Three days ago was the fiftieth anniversary of the most controversial Catholic document of the 20th century: the letter by Pope Paul VI called Humanae Vitae. Why was it so controversial? One simple reason: because Pope Paul clarified for everybody that using contraception to avoid children is always morally wrong.
The Pope’s letter is sometimes reported as a nasty, bossy and sexist attack on women and sex. One wonders if these people have actually read the letter. The Pope is amazingly gentle and caring. He is also brief and easy to read – so I encourage us to google and read it during the week to have our hearts re-illuminated by the Gospel.
But why O why is the Church against contraception? First of all because Jesus is. The Gospel Jesus preached and handed over to the Apostles in Sacred Scripture and Tradition has always been crystal clear on this. The moves by some Christians in the twentieth century to change this were a novelty – were not received from Christ.
Part of the reason why is because of what is happening in contraception: however good the reason, one spouse is effectively rejecting part of the other. To contracept is to put a Berlin Wall between the couple, to protect myself against any of the other which might spill through. It is also to reject one of the four essential parts of any marriage: openness to the gift of God of children. This doesn’t mean that Catholics have to have a million children: Pope Paul stresses the need to procreate responsibly in the full, unbarred reception of the other in Natural Family Planning.
What is most striking is how all his theoretical warnings about contraception have come true: moral standards would lower, especially amongst young people, governments would impose contraception on their people and men would forget the reverence due to a woman, and, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires (HV 17). Sound familiar?
Perhaps the main reason Humanae Vitae is so controversial is the way it sets people free. There is immense social pressure to convince us and our young people that we are not free: – that the only way is that pushed by big companies, big media and famous people; that it is too hard to control ourselves and say no; and that the total gift of ourselves in love for life is impossible. Pope Paul underlines the emptiness of these slogans. Of course true love is demanding: but with God, nothing is impossible. Of course, freedom is challenging: but saying yes to Christ is to say to the freedom of self-control and the total gift of self that our heart desires.
This is the very point of today’s Gospel. Just like with Humanae Vitae, we see some disciples of Jesus arguing with him: God, what you are asking is impossible! Do you see how silly that is? Telling the Creator actually, God, you don’t have that power. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?’ What was the end result of following Jesus’ directions? They had way too much! They filled twelve hampers with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves. The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.’ This is the reason Humanae Vitae upsets people: in it we are each challenged by God asking will you be like Adam and Eve – or, this time, will you trust me?