Why Humanae Vitae Was Right A Reader, edited by Janet E. Smith (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993, ISBN 0-89870-433-2)

Those of us who promote Natural Family Planning sometimes have our doubts. We seem to be such a minority, even in the Church, that we inevitably ask ourselves: Are we a kind of harmless fringe group--like vegetarians? That is, are we simply advancing a "healthy lifestyle" but one that has no real claims beyond its enthusiastic adherents? Why Humanae Vitae Was Right answers that question. And the answer is that marital chastity applies to every married couple--and has deep implications for those of us who are not married. The argument of this book is not simply that Humanae Vitae needs to be taken into consideration or that it will work if you give it a try, but that Humanae Vitae was right.

I have to admit I was first attracted to this book by its pugnacious title. Humanae Vitae even tho it simply reaffirmed two thousand years of constant Church teaching, was a surprise, not to say a shock. The invention of the birth control pill and its widespread acceptance seemed to negate the traditional wisdom about the inseparability of two ends of marriage: procreation (Gen 1:28) and union (Gen 2:24). However, Pope Paul VI insisted they not be separated:

"God has wisely arranged the natural laws and times of fertility so that successive births are naturally spaced. But the Church, which interprets natural laws through its unchanging doctrine, reminds men and women that the teachings based on natural law must be obeyed and teaches that it is necessary that each conjugal act remain ordained in itself to the procreating of human life. (HV #11)

For many these were "hard words" (cf. John 6:60) but instead of "walking away" they did what modern man does best: They tried to find a way around them. This volume shows why those attempts will ultimately not work. For example, it has been common to argue that this is simply a matter of conscience. In a brilliant essay, William E. May puts the question of conscience in its proper perspective.

Dissenting moral theologians have used the "principle of totality." As long as the marriage is overall ordained to procreation ("open to life"), it does not matter if certain specific acts are not. Ralph McInerny shows how this is like saying a few acts of adultery do not matter as long as the marriage as a whole is open to fidelity.

It is often asserted that the encyclical is based on an outdated stoic philosphy. Against this assertion, various authors explain the phenomenological, personalist approach which Pope John Paul II favors. Another argument examined is that it was not "infallible" and therefore can be put aside. Or that "overpopulation" makes it invalid for us today. Or that when all is said and done there is no real difference between NFP and artifical conception. All these ordinary arguments are taken up and persuasively responded to.

Several of the essays address the last mentioned question. Mary Rosera Joyce, for instance, argues that "no selfish purpose can make periodic continence a negation in itself, and no good purpose can make contraception a good in itself." Philosophically and ethically this is the heart of the matter. While many consider it a "non-issue," this volume makes it clear a lot is at stake: the meaning of our human sexuality, indeed the very meaning of our human existence.

In spite of its pugnacious title, this book is amazingly serene, even reconcilatory. Janet E. Smith herself offers a number of essays exhibiting the clear, calm tone which has done so much to win people back to the Church's teaching. There is throughout the conviction that Pope Paul VI was not only right, but was a prophet. That so many of our social, family and personal ills come from a rejection of this teaching, but also that we can get back on the right track. We now have almost thirty years where we have seen the results of widespread dissent. We also have the testimony of a minority who have adhered to it as the very teaching of Jesus. This collection of essays demonstates that fidelity will pay off, not only for those individuals, but for our Church and society as a whole.


Original essay on Birth Control (Negative Consequences of Pill and Positive Benefits of NFP

Birth Control vs. Natural Family Planning: Six Difference

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

Home Page