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Humanae Vitae at 50: how does a Catholic respond to sex in the modern world?

Today marks exactly half a century since the publication of Humanae vitae, Bl. Paul VI’s prescient missive to the Church in response to the modern world’s views on sexuality and the human person. Reading it now through the warped lens of the 21st century’s concept of sex, it seems extraordinary that there was once a time the world was not arguing over the existence of multiple choice genders and contraception as a fundamental human right.

Progress, eh?

I look around at our culture and I see a lot of suffering. Children unsure of their parents’ commitment to the family and uncertain of their own place in the world, women who feel compelled to compete with their bodies in the sexual marketplace, babies snuffed out of existence because they had the misfortune to be conceived as the result of a violent act or a contraceptive failure.

There are a lot of people in a lot of pain. But the situation is not without hope. I personally had to hit a sort of rock bottom in my own life before I was able to recognize my own misery and cry out for something more.

The Church was there, and she was able to offer me something better. Discovering Humanae vitae made a big impression on me when I was finding my way back to belief, and it has not ceased to fascinate me in all the years since. It is brief, concise, and only seems to become more applicable as time passes.

There are four predictions which Pope Paul makes in HV, things which perhaps seemed far fetched in 1968, but which have themselves wretchedly accurate in 2018.

First, he envisioned a rise in infidelity and a general moral decline. The Pope noted that the widespread use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” Everyone knows that the rate of divorce is up and the rate of marriage is down and we’re watching things on network television that would have been censored as pornographic only a generation ago.  I’d like to take things a step further and propose some remedies to what ails us.

First and foremost, if you are married or are preparing for a vocation to marriage, be all in. A holy marriage is a beacon of light in a darkening cultural landscape, and a vital witness to your children, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Commit yourself to chastity – both before and within marriage. That means setting clear boundaries while dating and knowing your own and your partner’s limits when it comes to sexual temptation.

Renew your marriage vows with a sense of reverence for the sacred nature of sex and a delight in the goodness and dignity of your spouse. Don’t buy in to the culture’s cheapening views on sex as primarily recreational or selfish. Commit to studying and growing in your practice of authentic Christian sexuality with your husband or wife. “50 Shades of Gray” has nothing on “Theology of the Body.”

Secondly, Pope Paul foresaw a devastating loss of respect for women. He argued that “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

Make a pledge to reject pornography in all its forms. Find a trusted spiritual director and/or mental health practitioner to help you navigate the road to freedom from addiction. Be honest and open about your struggles, and recognize your own limitations when it comes to the kind of media you can consume. Talk with your children, teens, and tweens about the dangers of sharing nudes and explicit content on the internet, SnapChat, and Instagram, helping them understand the far-reaching effects their youthful choices can have in adulthood and in eternity. Even better, keep smartphones out of the hands of your young people! Your kids will not die without an iPhone. Set an example of purity and transparency by keeping your computers and connected devices in open communal spaces and having a charging station where all devices are checked in at night.

Consider financially supporting an anti-trafficking campaign like the USCCB’s Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking (CCOAHT), or by calling your congressperson to voice concerns about human trafficking in your state. There is a direct and demonstrable link between the pornography industry and human trafficking. Pornography is not an “innocent, private, personal choice.” There are real victims and there are real addictions which bleed over from the virtual world to the real world. Read Matt Fradd’s excellent book “The Porn Effect” with your men’s or women’s group or with your older kids. Sign up to become a fighter at the website Fight the New Drug.

Paul VI also voiced concern about the potential for the abuse of power, particularly at the hands of powerful governments and non government organizations who could wield “family planning” as weapon against poorer nations and oppressed populations. China’s infamous “One Child” policy is a sobering and extreme example of this, and there are stories of horrific forced abortions, state-mandated abductions, and government intervention in the lives of citizens who dared to flout the law. In the developing world today there are many instances of people undergoing involuntary or uninformed sterilizations at the hands of “compassionate” and eugenic non profit organizations whose understanding of humanitarian work seems limited to the reduction of undesirable populations.

Teach your children about the fundamental dignity of every human person, no matter their skin color or place of origin. Discuss the exploitation of poorer countries and populations by the wealthy and powerful, and explain the Church’s responsibility to defend the least of these. Raise money or awareness for an authentically Catholic charity doing work on the ground, like the Missionaries of Charity or International Missionary Foundation. Lobby your political representative for humane and responsible humanitarian aid that does not impose draconian population control measures on disaster-stricken or impoverished nations. Our “charity” is no charity at all when it comes with strangling strings attached.

Finally, the Holy Father recognized that a widespread acceptance and use of contraception would lull men and women into a false sense of control over their own bodies and, ultimately, the bodies of their children. If you stand around a playground with a group of moms for long enough, eventually you will overhear or take part in the vasectomy conversation: “I scheduled Matt’s for next week – it’s his turn to suffer!” or “Jim got snipped last year, because we are d-o-n-e done.”

Sterilization, according to a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute, is now the leading form of contraception in the United States. The rates of IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies have also skyrocketed in recent decades. Couples are waiting longer to become parents and women are often spending decades ingesting hormonal contraceptives without a clear understanding of the risks to fertility and the decline of the reproductive system with age.

When it comes time to have a child, couples will often stop at nothing to achieve their dream of becoming parents. This has led to a glut of “unwanted” frozen embryos who linger indefinitely in cold storage in laboratories around the world and the troubling emergence of a thriving surrogacy industry where it is frequently the poorer minority women who are hired to carry a pregnancy for a wealthy heterosexual or homosexual couple. Little thought is given to the physical and emotional effects that surrogacy has on the surrogate or the resulting child who is necessarily reduced to a product available for purchase.

Teach your children about the grave respect due to every human person, no matter the circumstances of their conception or birth. But also teach them that a massive and corrupt industry has sprung up around the conceiving of children at any cost and by any means necessary. Take responsibility for the sexual education of your own children from a young age. Opt them out of any public school instruction in human sexuality – some of which is developed by Planned Parenthood and other corrupt for-profit corporations with a vested interest in your children becoming sexually active – and educate yourself in the biology and theology of the human body. Gone are the days of having “the talk” with a pubescent teenager and hoping to have any impact on your child’s formation. If you want to get to your child before the culture does, you must have many such talks throughout the years. Early, and often.

Finally, pray. Pray for the wisdom to navigate this toxic culture and for the courage to live as a sign of contradiction. Look around and observe the pain and the confusion caused by living in a manner contrary to the Church’s teachings – even to those within the Church itself – and be bold enough to choose something radical. As 1 Peter 3:15 states, “be prepared to give an account for the reason for the hope you have in you.”

And in the words of my favorite Saint echoing the words of my Lord and Savior, “be not afraid.”


  • Dawn

    Do you have any suggestions about books to teach theology of the body to early elementary aged children? I know about good pictures bad pictures but I was hoping for something that would present a more positive first look at TOB ideas rather than starting with pornography. Is there something to present the joy of TOB first?

    • Mandy

      We are using the TOB for Tots series by Monica Ashour, which I discovered through another Catholic mom. We have the first set, for ages 2-5, which includes 3 board books “Every Body Has Body,” “Every Body Is Smart,” and “Every Body Is a Gift.” There are additional books geared to older kids, up through teen years. Find them at

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Dawn, this is the best stuff I’ve found: That’s what I’m planning to use with my kids. So far we’ve just been trying to have very body positive conversations about nakedness and what the body is designed for (carrying babies, giving love and care, making sacrifices for others) and focused on communicating when something is inappropriate in the checkout line because it isn’t giving the lady (always the lady. y tho) the dignity she deserves as a daughter of God.

  • Julie

    Jenny, this is so good and concise and the suggestions are great! Thank you for posting it. God bless you for this ministry! (Yes! It is!)

  • Becky

    Just as birth control is an attempt to impose control on the body, rigid adherence to religious ideology strikes me as an attempt to control all of one’s life and destiny. This can be positive and nourishing in many instances, but excessive rigidity often creates its own monstrosities. I don’t think we’ve yet discovered a regime of morality that doesn’t inflict its worst cruelties on women and children.

    • jeanette

      It’s too bad you didn’t flesh out your statements with supporting points. If adherence to Humanae Vitae can be done with excessive rigidity, do you have examples of what you mean? If you think adhering to these moral teachings on human life is somehow cruel to women and children, can you elaborate with examples? Humanae Vitae more than anything else gives an understanding of what the spousal relationship is meant to be and what it means to work together with God in creating human life. Your vague comments don’t have validity because they do not point to anything specific, and therefore are unexamined thoughts as they are incomplete.

      Perhaps you meant something more specific, but you did not convey it. You also vaguely speak of “discovering” a “regime of morality” as though that were a task we have for ourselves, and that would imply that it is somehow foolish to rely upon the Church’s moral teaching but rather ought to be discovering our own moral system.

      You also utilize the term “rigidity” and don’t provide examples. Let’s substitute another word, “perfection” and realize that we are called to live with perfection in loving God and neighbor. That level of perfection to which we are called can be characterized as “rigid” if you mean we should take care to live out moral truths in our actions. If you mean rigid to imply that there is an unbending, inflexible, or otherwise unwilling desire to be wishy-washy, then by all means, let’s be rigid, because if we are to accept something as true and then act as though it were not, where does that leave us? Again, you may have something to say on that point, but you offer no example of what you are getting at.

      I don’t think Humanae Vitae is inflicting anything cruel on anyone, and since that is the topic at hand, I think you should refer more specifically to thoughts contained in the encyclical to support your opinion.

      Have you read any of Humanae Vitae? Maybe not, and if not, try reading some of it. Then try to finish your thoughts on the matter in reference to the actual teachings contained therein. I think you will be hard pressed to consider it cruel.

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