Humanae Vitae 16: Recourse to Infertile Periods

sperm and eggHumanae Vitae is online at the Vatican site, and the text highlighted below is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Previous discussion here (and elsewhere) has centered on the liceity of preventing conception in any circumstances. Is the Church inconsistent? Pope Paul carefully outlines why Church teaching today is acceptable, and that extremes beyond it are not:

16. Now as We noted earlier (no. 3), some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the moral laws governing marriage, that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to (people). Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born.

This is one of the objections raised, but it is not the only one. The reply is somewhat involved:

To this question We must give a clear reply. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as (humankind) is so closely associated with (our) Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.

More often, I’ve heard that God limits this “order of reality” not only by natural means, but by the practices of virtue of human beings, grounded within human knowledge. But this line of thinking is rejected. Let’s keep reading …

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (See Pius XII, Address to Midwives: AAS 43 (1951), 846)

Pope Pius XII’s address was just seventeen years prior to HV, and as you know, was a development on earlier pronouncements regarding sexual intercourse.

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different.

The matter turns on natural conditions. And it is interesting that in a culture where a significant minority approve of and adopt more “natural” approaches to life, that the predominance of chemical means of contraception are largely acceptable. Of course, the other factor in my view is the inherent sexism (if not misogyny) of men imposing responsibility for chemical contraception on women.

In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.

Sexual intercourse, then, is not an absolute requirement. Is this just a residual distrust of human pleasure as experienced by couples? Thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Humanae Vitae 16: Recourse to Infertile Periods

  1. Chris says:

    “condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception”

    I understand the distinction HV is struggling to make, but abstaining during infertile periods is a means which directly prevents conception.

    God bless

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