Hope for those struggling to live out the teaching of Humanae Vitae
My wife, Kristina, and I were married just weeks after our twenty-second birthdays. We were still in our final year of college, young, naive — and in love. Our Catholic faith was always a central part of our lives and our relationship. We took up the call to be open to life and followed the Church’s teaching about family planning. Three months after our wedding we were pregnant with our first boy. After he was born, Kristina suffered from severe postpartum anxiety and depression. Her fertility came back very quickly after giving birth and sixteen months later our second son was born. At that point we changed the method of Natural Family Planning (NFP) we were using to space out the birth of our third child nearly two years.
At this point the postpartum anxiety was combined with three children ages three and under and we knew that Kristina desperately needed a break. We changed NFP instructors and religiously tracked and charted her fertility. However, Kristina’s fertility came back after just a few months and her cycles were unpredictable. Despite our best efforts at trying to avoid pregnancy, and all of the stress and abstinence that entailed, we found out we were expecting our fourth child only nine months later. We felt like we failed. Neither we nor our instructor knew when conception occured because Kristina’s fertility was unchartable. Yet we knew we absolutely had to wait to get pregnant again. We found another instructor and learned a third method of NFP.
In the months that followed our fourth child’s birth, Kristina’s postpartum anxiety came back with a vengeance; we were now taking care of four children under five years old; and we were sleep-deprived parents of an infant. On top of that, Kristina’s fertility returned just as quickly as before. We began obsessively charting her cycles and, because of our past experience, were extra conservative in following NFP rules.
We abstained for months at a time and our anxiety about getting pregnant meant that sexual intimacy on the “safe” days was tainted by fear and anxiety. Both our psychological and spiritual health declined rapidly. I was thrown into several months of depression. Resentment of our sexual desires and bitterness towards the Church began to grow. I felt real shame about wanting intimacy during times when I knew we could get pregnant: I should love my wife enough not to put her health at risk, right? We felt like the Church’s teaching was drowning us. We were coming apart at the seams with no idea when normalcy would return.
During the darkest time of this experience, Kristina and I visited with a priest for support and direction. His kindness was inspiring and he offered some helpful spiritual advice, but he was at almost as much of a loss as we were. At one point he even said to me, “You are not the only person who has come to talk with me about their struggles with NFP. Do you have any ideas on how I can better minister to them?”
We were driven to the brink of despair before the Blessed Mother broke into our life with spiritual consolation. After that, Kristina’s postpartum anxiety began subsiding and her fertility became easier to track. Through this experience, God purified my heart of the defensiveness I had about the Church’s sexual teaching and the judgement I often felt towards anyone who struggled with it. It was only then that I was open to truly hearing the stories of other couples who suffered as they tried to live out God’s call to be open to life.
Anyone who has spent time listening to couples who strive to live out the Church’s teaching knows that our experience is neither uncommon or anywhere near the most difficult. We did not have to abstain for a year or more during postpartum; we had a pretty stable marriage and supportive family; we did not have life-threatening health problems, and we were not in a financial crisis. Any of these not-uncommon factors can make following the Church’s teaching nearly unbearable. There is an unmet pastoral need for couples who are trying to be open to life and follow the Church’s teaching on family planning but who feel utterly cornered because they live in fear of their marriage deteriorating,1 of the health risks that would come from pregnancy, or of cutting themselves off from God by living contrary to Church teaching. How can we minister to couples who feel like they are in an impossible situation so that they do not resort to permanent sterilization, walk away from their faith, or remain Catholic but grow deeply embittered at the Church?
Pope Francis teaches that “realities are greater than ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium 233). The real suffering of couples demands a response. We must avoid the temptation to get defensive and dismiss the difficult cases in order to promote the Church’s teaching. If not rooted in the concrete reality of the couple, even kind words about grace and the cross can often feel like an empty platitude, dismissal of their actual suffering, or an exhortation for them to just try harder. We need to offer couples a real path forward, and we must be able to do this without lowering the demands of the Gospel or dismissing the Church’s teaching about contraception.
I believe a significant amount of the burden couples carry in these circumstances comes from an incomplete understanding of the moral law and of mortal sin, both of which are rooted in not knowing God’s identity as a loving Father or the depth of his love and mercy. In this regard, the pastoral teaching of Pope Francis presents couples in these situations with real solutions. I would like to present the Church’s teaching about the moral law, the law of gradualism, conscience, and God’s mercy and apply them to couples struggling to live out the demands of the Gospel when it comes to family planning. These teachings present a very personal and real way forward. In this way, I believe husbands and wives can experience “the sweetness of the yoke of Christ” as they strive to live out God’s commands about marriage and sex (Humanae Vitae 25).
Knowing is not enough
Along with the Ten Commandments, the natural moral law provides humanity with the blueprint for what a truly good and free way of life looks like. Far from arbitrary rules, through the natural law, God reveals to mankind the objective order that he imbued within all of his creation and thus the way of life that allows human persons to flourish. Appealing to this natural law, Pope Saint Paul VI clearly taught that contraception (that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means”) is “intrinsically wrong” (Humanae Vitae 14). Thus, with this encyclical, Pope Paul VI gave married couples an objective model for what truly personal and fulfilling family planning looks like.
The benefit of having clearly articulated moral laws cannot be understated. However, knowledge of the law is ultimately insufficient. The natural law gives us the instructions for how to live but not the strength, the grace, to live it out. This distinction is key. All too often teachers and apologists in the Church present the moral law in a way that would presume that being convinced of the truth that a behavior is wrong is enough for someone to not act that way. This can lead believers to resent God, the Church, or themselves if they end up in a situation where they know the law but are simply not able to follow regardless of how hard they try. I think this is especially present when it comes to sexual morality. Perhaps because the Church’s teaching stands in so much contrast to the sexual mores of the modern world, these teachings are often presented in such a defensive way that a person’s entire relationship with God is measured simply by their sexual behavior.
The story of Israel in the Old Testament is a testimony of humanity’s inability to keep God’s law, even when he writes it in stone and sends prophets to remind them. God knows that knowledge of the law is not enough. This is why, through the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, he gives us his divine life (grace) to heal the wounds of sin and transform us. God’s plan is not to restore us to life before original sin but to raise us up to something greater, to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).2
From this perspective, the moral law is not only the model for how to live rightly but also the strength to do it. It is the promise of being able to live and love like Christ. The Law of the Gospel “is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it” (CCC 1966). Christ did not come to abolish the objective order of creation but to fulfill it himself (Mt 5:17). Then, through the Sacraments, he allows us to fulfill the law through, with, and in him. As Saint Augustine taught, through the Sacraments “not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself.”3
The moral law is not simply a model to follow but also the promise that God will radically transform us so that, not only are we capable of following the moral law, but we will also be able to live it out with ease and joy. God promises to “reform the heart” (CCC 1968), even to give us new hearts (Ez 36:26–27), so that our desires will be transformed and we will want what Jesus wants and love the way he loves. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free (cf. Galatians 5:1).
The process of transformation
When we approach the moral law from this perspective, two things become clear. First, this transformation of our hearts is primarily God’s work, not ours. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis teaches:
The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit” (GE 53).
God initiates, sustains, and brings to fruition this interior transformation by his free gift of grace. God meets us where we are and raises us up to himself. However, while this transformation is primarily God’s work, we have an absolutely essential role. Like our Blessed Mother at the Annunciation, we must freely consent to God’s work and freely cooperate with his plan throughout our life.
The second thing that becomes clear is that this reformation of our hearts does not happen instantly. The promise of being able to follow all of the commandments, of living and loving like Christ, is neither an unachievable, abstract ideal nor is it a power we are magically endowed with at Baptism. Pope Saint John Paul II speaks of this in Familiaris Consortio where he says that man “is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth” (FC 34). Pope Francis picks up this line of thought and explains it further when he says:
Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once . . . Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words (GE 50).
Because this process happens within time, there may be moments when an individual is not strong enough or free enough to follow the moral law. Pope Francis teaches that this progressive transformation is messy and “in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (GE 49). God, in his wisdom that is beyond our understanding, chooses not to completely and immediately heal us of our weaknesses, the wounds we carry from original sin, sins committed against us, or personal sin.4 This means that someone can know the demands of the moral law and be progressing towards the Gospel ideal but also be too weak to follow all of the commandments.
Sin is not merely rule breaking
When Pope Francis speaks about human weakness, he explicitly references the Church’s teaching about reduced culpability. The Catechism is clear that a mortal sin requires three conditions: grave matter, full knowledge, and complete consent (CCC 1857-1859). In other words, grave matter, “specified by the Ten Commandments,” is one of three necessary components of mortal sin but is not a mortal sin by itself (CCC 1858). This distinction is essential because while “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” and “turns man away from God” (CCC 1855), someone who has objectively violated one of the commandments with insufficient knowledge or freedom “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (Amoris Laetitia 305).
Further, the things that can limit a person’s knowledge and freedom are not uncommon. The Catechism teaches that “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735). The Church has even specifically taught that these factors can reduce the subjective guilt of someone using contraception.5 In the case of someone trying to avoid pregnancy, things like postpartum depression, an uncooperative spouse, fear of medical or psychological consequences of pregnancy, or financial pressures are just a few of the things that could limit freedom and thus reduce culpability.
I believe there is a lot of confusion about this teaching because I regularly hear pastors and teachers conflate grave matter with mortal sin. In my experience, these teachers focus so much on defending the objective evil of sexual immorality from our relativistic culture that they explicitly or implicitly communicate that every violation of the Church’s sexual teaching is a mortal sin. This can lead couples who strive to be faithful to Humanae Vitae to disproportionately judge their relationship with God on their ability to “keep the rules” and subsequently live in fear of “falling” into mortal sin whenever they make a mistake. However, we do not commit mortal sin when we act out of weakness without sufficient freedom. Pope Francis teaches that, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (AL 304).
The collapsing of sin into mere rule breaking distorts our understanding of God and turns him into a calculating judge primarily concerned with our external actions rather than a loving Father who knows our hearts and who desires for all of his children to be saved.
Real steps forward
This catechesis about sin and the moral law leads to concrete pastoral solutions. It offers a way forward for couples who believe what the Church teaches and desire to conform their will to God’s will but who feel like their life circumstances have put them in an impossible situation with no way out. I would like to propose three steps for how couples can move forward.
The first step is to pray for the grace to truly believe the most central truth that God has revealed to us: God loves you. In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis says, “God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved” (CV 112). Jesus reveals that God loves us like a father loves his children. He commands us to pray to “our Father” (Matthew 6:9). He invites us to use our experience of fatherly love to understand God’s love for us (Cf. Matthew 7:11). He tells us that God is like a father who forgives his prodigal son before the boy can even finish his apology (Cf. Luke 15:21-22). The pope also reminds us that our Father is patient and gentle with our weaknesses. Pope Francis says:
We can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve (EG 153).
We cannot earn God’s love or meet him halfway. The Catechism says that “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man” (CCC 1). We cannot do anything to convince God to love us, heal us, or save us more than he already does. Pope Francis makes clear that “God’s saving love…precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part” (EG 165). The good news is not that God gives us his grace and love when we follow the rules but that “even while we are still sinners” God chases us down, even to the point of death on a cross (Romans 5:8).
The next step forward is to lean into the sacraments, the greatest vehicles of God’s healing and transformation that will ultimately give us the freedom to follow the moral law and live like Christ. However, I think many couples in these difficult situations have been led to believe that every fall, every weakness, in their sexual life cuts them off from God, the Church, and the sacraments. This can also lead to a distorted, legalistic view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the action that must be performed after any break in the Church’s sexual teaching in order to receive Communion. However, our weaknesses do not separate us from the Church. The Church and the sacraments exist precisely to heal our weaknesses and make us sharers in God’s divine life. Pope Francis teaches that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). And he says that Confession “is not a dry cleaner” but an encounter with “Jesus who waits for us just as we are” (Homily on April 29, 2013). Our weaknesses do not cut us off from God; rather, they are the very thing that keeps us running back to the embrace of our Merciful Father to receive more of his love and strength.
In addition to the Eucharist and Confession, couples can especially draw grace from their own marriage. Christ works through their relationship to give spouses “the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love” (CCC 1642).
The final step for couples is to form, trust, and follow their consciences. Citing Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism teaches that the conscience “is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776). Now, our conscience must be formed so that we can properly hear God’s voice directing our lives, and a well-formed conscience “guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (CCC 1784). We form our conscience through Scripture, the Church’s teaching, the advice of others, examining “our conscience before the Lord’s Cross,” and quiet prayer (CCC 1785). Specifically, it is through silent prayer that “we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us” (GE 150).
Perhaps due to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of conscience that have spread in reaction to Humane Vitae, I think many Catholics who champion the Church’s teaching on contraception are suspicious of the role of conscience. I believe Pope Francis directly addresses this suspicion in Amoris Laetitia. There he says:
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (AL 37).
Further, the pope is clear that our conscience can not only help us discern past actions but is also a way God reveals the next concrete step he wants us to take. Pope Francis teaches:
Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (AL 303).
In other words, through our conscience God can show us our weaknesses and circumstances and, in light of that reality, the next step he wants us to take — even if that step does not fully meet the demands of the moral law. Here we recall that an objective violation of the law does not turn us away from God if “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” are limiting our freedom (CCC 1735). Trusting in God’s love and mercy, we can take this step forward with humility and in obedience to God’s will. This is what Pope John Paul II meant when he spoke about the “law of gradualness.” Pope Francis explains:
Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth”. This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (AL 295).
The pope is also clear that this discernment of the path forward “is dynamic” and “must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303). This is not an excuse to sin. A couple should approach this process with humility, “love for the Church and her teaching,” and “a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300). We must always be moving “closer to God” otherwise we “cease being pilgrims and become drifters” (EG 170).
“In every case,” Pope Francis says, referencing Saint Augustine, “God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: ‘Grant what you command, and command what you will’” (GE 49). So in times when the demands of the moral law are beyond our strength, we are called to do what we are able, even if it is not the objective ideal, and pray for the grace to, in God’s time, have the freedom to live and love like Christ.
In light of the real life steps that these pastoral teachings make available for couples, I hope that the Church’s teaching about grace and the cross will not feel like a platitude or backhanded exhortation to just try harder. Rather, I hope these teachings shed a new light on Humanae Vitae itself, a light that shows the pastoral heart of Pope Paul VI. Towards the end of that encyclical he wrote:
And now We turn in a special way to Our own sons and daughters, to those most of all whom God calls to serve Him in the state of marriage. While the Church does indeed hand on to her children the inviolable conditions laid down by God’s law, she is also the herald of salvation and through the sacraments she flings wide open the channels of grace through which man is made a new creature responding in charity and true freedom to the design of his Creator and Savior, experiencing too the sweetness of the yoke of Christ.
For this reason husbands and wives should take up the burden appointed to them, willingly, in the strength of faith and of that hope which “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Then let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance. In this way, for sure, they will be able to reach that perfection of married life which the Apostle sets out in these words: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church. . . .” (HV 25).
Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden light (Cf. Matthew 11:30) because it is he who “took our sufferings upon Himself and burdened Himself with our sorrows to bring us, through the Cross, to the joy of Resurrection.”6 May the Holy Spirit give couples the knowledge of the Father’s love and lead all of his children who feel impossibly burdened to true freedom and joy. May they experience the sweetness of the yoke of Christ.
- The Church recognizes that when marital intimacy is cut off due to the need to avoid pregnancy, other aspects of a marriage can be imperiled. Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 51: “This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.”
- Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III,1,3, ad 3: “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.”
- In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, 21, 8: PL 35, 1568.
- Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 109, a. 9, ad 1: “But here grace is to some extent imperfect, inasmuch as it does not completely heal man, as we have said.”
- Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The moral norm of “Humanae Vitae” and pastoral duty, no. 3, 1989 (emphasis in the original): “The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction — not the separation and still less an opposition — between objective disorder and subjective guilt. Accordingly, when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behavior without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception.”
- Pope Francis’ “Prayer for Liberation from the Epidemic to Our Lady of Divine Love,” March 11, 2020.
About Paul Fahey
Paul Fahey lives in Fowler, MI with his wife and four kids and works at his local parish as the Director of Religious Education. He is a retreat leader, a Catholic speaker, as well as a contributor and co-founder of wherepeteris.com. You can contact him through his website, pfahey.com.1
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