St John Paul II wrote Humanae Vitae is the “struggle for the value and meaning of humanity itself.” -Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 113.
Paul VI was so shocked by the ferocity of the attacks against Humanae Vitae that he never published another encyclical, though he reigned another ten years.
Contradiction of the Sexual Act
First, contraception contradicts the nature of sexual intimacy, which has a unitive and procreative meaning that belong together. To understand why it is immoral to separate them, imagine if a husband wanted to use his wife for her procreative potential, but had no desire to unite with her on a personal level. To avoid any emotional entanglement, he looked away from her whenever they became physically intimate. His disordered and distorted use of the gift of sexuality is obvious. Contraception is a distortion of the sexual gift for the opposite reason. It seeks the physical and emotional sensation of the marital union while blocking its procreative potential.
In John Paul’s words, the inseparability of the two meanings of the sexual act is nothing else than “rereading the ‘language of the body’ in the truth.” 363 The body has a spousal meaning, and speaks a language of total self-giving. Contraception contradicts this meaning at its core. This is not about conforming to impersonal biological laws, but about conforming our wills to the personal Creator who designed our biology and imprinted His will into our human nature. 364
Sadly, most people view Humanae Vitae as an outdated Vatican document, out of touch with the needs and challenges of modern couples. Standing against the Church, her opponents are painted as compassionate champions of a woman’s right to have access to family planning as a form of health care. What these opponents never seem to ask is the underlying assumption of Humanae Vitae: What if the woman’s body is already perfectly made? What if she doesn’t need drugs, chemicals, and barriers to plan her family? What if she simply needs to be understood, and her fertility reverenced? If a couple can learn the woman’s fertility, consider the outcome: Instead of controlling her body with chemicals and devices in order to conform to their sexual desires, the couple learns to control their sexual desires in order to conform to the perfect way that God has created their bodies. This is authentic sexual liberation. When viewed in this light, it’s easier to see that the Church’s teaching on family planning is not simply true and good, but is most of all beautiful.
Contraception might seem like an advancement for humanity because it allows mankind to rule over one’s nature in a way that makes his or her life more convenient. However, John Paul noted that human progress and development can’t be measured by technology alone, but by what truly promotes the good of man, ethics, and what is authentically humanistic. 365 Contraception has failed on all three of these counts. Once the sexual act was divorced from its link to procreation, all other distortions of sexuality became acceptable. Contraception allowed sex without commitment like never before, and led men to view women as objects rather than respected and beloved companions. 366 This is not human progress.
What many people overlook is that contraception was not invented to prevent the possibility of pregnancy. It was invented to prevent the need for abstinence. However, many problems arise when man seeks to master nature without mastering himself.
Contradiction of Wedding Promises
Contraception is not immoral merely because it divides the two meanings of the marital act. In doing so, it is also a contradiction of the vows and promises that spouses make to one another on their wedding day. As part of the marriage liturgy, spouses promise to give themselves to one another and to welcome children into their lives. Because the sexual act is a renewal of the wedding vows, contraception is a contradiction of those promises. 367
In becoming one flesh, the two not only renew their love for one another, they also become an icon of Christ’s love for his bride, and her receptivity to his divine life. Contraception falsifies this sign. If couples are called to be a visible sign of God’s creative love, then the deliberate sterilization of the sexual act is the inversion of their calling. 368
Contradiction of the Person
Finally, contraception is not merely a contradiction of the meaning of the sexual act and of the wedding promises made by spouses. It is contrary to the identity of the human person. 369 John Paul explained, “The human body in its masculinity and femininity is oriented from within to the communion of persons. . . . In this consists its spousal meaning.” 370 In other words, contraception isn’t immoral because it merely violates the nature of the sexual act, but because in doing so, it violates human nature itself.
Written into our humanity is an invitation to express sexual intimacy as persons made in God’s image and likeness. This is why John Paul stated that God’s law of life was given to man as a precious inheritance— not a burdensome prohibition. When speaking to college students in Poland, he reminded them of the joy one should experience in discovering this, saying, “God who is Father, who is Creator, planted a reflection of his creative strength and power within man. . . . We should sing hymns of praise to God the Creator for this reflection of himself in us— and not only in our souls but also in our bodies.” 371
Through their life-giving love, spouses form an image of the Blessed Trinity on earth. 372 Although theirs is only a faint reflection of the glory of the communion that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it is their identity and therefore their mission to become who they are. Quoting Pascal Ide, Waldstein remarked that “one can condense the whole argument of the Theology of the Body in the statement ‘Gift expresses the essential truth of the human body.’” 373
If “gift” is who we are and what we are called to be, the language of contraception speaks the opposite. There is no true mutual gift of self or acceptance of one’s self by the other. In John Paul’s words, “Such a violation of the inner order of conjugal communion, a communion that plunges its roots into the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act.” 374
The Center of Conjugal Spirituality
When spouses are aware of their identity, their calling becomes clear. In the words of John Paul, the Holy Spirit stirs up within spouses an “attitude of reverence for the work of God.” 375 This does not dampen the experience of intimacy between spouses, but safeguards it. The Pope pointed out that this reverence has enormous significance for the expressions of affection within marriage, “because it goes hand in hand with the capacity for profound pleasure in, admiration for, disinterested attention to the ‘visible’ and at the same time ‘invisible’ beauty of femininity and masculinity.” 376
Although most people don’t associate the word “chastity” with intimacy, it is a prerequisite for it. As discussed earlier, it is necessary to establish a true communion of persons. Regarding chastity in marriage, John Paul declared that this virtue is “at the center of conjugal spirituality.” 377 Chastity, and the attitude of reverence that guides it, shapes the spirituality of couples and grants them a desire to protect the dignity of the sexual act. This manifests itself not merely in the sexual union, but continually through the various ways in which spouses express their love. 378 After all, a true communion of persons within marriage isn’t simply expressed through sexual intimacy, but through becoming one in mind and heart. This attention to the whole person creates true unity. 379
When spouses live life “according to the Spirit,” it gives them a deep awareness of the holiness of the life they have the capacity to create. 380 Contraception does the opposite because it displays a lack of reverence for God’s work and a lack of awareness of the spousal meaning of the body. 381 Therefore, John Paul stated that this lack of understanding— connected with the contraceptive practices and mentality— is “the anti-thesis of conjugal spirituality. 382
-Evert, Jason. Theology of the Body In One Hour (Kindle Locations 1725-1812). Totus Tuus Press. Kindle Edition.
On his 65th birthday, St John Paul II wrote: “If one day illness touches my mind and clouds it, I do surrender to You even now, with this devotion that will later be continued in silent adoration. If, one day I were to lie down and remain unconscious for long, it is my desire that every hour that I am given to experience this be an uninterrupted thanksgiving, and that my ultimate breath be also a breath of love. Then, at such a moment, my soul, guided by the hand of Mary, will face You in order to sing Your glory forever. Amen.” -written at Mechelen, May 18, 1985.
Love, and bracing for His just judgment, relying on His infinite mercy, pray for me,
364 Cf. TOB 124: 6; West, Theology of the Body Explained, 591.
365 Cf. TOB 129: 2; 133: 3.
366 Humanae Vitae, 17; cf. Mary Eberstadt, Adam and Eve after the Pill (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012).
367 Cf. TOB 118: 4.
368 TOB 117b: 3.
369 Cf. TOB 118: 5; 123: 7; 129.
370 TOB 130: 5.
371 Karol Wojtyła, The Way to Christ (San Francisco: Harper, 1982), 55– 56.
372 Cf. TOB 10: 3.
373 Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 124.
374 TOB 124: 7.
375 TOB 132: 4.
376 TOB 132: 4.
377 TOB 131: 2.
378 Cf. TOB 132: 4.
379 Cf. TOB 132: 5.
380 Cf. TOB 101: 6.
381 Cf. TOB 132: 1– 2.
382 TOB 132: 2.