God and the bedroom: 50 years of celebrating Humanae Vitae

by Bill Donaghy

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Preface: This article launches a series on the 50th anniversary of Humane Vitae, a prophetic writing on a critical issue of our time. Recognizing the strong reactions it can stir up for those struggling with this teaching of the Catholic Church, we encourage readers to spend time prayerfully reading the actual document, Humanae Vitae (a short 30 pages), found at http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.

In this coming year of 2018, the Catholic Church will honor the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI's prophetic and powerful letter, Humanae Vitae (HV). It’s a surprisingly brief document that tenderly, beautifully, and pastorally highlights what human life is all about and what human love is meant to reflect.

I say “surprisingly brief” because of the massive reams of negative responses it’s generated from 1968 and even up to this day. HV dropped like a lead balloon on a world that was expecting the Catholic Church to “adjust” with the modern age in the realms of a new sexual liberation. What the world heard about HV from second-hand interpretations and news blurbs (most having not read the actual text) was not liberation but constriction, regulation, and prohibition.

What the Holy Father wrote regarding the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control in light of the newly developed contraceptive pill shouldn’t have been a shocker. He simply taught what the Church has always taught. In a nutshell: “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mark 10:9).

But since the time of the Enlightenment (17th/18th century), humanity had been on a concerted path of separating things, faith from reason, God from science, theology from biology, objective commandments from subjective consciences.

In the case of contraception, we need to calmly set aside all subjective desires and intentions for a moment. We’re divorcing the pleasure of the act from the procreative gift that’s designed to flow organically from it. Today, the splintering goes even further by pulling our very identity away from our biological sex to the point of an inner war against “the sex I was assigned at birth.” To quote from the classic Police song, “We are spirits in a material world,” drifting, disintegrated, with no roots in the actual bodies we were gifted with in our beginning.

We think today that sex is only something you do, forgetting that first our sex is who we are. But as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once wrote, “The human dimension of sexuality is inseparable from the theological dimension.”

No matter how well-intentioned the best defenses of using contraception might be (preventing teen pregnancies, easing the tensions of marital life, alleviating financial stress for families, addressing the health risks when a pregnancy might endanger the life of the mother), using contraception literally creates a wall between people engaged in what should be a place without walls. The sanctuary of the marital bed should be a place without fear, without “protection,” but rather a place where a heart can sing, be safe, be vulnerable, and be reverently awed by the power of the embrace of man and woman.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the courage of Blessed Paul VI and his words in Humanae Vitae to a disintegrating world, let’s recall the wonder of the language of the body and how it is meant to speak this integrated and incarnational word of love and of life. May we finally see the seamless garment that is woven from the fabric of sexual intercourse, fertility, pregnancy, motherhood and fatherhood up into the very image of God it images. For “the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

The beauty of our sexuality and the wonder of making love is truly a sign of the divine in our midst. Human life and love, first born and nurtured in the garden of marriage and the family, are like beacons of light for our confused and broken world. Blessed Paul VI knew this and tried to tell us all. The tragic rejection of Humanae Vitae was said to have broken his heart. May our time resurrect his hope, clarity, and charity in proclaiming the truth!

“This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.” – Blessed Paul VI, HV 9

Bill Donaghy is an internationally acclaimed speaker, teacher, and curriculum specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute. For nearly 20 years, he has served the Church as a lay evangelist, giving talks and retreats to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful across the United States and the world. He is also the co-author with Chris Stefanick of the new RISE: 30 Day Challenge for Men program. He and his wife, Rebecca, near Philadelphia, Pa. with their four children.