The blessings and burden of living Humanae Vitae


Catholic Register, 14 November 2018

Is living the teaching of Humanae Vitae regarding the moral means of managing fertility burdensome? Yes, and effective pastoral support for couples who are attempting to do just that — using natural family planning (NFP) rather than contraception — is served by acknowledging that up front. NFP is a burden.

It is not only a burden, to be sure. But that it is a burden should not be denied: the required education about a couple’s fertility, especially the feminine reproductive cycle; the discipline of daily measurements and recording of same; the abstinence required, even for considerable periods of time, when attempting to avoid pregnancy; the greater trust in Providence when NFP “fails” and another child is conceived.

That it what I proposed to a conference organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto and held at the University of St. Michael’s College on Nov. 10. The conference marked the 50th anniversary of Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical in 1968, and the day opened with the Holy Mass offered by Cardinal Thomas Collins.

To acknowledge the burdensome aspect of fertility is a realistic starting point for couples who are living the long Christian moral tradition regarding contraception. They often do so heroically and deserve the robust pastoral support of the Church — not only from their pastors, but from fellow Catholic disciples. It does not help them to minimize or ignore the difficulties; rather it only makes it perplexing for them when those difficulties come. They may well begin to wonder if they are doing some wrong, or if something is wrong with them.

Not the case. Like all teaching on the moral life, it is true that the teaching of Humanae Vitae constitutes a recognition of the “Liberating Potential” that God gives to us by nature and by grace. That was the title of the Canadian bishops pastoral letter on the 40th anniversary in 2008. But it doesn’t mean that realizing that potential is easy.

Indeed, as a consequence of sin, we receive many objective and subjective blessings precisely as burdens in some respect.

For example, food. Is it a blessing or a burden? Certainly a blessing in that it enables life to continue. Certainly a blessing in that it is, or ought to be (!) pleasurable, and an occasion for unity between family and friends, even strangers. It expresses the richness of a culture and constitutes a patrimony across generations.

But is it not also received — at least on occasion — as a burden? The expense required, and the time: planning, shopping, cooking, serving, cleaning up afterwards, only to begin again later that same day. The sheer unrelenting demands of feeding a family every day are not to be denied. And for many, due to health and fitness issues, everything to do with food is burdensome. Consider the family with young children who have severe allergies, or someone who struggles with weight and the associated psychological and emotional dimensions of what is not only a physical challenge.

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