Humanae Vitae and the single girl
by Sara Perla
I read Humanae Vitae in college to see what all the fuss was about. I’d learned that I was attending the university where “the resistance” had largely taken place (Catholic University) and figured that the document must be an interesting and controversy-filled one. My teaching assistant at the time seemed to think so anyway. I was ready to be shocked.
I was shocked, but not in the way I expected. I was shocked that it was so… boring. The document said nothing that I found unusual, unexpected, or problematic. It talked about what marriage is and should be, based on who the human being is and what love should be. I felt like I already knew all that stuff, because I had been fairly well educated in the faith and witnessed the love of my own parents. I thought, “Is that it?”
Blessed Pope Paul VI writes simply; he is not a poet (like St. John Paul II) and Humanae Vitae is an easy read for someone familiar with theological language. The pope points out some simple facts of human existence, such as the fact that sex does two things at the same time—unites a man and a woman and potentially “makes” a baby. He speaks of the importance of love in marriage (and really loving anyone, ever, is harder than it sounds) and the temptation to wrest control over things (like fertility) away from God and for ourselves.
Neither of those things were surprising to me—that love requires sacrifice and that human beings always want to control things that are out of our control. The calls to self-discipline, chastity, respect, governmental restraint, and scientific advancement are all still as valid today as they were 50 years ago, and none of them seemed out of place. The oft-quoted “prophecies” of section seventeen (about what would happen in society and culture if birth control became normalized) are so obviously correct that it would be hard to argue that birth control is “no big deal.”
As a single woman, most of Humanae Vitae is, for me, a simple affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the human person, human sexuality, and marriage. People could convincingly argue that the teaching in the document regarding birth control does not really affect my life.
But I live in this culture, and you cannot tell me that the contraceptive mentality and the “general lowering of moral standards” has not changed the way that men and women relate to one another. Fifty years ago, was there an expectation of sex by the third date? Was pornography so ubiquitous that a single woman today must presume that every man she goes out with has viewed it at some point, and that if he says he hasn’t, he’s probably lying? Or did people have to have the remote close by when they watched a mainstream television show because there would probably be a graphic sexual scene when they least expect it? I don’t think so.
Humanae Vitae is a reassuring sanity-check for single Catholics. It says (implicitly) that love is possible and can be expected, and that it’s worth sacrifice. To a single woman like me, it says that I am worthy of respect and love and that no man has the right to intimacy without marital commitment. Intimacy means accepting who the other person really is as male or female in their totality, and that includes their capacity to become a father or a mother, respectively.
This bears upon personal identity, and as a single woman, I can hope that a man will see me as not just beautiful and feminine but as worthy of reverence because of the way I was designed by God.
Sara Perla is the Program Specialist for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is the host of the new USCCB podcast “Made for Love.” Sara attended the Catholic University of America and received her Masters degree in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. She is also a baker, a ballet dancer, and an avid listener of NPR podcasts.