The publication of a 50th anniversary commemorative edition of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical On Human Life by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a bit perplexing to say the least. The Papal instruction issued July 25, 1968 was damned with faint praise by the hierarchies of the Western world. The episcopal advice pretty generally was to read the document and then follow your conscience. Cardinal Boyle of Washington was clearly on his own when it came to standing up for the Pope against surprised and outspoken Catholic academics like Father Charles Curran of Catholic University and his numerous supporters. Of course, to give both sides their due, the discussion at that time focused on the regulation of births, a legitimate parental concern. The result, however, of fifty years of Papal instruction simmering on the back burner is the complete separation of sexual intimacy from human reproduction.
Father Curran never intended to separate bonding from babies and assuredly such a thought never occurred to Cardinal Boyle. However Father Curran and others clearly would have preferred the introduction of some device or dosage to help space births. And it is probable that the Catholic bedroom was of little concern to Cardinal Boyle until he and America’s other bishops were blind-sided by the Pope’s announcement and academia’s response. Now, after fifty years of unfettered contraception, progeny and copulation are no longer mentioned in the same breath. To wit, casual sex has compounded into pornography, cohabitation, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, sperm donations, sperms banks and the ultimate contraceptive — gay marriage.
“Every act of intercourse must be open to the transmission of life,” Blessed Paul VI taught authoritatively fifty years ago and it is only now, after a half century of marital and family decay in the Western world, that the intelligence and insight of the Pontiff’s words are beginning to haunt and hopefully to give pause to the Western world’s dismissal of the intrinsic connection between sexual intimacy and human reproduction. Clearly every act of intercourse does not result in a live birth — to the distress of some and the relief of others. Statistically, six out of one hundred copulations lead to offspring. And here’s the rub. Those who would rightly enjoy sexual intercourse must welcome the prospect that their love making may well lead to a child being born into this world. To frustrate the possibility that their intimacy may lead to reproduction is to change profoundly and immorally an integral aspect of sexual activity. Appreciating this notion that sex must always be open to new life is a tremendous responsibility. And one that is probably not going to cross one’s mind after a few drinks in a cocktail lounge. To be blunt, the Holy Father’s words mean that sex is never casual. Sex must always be indicative of a deep love between the couple and of a full awareness that children and the rearing of those children is a prospect to be welcomed. Such is not the stuff of present day clubbing, movie scenes or television programming.
What has been sadly unappreciated if not entirely neglected since Blessed Paul’s day is the divinely ordained cycle of fertility that spouses may employ should the birth of children need wisely to be spaced. During the fifty years that the guidance within Pope Paul’s encyclical has been available, scientific appreciation and technical precision regarding fertility has grown apace. A precise awareness of those days when conception would most likely occur may legitimately be put to good use. Of course a couple must always remember that the human fertility cycle is present to space births, not to avoid births.
Authentic family planning, like all worthwhile enterprises, will require sacrifice. There will be occasions when spouses must express their affection in a limited fashion. But marital abstinence is simply God’s way of making the heart grow fonder so that, when resumed, love-making is all the more appreciated, all the more significant, all the more fresh.
Some Catholic marriage instructions during the decades after 1968, while not proposing their use, did tolerate an explanation of artificial birth control practices. This was simply further proof of the profound lack of appreciation that higher and lower ranks of Catholics had for Blessed Paul’s decrees. In spite of the profound endorsement Saint John Paul II gave to his predecessor’s instruction, five decades of negligence on a popular level are in sore need of rectification. Both the Church and the world are in need of alert instruction, renewed understanding, and vigorous commitment regarding authentic sexual manners.