While the Church suggests certain guidelines for sexual morality, right or wrong are really a matter of personal conscience–or at least that’s the shaky assumption my wife and I stood upon when we were first married. We thought we were committed Catholics but it never occurred to us to mention contraception when we went to Confession. Our personal consciences told us that contraception was necessary and therefore okay. We felt strongly that we really needed to get our lives and finances in order before we had kids. After about a year of marriage, however, an earthquake called Humanae Vitae rocked our world. Reading Blessed Pope Paul VI’s re-affirmation of the ancient teaching against contraception shook us up. In fact it registered at least 9.0 on our Richter scale, especially since the Pope specifically rejected personal conscience as a way of over-riding Church teaching. After much prayer we decided that, as followers of Jesus, we needed to obey. Unexpectedly, this lead to great blessings in our lives, especially to a deepening of our love for each other, a greater openness to children and a greater trust in God.
Humanae Vitae was a transformative encounter for us but today’s young couples have been through a couple of other earthquakes that may lessen the immediate impact of Humanae Vitae. This includes the sexual scandals that have shaken the Church to its core and also the superficiality of a lot of catechetical teaching that has left many young Catholic with a weak grasp of the faith. Before Humanae Vitae is likely to make much sense to them, they need a personal encounter with God’s astonishing love. They need to see that marriage and family life have been designed as a school of love that is meant not only to prepare husband and wife and children for the love of heaven but which is also meant to bear witness to God’s love in the midst of our secular society. They need to know that they are called to share in something big and beautiful and worthy of sacrifice and effort. All of this is presented in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which is a defense of Humanae Vitae, but these beautiful insights must be presented in language and in stories that resonant with the current generation.