Monday 23 July 2012

Third Reflection on Humanae Vitae: In Which the Marital Act is Compared With Park Benches, Oak Trees and Eating

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

A starting point for understanding the beautiful Catholic teaching on procreation is remembering that our vision of the human person is not “dualistic”: I am not a soul trapped in a body, as some religions hold. Nor will I be an angel (pure spirit) after my death. On the contrary, the teaching of Christ is that we will have new bodies and souls in the new heavens and new earth. What I am, in this life and the next, is both body and soul – I am a composite being. And as Christ so dramatically demonstrated, what we do with our bodies matters, as an expression of who I am and how I relate to other bodily beings.

When Paul’s VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterated the normative Christian teaching that contraception was morally harmful, that it split apart the two purposes or ends of the marital act – what did he mean by ends? Let’s first consider how objectively, everything has an end or purpose. The end of a park bench is to be sat upon. The end of an oak tree is to grow to a certain height and produce a acorns. HV reminded us that the ends of the marital act are the unity of the spouses and the procreation of children.

When one of the primary ends is deliberately excluded, a certain rupture takes place, perhaps imperceptible at first, but occurring nonetheless. Today we might better understand this by means of an analogy. Food, also, has two primary ends: enjoyment and bodily nourishment. If we ate only for pleasure, we would find ourselves undernourished or ill. If we ate only for nourishment, we will find ourselves eating only protein bars and Brussels sprouts – a fairly unhappy existence by any measure. Normally, we eat because that plate of pasta will be enjoyable to consume, and in the end it gives us the carbs we need to function. In this way, both ends are kept in unity.

One might reasonably ask: how is avoiding sexual union during the fertile periods – permissible, according to HV, when for grave reasons having children in one’s fertile years needs to be avoided or delayed – not separating the ends like contraception does? Our food analogy may help us here.

As with eating, one end of the sexual act may take precedence over another. I might drink more milk because my doctor tells me I need more calcium (nourishment). Similarly, spouses trying to conceive might decide to make love during the fertile period for the purpose of having a baby (procreation). Conversely, I might eat a plate of chicken alfredo because it smells and looks good (enjoyment). A couple might have a particularly romantic evening and decide to express their closeness most intimately (unity), which may result in a beautiful fruit of their love – a new human life. In these cases, one end is taking precedence, but not excluding the other end from the picture.

But what if a person eats for only pleasure, then induces vomiting so as to avoid the natural consequences of eating, as the Romans were known to do? We would never say to that person, go ahead and continue doing that, as long as you only do it sometimes. Rather, with compassion, we would try to convince that person of his or her inherent beauty and integrity, and away from this harmful habit. We would try to help them reintegrate the proper ends of eating food.

Temporarily keeping the marital act to infertile periods, by contrast, does not frustrate the procreative end, since the body is simply and naturally not fertile. We are not trying to eat without getting full. We are not jumping up and down instead of sitting on the park bench. We are not spraying chemicals in our forests, which will prevent the oak trees from reaching their intended heights and from producing acorns. In short, we are not tinkering with the act’s natural ends. It is simply choosing not to sit on the bench, but perhaps enjoying its shape from a short distance. It is the oak tree retaining its acorns for another week in order to wait for warmer weather. We are still respecting the awesome gift of human sexuality, and keeping it ordered towards its intended role: true love and and fullness of life.

(For more on the human and social contexts of the Church’s teaching and on contraception, see two excellent new books: Sex au Naturel by Patrick Coffin, and Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution by Mary Eberstadt.)

[Go to First Reflection on Humanae Vitae]
[Go to Second Reflection on Humanae Vitae]
[Go to Fourth Reflection on Humanae Vitae]


  1. Great post.
    Question. You say "temporarily keeping the marital act to infertile periods". What if a couple has faithfully followed the Church's teaching on this matter, is growing spiritually, has several children, and decides at a certain point to keep the marital act to infertile periods more or less indefinitely? In other words, they have used natural methods to plan their family, and have now reached what they planned?

  2. Thanks for your great question. Without knowing the couple and the factors in their life, I cannot say whether or not their decision to stop having children is justified or not (which I think is what you are asking). What I can say, is that the more generous we are with God, the more He gives back in return. The question is: has the couple truly and fervently prayed about the number of children that God wants them to have? The Church asks us to remain open to life unless "grave reasons" warrant avoiding new life. I come from an NFP-practicing family of six children, and whatever sacrifices my parents embraced, we had a rich, if simplified, family life. There were a few miscarriages near the end, but my parents remained open to life before entering their 40s. Today, I would not wish for less siblings; but I might wish I had more. - John

    1. It should be noted, however, that Humanae Vitae does not say that one needs 'grave reasons' to decide to limit the size of one's family, but rather, 'serious reasons'. I think this distinction is quite important. Here is the relevant sentence in full (from §10):

      'With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.'

      I think there is a danger of getting trapped in an ideology that either large or small families are better. It is a matter of prudence. The encyclical argues that the couple's real responsibility is to discern God's will and carry it out in a morally upright way.

  3. Thanks for this clarification, Adam. You are right, both the official Vatican edition as well as Dr. Janet Smith's translation both translate "seriis causis" as "serious reasons". Some older versions of HV, such as the Pauline Media edition, translated it as "grave reasons", since they based it off the Italian edition, which has written "gravi motivi". The Italian word "gravi", it should be noted, does not have the same sense of "extremely serious" as its cognate cousin "grave" does in English - and, I understand, the Paulines are hoping to publish a more accurate translation soon. All this considered, it still remains the case that the Church teaches that couples should have "serious reasons" for choosing to limit their family size. She prudently refrains from defining what constitutes "serious", which is why my first response was to infer that couples' circumstances are different and must be discerned on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, consciences must be informed. While we must be on guard against Phariseeism in all its respects, our times also require us to be vigilant against the contraceptive mentality which permeates like bad air - including in our use of NFP in marriage. It is entirely legitimate to ask a couple to discern what standards are they employing when choosing to have or not have children. Is their planned family size according to standards of God or of our consumer society? These are tough questions, but they are the heart of the matter. Finally, it might be best for readers to read HV in its entirety to get the sense of the teaching: it's available online at

  4. Is it possible to have the right justification turned off for comments?