"A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae" by Holly Wiegman

There are many acomplished and faith-filled Catholic women writing about how adherence to Church teaching against contraception enhances their faith and family lives. But we didn't hear as much from practicing Catholics who use contraception about how their choices affects their faith and family lives. In my view, the lack of  such voices leads to an unbalanced conversation, since the vast majority of married Catholics do in fact choose to use artificial birth control. 

Holly Wiegman's essay, which you will find below, helps remedy the lack of conversational balance. She is a freelance writer who lives with her husband in New York. Active in her local parish, she cherishes the rich traditions and diverse community of the Catholic Church.


A Lay Woman Reads Humanae Vitae

Holly Wiegman

The issue of birth control no longer affects my husband and me: at 52 years old I have officially entered my menopausal years.  Yet I still remember with frustration the discussion I had with a priest a number of years ago.  He stated that under certain circumstances abortion could be condoned, but that birth control never could be.  He gave the example of a mother who has four children and becomes pregnant for the fifth time.  If the pregnancy puts her life at risk, her death would have a great toll on the children already born as well as her husband.  In such a case, the mother could choose to abort and be at peace with her decision.  Having carried two children to term at that point, I realized how traumatic such a decision would be: how could any woman be at peace when choosing between her life and the life of her unborn child?  So I asked the obvious question of why the woman could not use contraception to prevent pregnancy and thus never have to make such a devastating choice.  The priest insisted that contraception was not okay under any circumstances.  You mean, I pressed, that a woman in those circumstances should keep having abortions each time she conceives, rather than just prevent pregnancies? Yes, indeed.  That is the formal response I received from this priest, who held an official post regarding ethics in my diocese at the time.

The Catholic Church’s official stance on birth control is outlined in the controversial document, Humanae Vitae. Although I am not a theological scholar, that conversation led me to read the document myself in order to formulate my own opinion. I did my best to get past the language and grasp the teachings therein. What I found was that although Humanae Vitae contains a great deal of wisdom, its understanding of sex and its narrow definitions of the purpose of sex and marriage do not match my experiences as a Catholic woman celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary.

The document begins by pointing out new issues the world was facing in the 1960’s—overpopulation, the rise of women’s rights, humanity’s growing understanding of the world and how it works—and asking whether, in light of “this new state of things,” couples might be permitted to limit the size of their families. I liked the document’s introductory tone and its apparent open-minded approach to the issue of birth control.

Humanae Vitae then advocates that the church, rather than the individual, is better equipped to answer the question of whether to allow the use of birth control or not. The Holy Spirit certainly informs church teaching, but individuals can also access the Spirit. Since contraception is used within the very private world of a couple’s sex life, this issue seems like a good place for the Church to include information regarding the formation of conscience. I do understand, however, that the church would want a general policy regarding birth control. I read on.

Realizing that the discussion of birth control takes place within the larger context of family life, the document outlines an understanding of marriage and parenthood. Humanae Vitae’s description of a couple’s marriage as a “mutual gift of themselves…that union of two persons in which they perfect one another” captures what I strive for in my marriage—something which I believe is only achieved in cooperation with God. When we make our marriage a relationship between us and our God, my husband and I open ourselves to God’s unconditional love of partner and self, and thus we each begin to experience that kind of love—both as the giver and as the recipient. For us marriage is not just, or even primarily, about sex. Marriage is about the promise we made to each other a quarter century ago—and to which we must continually recommit—to strive for full communion with each other on a daily basis for the rest of our lives.

Yet as I read, I noticed that Humanae Vitae retains a focus on sex in marriage. Perhaps this is because the topic under discussion is “the regulation of birth,” but I believe Humanae Vitae puts too much emphasis on the sexual aspect of a relationship. For me sex is a part of my marriage, but only a part. My husband and I engage in sexual relations to remind ourselves of the unity we strive for, which can get lost in the realities of day to day life. Pressures from work, illness, parenting and so many other issues can prevent us from expressing unconditional love. Sex is a time for us to detach from our worldly concerns and focus on each other. It is a reminder of what our marriage should be—a deep communion between two people. As we have matured as a couple we find that deep intimacy more and more during ordinary, everyday events—sometimes even during an argument—and not just in the bedroom.

Similar to its discourse on marriage, Humanae Vitae’s discussion of Responsible Parenthood also has thoughtful and wise aspects. Bringing a child into the world—and even more importantly, raising a child—is a great gift and a huge responsibility. Parents should indeed take into consideration the “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” in which they will raise their children. Yet here again Humanae Vitae remains focused, this time on parenthood, which I recognize as just one facet—and not the most important one—of  the love expressed within a family. The most significant love a family should have is that of the parents for each other. Responsible parenting grows out of a healthy marriage. My husband and I are responsible parents because we work to maintain a strong foundation for our family: a partnership which reveals God’s love to our family and the world.

So while I found myself agreeing with much of Humanae Vitae’s discussion of marriage and responsible parenthood, I also found its ideas inadequately expressed the fullness of marriage and family life. When the document speaks of controlling “man’s innate drives and emotions,” it seems to focus on the sex drive, but couples need to control more than just sexual urges. Even when our marriage was young and the sex drive much stronger than it is now, controlling our desire for sex was often easier than controlling our desire to be selfish, angry, greedy or any of the many other things which hampered our development of a loving partnership.

When Humanae Vitae describes a married couple’s love as “fecund”—bountiful, fruitful—it seems to limit that fruitfulness to children, calling them “the supreme gift of marriage.” To me the supreme gift of marriage includes all of the relationships that have arisen out of my marriage: of course the ones with my husband and children, but also those with my in-laws and other extended family and friends. I gained many of these relationships only through knowing my husband, and they not only enrich my life, they help me to grow as a person. My marriage, especially, has allowed me to cultivate my better self.  The support my husband and I give each other—working off each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses—has enabled us to birth aspects of ourselves that lay dormant until well into our marriage. We have also fostered community bonds in ways that neither of us alone would be capable of doing. So yes, my married love has indeed grown beyond itself to give birth to two amazing children, but I would say that our personal growth and extended community relations also qualify as “fecundity.” Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God,” and give birth to Christ. My marriage has “procreated” in more ways than just the production of offspring: my husband and I have increased God’s loving presence in the world through the unique, new connections we have made with people and the growth we ourselves have experienced. When Humanae Vitae restricts the fecundity of married love to biological children, it overlooks the many other ways God’s grace can produce something out of married love.

As I read further, the language remained an obstacle—I understood “the marriage act” to be sex, the ability to conceive a child is referred to as “the procreative significance,” and “the unitive significance” is what I like to think of as the special form of communion created during the sex act—but once I got past the language, I realized that Humanae Vitae appears to make the primary purpose of sex the creation of new life.

My experience of sex, though, would make me respectfully disagree with this premise. My desire for sex with my husband has always had more to do with connecting to him than wanting to make babies, even during our early years when I very much wanted to get pregnant. No, what I longed for then and now was the full communion that can be found within the raw physicality of sex.  As a priest once said to us, “It is very important for couples to be naked with each other.”  This statement is not just about being physically unclothed, but about coming to a place with another person where you feel so loved that you can reveal the hidden parts of yourself. The intimacy of sex provides a sacred space for such disclosure to occur, and it is within this holy ground that new life has the opportunity to come into being.  I believe that, similar to the way responsible parenting naturally flows out of a loving partnership, “the procreative significance” flows out of “the unitive significance.”

Of course procreation can occur without any special connection between the man and woman at all, but here the Church has a vital role: to speak of the sacredness of sex. A physical union should focus on creating a deeper intimacy, not just on physical sensations. When I talk to my children about sex, I always stress that it is more than just a physical act: “When you have sex with someone you bond with them in a very special way, touching not just their body, but also their soul.  That is not something you should do with just anyone.  Be sure you are choosing a partner who will cherish and honor you.”

Those frank discussions with my children point out what I believe and what the Catholic Church teaches: sex is reserved for committed couples because it is a place of such deep intimacy that it should only be offered to those with whom we have already established a connection—a spiritual and human connection that we want to nurture and expand. Sexual relationships can help peel away protective layers, allowing a couple to grow so close that they “become one flesh.”

The attitude that sex is first and foremost about “the unitive significance” even opens a way for me to be more understanding of same-sex couples, recognizing that all committed couples, regardless of sexual orientation, probably desire sex for the same reason: a longing for spiritual and physical closeness with another human being—and the eternalness that can be found there.

When I reached the next part of Humanae Vitae, which outlines why “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” I felt discouraged. My husband and I had been using natural family planning as birth control, but then my husband’s job began requiring a great deal of travel, much of it coinciding with my periods of infertility. We understood that “the transmission of human life is a most serious role,” but continuing with natural family planning would mean that many months might go by with no sex at all.  Yet we also knew that bringing another child into this world would jeopardize my health and that of the family we had already created.

Wondering what to do, I attended an ethics class through my diocese, hoping to learn about other options for our situation—and had that disturbing conversation about the sometimes acceptable use of abortion versus the never acceptable use of contraception. Hearing this almost caused me to leave the Church. Knowing it was a very real possibility that I could find myself pregnant but unable to continue with a pregnancy, and also knowing that having to choose an abortion would haunt me forever, my husband and I met with another priest. He gave a more nuanced response than what I had heard in the class. I also decided to explore Humanae Vitae on my own.

As we contemplated our decision, one thing we needed to take into consideration was the fact that fear of another pregnancy was preventing me from fully participating in sex and greatly compromising the intimacy we experienced. My exploration of Humanae Vitae helped me realize that the primary purpose of my husband’s and my sexual relationship is its ability to unite us in a deep form of communion. Since my fear of conception made me distance myself from my husband during sex, I thought that perhaps this phrase from Humanae Vitae—“to use this divine gift [the marriage act] while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose is…in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will”—opened a way for us to use contraception, since its use would restore the unitive aspect of our intimacy by alleviating my fear. Fear was not the driving force for this decision, however, but rather the love my husband and I wanted to foster in our relationship.

Once we began using contraception, I felt at peace—more at peace than I ever would have had I conceived and then had an abortion. I believe that our decision to protect against having more children was in line with the will of God for my husband, my family, and me. Could we have been wrong in making this choice? Perhaps. But God knows that the decision was only reached after much consideration and with the intention to follow his will—although we also understood, as Thomas Merton has pointed out, that even though we thought we were following God’s will did not mean that we actually were.

There is much more to Humanae Vitae than I have outlined here. I have reviewed it several times since my initial reading, and my conclusion has remained the same: Humanae Vitae contains wisdom, but it’s distillation of the very complex decision of regulating births down to a simple “thou shalt not use contraception,” diminishes the sacrament of marriage, which is about so much more than sex and parenthood.

I know I am not the only person troubled by Humanae Vitae. Many Catholics choose to ignore the teaching. Others opt to leave the Church. I came close to leaving myself. Hearing that under certain circumstances a woman can choose abortion—but never contraception—did not validate the teachings of Humanae Vitae for me. Instead it eroded my confidence and trust in the Church’s authority to help me make difficult moral choices.

So why did I wait until now, years later, to tell my story? Well, sex is a difficult thing to talk about. And who wants to do what I have just done (with my husband’s permission) and invite others into their bedroom? Yet time has given me the confidence to speak out, since I am now past the point of needing contraception and my choice can only be questioned in retrospect. The biggest factor, though, is Pope Francis, who has brought fresh air into the church with his willingness to speak about church teachings in a different way.

Rather than rigidly enforcing the contraceptive teachings of Humanae Vitae, I would like to see the Church help couples foster sacredness in their sexual relationships. Sex should be so much more than a joining of bodies in order to make new people; I like to think of sex as a reverent, physical form of prayer which unites souls in love, creating a profound sense of communion between two people and their God. Moving from “thou shalt not use contraception” to “sex as prayer” might help the Church to achieve more relevancy in the discussion of birth control, and, perhaps more importantly, sexuality in general.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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