Humanae Vitae: Fatherhood Introduction

Kevin Aldrich - HV and Fathers


[This article is the first in a series on Humanae Vitae: Fatherhood.]

Pope Paul VI’s widely rejected, and even ridiculed 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is in my view the most important of all the documents of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on marriage and the family.

The reason is that it goes to the very heart of the sexual revolution.

The question is, can a person, morally as well as practically, separate sex from procreation? Can people separate sexual pleasure, in whatever form they want it, from the act which is biologically designed to bring babies into the world?

Sexual Revolution\’s Answer

From the sexual revolution’s “yes” to this question, people have justified masturbation, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual activity, pornography, even bestiality. From these activities have also flowed the consequences of men viewing women as sexual objects to be used, gross adolescent immaturity and selfishness which can extend into the third decade of young people’s lives, out of wedlock births, fathers rejecting their children and fathers and mothers rejecting each other, abortion, broken hearts, gay marriage, and rapidly approaching us, polygamy.

And in the last generation with advances in medical technology it is even possible to separate procreation from sex. People can separate bringing new people into the world from sexual intercourse. So artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and lesbian and gay partners having or adopting children are all justified. We don’t even know what the full consequences of these practices are. We have just rushed into them because we wanted to and could.

What is the sundering of the two meanings of sexual intercourse? It is either separating sex from procreation or separating procreation from sex. That we should not do this and why we should not do this is what is at the heart of Paul VI’s message in Humanae Vitae.

So many of the problems facing the family, society and the Church stem from not appreciating and following the doctrinal and pastoral principles Paul VI heroically taught.

Fathers Should Defend Responsible Parenthood


So much good can result if we, Catholic fathers, understand, live, and can defend the Church\’s fundamental teachings in regard to responsible parenthood. Our bishops, priests and Catholic theologians and academics should be pounding away on these topics, but they are not. A few weeks ago, taking up about thirty seconds of his seven-minute homily, our pastor spoke against contraception and for natural family planning. I was flabbergasted because the last time I heard a priest mention contraception was eighteen years earlier (and I attend daily Mass and have done so all over the country).

I think Catholic fathers have to take the lead, to help our wives, our children, our parish priests, a lot of bishops, and all people of goodwill return to the ground zero which Humanae Vitae is for the modern world. Maybe we can embolden our Catholic leaders in this task.

So, for anyone who wants to read them, I will post five further columns that explore Paul VI’s encyclical from the perspective of the Catholic father and his role as protector of the family.


Specifically, I will address five questions:

  • What is “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it?
  • What are the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why should my wife and I not separate them?
  • What is the “question of conscience” my wife and I need to answer when it comes to responsible parenthood?
  • Just why are natural family planning and contraception so different, even though they kind of look the same?
  • Should my wife and I actually intend to have many children if we can?
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15 thoughts on “Humanae Vitae: Fatherhood Introduction”

  1. Pingback: Humanae Vitae and Family Size—Should we have a big family? - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: Humanae Vitae: NFP vs. Contraception - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  3. Pingback: Humanae Vitae: Questions of Conscience - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  4. A great book about this is Emily Stimpson’s These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body which not only deals with sexuality but mostly talks about how to incorporate JPII’s great teaching into our everyday lives. I love her sections on spiritual fatherhood and motherhood, which will change our society if implemented.

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  7. Perhaps the apparent lack of acceptance of Humanae Vitae has to do with its lack of breadth. Blessed JPII corrected this in part with his four year series on Theology of the Body, but even there too many people read the first lectures and do not receive the entire picture.

    The missing element is the relationship between soul / spirit and the body. In TOB there is mention of the need for mastery of spirit over flesh, as laid out so beautifully in the epistles of Paul, especially Romans.

    When we leave out the bigger picture – that includes our essence as soul (created in the image of God) we slip into the “body only” discussion, the rhetorical and philosophical territory owned by today’s philosophical materialism. Unless we first address and defeat the premises of materialism (that man is solely a biological entity, an animal) we lack solid ground on which to mount the counter argument.

    When we go toe-to-toe with a culture steeped in the “man is an animal” philosophy of materialism we lose. We are not heard. Too often we make this mistake and speak of body alone – and leave out the important factor of our essence as soul, as spirit.

    1. Greg, How would you relate what you wrote above to a young couple in Pre-Cana seeking to be married in the Church yet sexually active, using contraception, and even cohabitiating?

    2. Kevin, my emphasis would be on spiritual direction as the most important aspect of marriage.

      When we marry we become ad hoc spiritual directors for one another. The most important function we serve in marriage is assisting each other achieve salvation.

      Once the couple clearly sees this role, they begin to take the responsibility seriously. At that point they engage in spiritual formation on a regular basis – and they seek sources that will help them become a better spiritual director for one another.

      Only then do we have a couple immersed in the faith in a manner that places issues of morality in a proper context. We no longer have morality as a set of rules imposed by an institution, we have morality that functions within a spiritual context. We have shifted focus from body to soul.

      We then have a basis for moving beyond the falsehoods of a culture steeped in philosophical materialism, as our new focus is first and foremost on the salvation of souls rather than the idolatry of body worship.

      Morality only comes alive in the context of the soul, and the spiritual journey to salvation. If morality is removed from this context, it will fall before the cultural juggernaut of materialism. If we begin Cana instruction with a total focus on body rather than soul, we slip into the trap the culture has prepared. Our morality seems arbitrary and out of date – when it is disconnected from the reality of the soul’s journey into God.

    3. Kevin, Greg is correct. But conveying what he’s so astutely put his finger on might well depend on a bunch of different things, depending on where any one couple is. If they are questioning the culture, or beginning to, even if they are flagrantly disobeying Church teaching, that’s our cue: they may not take us up on our offer immediately or at all, but they do need to know what the Church actually teaches and offers them, instead of allowing them to be satisfied with a caricature of that teaching. Fulton Sheen’s observation that very few people hate what the Catholic Church is, and most people hate what they think the Catholic Church is will be instructive here.

      The first step is probably to suss out the couple on why they think it’s
      so important for them to get married in the Catholic Church. Gently,
      mind. Don’t interrogate them; find out where they stand, and then take them further, knowing that the Church always offers more. My husband and I were one of those couples you mentioned. But thanks to God’s grace, we were enabled to be obedient– including being on board with “Humanae Vitae” by the time we got married. We were blessed to have a priest who gently confronted us and recommended that we stop, and I’m blessed to have a husband who agreed when I told him that I wanted to take Father up on his suggestion, and without begrudging me anything. I was also blessed to have a really good wedding-planning and marriage-planning companion: Pope Benedict was there for me during a period that coincided with my coming back to the Church.

      I know that there are some Catholics who object to NFP being pushed during Pre-Cana as the “norm.” But the “norm” is that way too many Catholics are cohabiting and contracepting, so this is an opportunity to go after the lost sheep: why are they cohabiting and using contraception in the first place? What are they afraid of? One effective way of talking about NFP, perhaps, is to talk about how God’s grace now has the “in” it needs, and He can take it from there. Baby step by baby step, no pun intended. Couples who deliberately contracept close themselves off to that grace by receiving the Eucharist unworthily and also not going to Confession. The point is not to push NFP primarily or exclusively as an “alternative to contraception,” but to show that what it offers is still more. Talking about its effectiveness has its place, so long as that’s not the only note we play. Besides, NFP can be used to get pregnant. Let’s see the pill do that.

      Many a bride will be antsy about what the culture expects of her as a woman, bride, wife, and mother. She will also wonder about equality between husband and wife. Those are important questions and fears; it’s just as important that she know that the Church has better answers, and that being counter-cultural is about thinking with the Crucifix, and not fleeing the world and inhabiting a primitivist Catholic bubble of one’s own making. She will have picked up a ton of cultural noise– a lot about “What Catholics Believe”– from both non-Catholics and those calling themselves Catholic, none of which is what the Church actually teaches. What will enable her to sort through a ton of garbage from people who are themselves confused and ignorant at best and who behave like jerks at worst is the Magisterium. Moreover, it’s the Sacraments that will enable her to live and balance what the culture tells her is “too hard”: the culture says that x, y, or z is “unreasonable,” and the Church calls “B.S.”

      It’s important to let the couple know that Church teaching gives them spiritual and intellectual room to think, even and especially when they feel squeezed by the culture and by other Catholics (especially the ones who think it holy to mandate what the Church does not). The point is to help them see more broadly and deeply– it doesn’t even follow that not being on contraception automatically leads to “a dozen children,” since if needed, God will give a couple the self-control needed to abstain for just reasons, or that a couple could have relations during the fertile period and yet no baby results. Plus, chastity for the sake of fuller integration of one’s sexuality into one’s person is in fact necessary for self-gift in a marriage: lust in marriage is still sinful and a “church wedding” and a wedding ring do not make it “respectable” or okay. Coming the other way, having a big family isn’t necessarily going to get in the way of a mother having a career, either. For some women, it will be important for them to know that the Church does not teach that the only good and holy wives and mothers are the ones who give up their work to stay home full time. For others, it will be important to know that the Church teaches that she’s not a “nobody” if she stays home full time.

      And within the boundaries of not using contraception, the size of one’s family, both big and small, and how God can use them for His glory, is not subject to the opinions of those who don’t know how to mind their own business– both when it comes to those who like lecturing others on “what causes that” and when it comes to those who presume to tell others that they’re not “being fruitful and multiplying” enough.

      Where Greg’s points about materialism are absolutely crucial is
      that human beings are matter and spirit, and not just matter or spirit.
      This relates directly to the Incarnation. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
      in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
      recently reiterated that God is not reserved for the merely “spiritual”
      plane– either He has authority and control over matter also, or He’s
      not really God. Again, it’s where God has the “in” He needs to reorient, make holy, and to reintegrate more holistically the lives of broken people. Catholic orthodoxy is not about “the rules”; it’s about
      Jesus. What seem like “rules” actually enable us to know at all times
      Who He truly Is. Orthodoxy is therefore just bigger:
      it is neither laissez-faire wide nor scrupulously narrow. And what
      seem like “rules” to the ill-catechized and the unschooled are actually
      what enable us to see and access that “Bigger.”

      The Catholic version of acquiescing in materialism is reducing all talk of family to size when the Church welcomes but does not mandate big families, and reducing motherhood to biology, when the Church doesn’t do that, either. The parallel and related discussion that also reflects this materialism concerns celibacy and the priesthood. Way too many Catholics don’t know what a priest is, and they certainly don’t understand that a Catholic priest is husband and father in his own right. These two things are actually two sides of the same discussion, and it might be helpful to discuss them together instead of separately.

  8. Hi Kevin,
    I can’t agree with you more. I’m 62 years old, I lived trough ground zero. I eventually left O.C. Calif and that was one of the MAIN reason I did. The Death Pill wasn’t mentioned from the pulpit for at least 20 years. At the time I had three daughters and my son, still at home. I live in KY. and work at the Fathers of Mercy now. The birth control pill is society’s “Holy Grail”. God bless You my brother! I have been writing Catholic songs, (I’m an amateur singer, song writer). “Ground zero” sounds like a good song title for the 1968 atom suicide bomb that went off! Thank your Priest, he probably took a lot of fire for even mentioning “Ground Zero”.

    1. My “turn” comes up once a month, although I will have a special post on homiletics on Wednesday. They are all written. Thanks for your interest.

  9. It gives me hope the following excerpt:
    “I think Catholic fathers have to take the lead, to help our wives, our children, our parish priests, a lot of bishops, and all people of goodwill return to the ground zero which Humanae Vitae is for the modern world. Maybe we can embolden our Catholic leaders in this task”.

  10. Kevin, your post provides great promise. I look forward to your future ones.

    In my own consideration of such matters, I have not found it as helpful to concentrate on questions of what we can do or must do or even should do. These are not the “battlegrounds” where the flight from understanding is taking place.


    Through the breakthroughs of science, we have discovered there is little we can’t do.

    Through the breakdowns of law, there is little we must do.

    Through the breakup of moralities, there is little we find people agreeing we should do.

    Where then is the battle ground?

    I sense it us in and through what people want. When you bring up all of the downsides of ignoring what the Pope’s message was, I would expect more persuasion coming in the area of what we don’t want.

    Not pounding, my friend, but gentle penetration.

    By helping others learn what God wants, people may decide to want what He wants most deeply for us.

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