saying that one ought to have angina pectoris before one attempts to eat a heart-healthy diet or take exercise! In any area of life, a conscientious Catholic should seek to ensure that his body is healthy and working as God intended it to work. Employing super-rigorous categories on the one hand or succumbing to a quasi-contraceptive mentality on the other are not the way to go about this, I'd suggest. Rather a couple who form their consciences rightly, by close and respectful attention to what the Church teaches especially here and here and indeed here can make responsible decisions about the right use of their fertility in order to grow in love and holiness. Not to mention growing in joyful chaos which is, in my limited experience, the hallmark of the Christian family!