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Taking Center Stage

May 2, 2018 | (1,969 words)

The fifty-year anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae is fast approaching (July 1968). That’s the one in which Paul VI reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on the dire consequences of artificial contraception. You know, the papal encyclical nobody pays attention to anymore.

In spelling out his objections our heroic Pope not only politely ignored the seemingly reasonable example of the 1930 ruling issued by the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church. He also set up in direct opposition to the popular 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, a trumped up case that opened the floodgates by legalizing the public sale of the newly-invented contraceptive “pill.” Paul VI calmly told the world “Not On My Watch, Folks.”

The Catholic Church’s main point in this matter, if a humble member of the flock may be allowed to weigh in, seems to be simply this: It is futile to hope the use of artificial contraceptives will be restricted to the mere regulation of progeny. The Anglicans issued their 1930 compromise with this specific guideline attached, but it was obvious almost immediately that theirs was a case of wishful thinking.

(Griswold, of course, always had other designs in mind. It was always meant as a flag-raising for the sexual revolution, liberating women from the confines of their biology, so they could be as promiscuous as men had always been allowed to be. It also simultaneously promoted the dual objective of allowing women to pursue careers outside the home. These careers, it was taken as gospel at the time, would be far more fulfilling than merely nurturing the next generation of little people into civilized adults.)

To clarify, it’s not that the Catholic Church is dictating (or ever wanted to dictate) that all married couples must procreate until the cows come home. It is merely saying that the indiscriminate use of artificial contraception will lead/has led to a “contraceptive mentality” that undermines family life. And in that it has proven to be, if you will pardon a little street vernacular, balls-on accurate.

… a contraceptive mentality that undermines family life.

Okay, so if “artificial” contraception is to be avoided at all costs, what other kind of birth regulation is acceptable? We’re so glad you asked. There are various methods of so-called Natural Family Planning (NFP) that have been around as least as long as the pill, that conform to Church teaching, and that can result in the “spacing of births” when a married couple deems that to be in the best interest of their family.

But if artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning both typically result in smaller families, why condemn the former while elevating the latter? NFP does not encourage promiscuity among unmarried people, the way artificial contraception certainly does. And equally important, NFP promotes a more considerate relationship between a husband and wife. So as to eliminate (or at least greatly minimize) the risk of one’s wife being reduced to a mere “sexual object” used by the husband to satisfy his own persistent urges.

So far, so good. Where does one go to learn about this Natural Family Planning approach that does not violate the Church’s ban on the use of “artificial” contraception? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, NFP is not part of the standard pastoral care we Catholics currently offer to young married couples.

This may explain why in the last generation (my generation) so many of our parishes have come to be populated with families who proudly boast only two children. It is quite obvious how we have all completely ignored the wisdom offered by Humanae Vitae in our everyday lives, and have followed instead the logic of Griswold.

To his everlasting credit the good and holy Paul VI did his job, and held up his end. In ignoring what his prophetic encyclical has to say, and what the Church has always taught, we have instead chosen to follow the cultural imperative that says we should avoid the messy problem of overpopulation. This also just happens to result in the appealing side benefit of allowing us the financial freedom to raise our fewer children “the right way”, in a comfortable lifestyle.

… a Pope who did his job, and held up his end.

Yet in other cases the turning away from sound teaching is driven by a decidedly economic imperative. The days when your average young married couple could settle down to the business of raising a happy brood on one income alone are, for the most part, long gone. In order to maintain hearth and household in these unsettled economic timed a second salary is now a pre-requisite. Mom, in this our vaunted era of “choice,” can no longer choose to forgo her prime earning years to stay home with the kids. This, in turn, results in fewer kids.

How is the American Catholic Church planning to address this fifty-year-old conundrum? So far in this special anniversary year the response has been a series of conferences and seminars underscoring the vitally important message of Humanae Vitae, which are being attended, as these affairs usually are, by a certain strain of earnest Catholic layperson.

We in the audience are addressed by a roster of world-class speakers – philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, physicians, and social analysts – all of whom speak in one voice to proclaim the truth and beauty of the teaching. But how, pray tell, is the average Joe and Jane supposed to put that profound teaching into practice?

Saint John the Baptist parish in Front Royal, Virginia, is the exception to the rule, in that it is populated with many young families who proudly boast more than the culturally-acceptable two children. We have a son and daughter-in-law who reside in this particular parish. They are in their late twenties, have three young children under the age of four, and are trying to get by on one salary.

Our daughter-in-law has obtained her certification in Natural Family Planning (NFP) at her own expense. This process involved much study, along with travel to the Mid-West on two separate occasions for week-long intervals of intensive training and testing. She has set up a small corner in their unfinished, cinder-block basement as an “office” in which to see couples and offer them the requisite courses in NFP, and she is advertising in the parish bulletin for “customers.”

… how to put the teaching into practice?

My question is: Why isn’t her parish sponsoring her efforts? Why hasn’t the pastor or the parish administrator (or somebody) established a roster of people, like our daughter-in-law, to offer such training? Why isn’t this effort a normal part of the Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) classes offered by this wonderful parish?

And if this is the sad state of affairs at Saint John the Baptist parish in Front Royal, Virginia, the very model of a thriving, “orthodox” parish, what hope do the rest of us have, here in our sleepy, going-through-the-motion parishes when it comes to implementing the lessons of Humanae Vitae at ground level?

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) just sponsored one of the above-referenced major conferences at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Held over three days during Easter week, it was called “Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love, and Life,” and featured a star-studded cast of world-class speakers, as noted above.

My own bishop, the Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who happens to be the current chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, was the only prelate to speak at the formidable D.C. conference. His historical sketch began with an overview of pagan Rome, where men were expected to be promiscuous but women were not. And female slaves and prostitutes were used as “safety valves” for men.

This sort of background intel is of the utmost interest to me, personally. But the average Joe and Jane does not necessarily share my fascination with the historical record, and tends to focus their attention on the more mundane concerns of daily life.

Caution: The following remarks may read as criticism, but they are only meant to be an objective assessment of the situation at hand. Archbishop Chaput is a fine gentleman and a good shepherd to his people here in Philadelphia. In the final analysis, though, what good is being chairman of a fancy USCCB committee? What good is having a publishing contract and contacts in New York? What good is enjoying a national profile, and being asked to speak at seminars and major conferences across the country?

How does any of this worldly acclaim, no matter how well deserved, advance the cause of unpacking the wisdom of Humanae Vitae in digestible chunks that can in turn positively impact the thought processes and behavioral patterns of the super busy, overly-stressed, and downright overwhelmed young married people in the pew?

… the average Joe and Jane don’t have time to appreciate the fine points of history.

Not that long ago, a few years back, I attended a presentation at a neighboring parish on Humanae Vitae. Toward the end of the talk, the subject of Natural Family Planning was introduced. The people filling the small room all had white hair (or no hair at all). During the Q&A session that followed the talk, a woman raised her hand.

This person is a friend of ours (and mother of two). She said, in effect, “This is all well and good, but those of us in this room don’t really need to hear this. What are we doing to get the word out to our young people?”

The presenter, a dedicated individual who works in the chancery office heading up the archdiocesan Office for Life and Family, shook his head somewhat ruefully, and said we should not expect any help from the archdiocese on this. If we want to spread the word on Natural Family Planning, we will have to do it ourselves.

I can only assume (since I have no special insight into the matter) that here in Philadelphia, as at Saint John the Baptist parish in Front Royal, Virginia, the issue is a lack of available funds. This is not an inconsequential matter, since many of our parishes and dioceses are operating, as the saying goes, on a hand-to-mouth basis.

The Most Rev. Chaput, for one, arrived here from his previous post in Denver to confront a massive deficit that had been kicked down the road by his immediate predecessors. Righting the ship has been no small feat, and has included the unfortunate and emotionally-wrenching closing of many parishes (ours among them), parish schools, and other diocesan facilities.

Nevertheless our good Archbishop deserves full credit for making these hard calls, all of which constitute the unavoidable conclusion, as he has stated publically, of the Philadelphia faithful’s “decision to have fewer children” over the course of the last generation.

One can’t help but wonder, however, if we can manage to come up with $45M to fund the World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015 (originally budgeted at $20M), why can’t we find a way to roll out NFP training as part of our standard pastoral care to young couples in our parishes?

Probably because the civic leaders who contributed so generously to help the city of Philadelphia successfully host visitors from across the nation and around the world do not share an interest in promoting Catholic teaching on the care and maintenance of proper family life.

Which prompts one to ask, what are these noteworthy seminars and major conferences being held in celebration of the fifty-year anniversary of Humanae Vitae actually accomplishing, beyond preaching the good news to a choir who have in many cases aged out of their reproductive years?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
May 2, 2018

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