Humanae Vitae: A Manual for Better Sex?
Anyone who has read a Catholic newspaper, magazine, or blog recently will know that 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. This has been the occasion for much praise of the encyclical and its author — that Pope Paul VI was prophetic, that Catholic teaching presents the strongest response to the destructive forces of the sexual revolution, and that natural family planning (NFP) is a beautiful alternative to the contraceptive culture. All these claims are true. Unfortunately, much Catholic cheerleading of magisterial teaching on sexuality succumbs to utilitarian reasoning that reflects a Catholic version of the so-called prosperity gospel. We should avoid this health-and-wealth thinking as much as we do the Pill.
The prosperity gospel, for the uninitiated, is an expression of evangelical Christianity popular in the U.S. (and, increasingly, in Latin America) that teaches that God wants His followers to be healthy and wealthy, to prosper, live well, and be happy. A close relative of Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking,” it is exemplified by televangelists like Houston-based megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Many of the evangelical leaders who supported President Trump during his presidential run fall squarely in the prosperity-gospel camp. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump, as a youth, attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where Peale was a minister.)
Much popular Catholic literature on NFP is reminiscent of the prosperity gospel. This is evident in the work of Gregory Popcak, a radio host and author of Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. Dr. Popcak is more or less orthodox and should be praised for seeking to defend Church teaching on sexuality. Yet he often claims that obeying Church teaching will necessarily result in a happier, more exciting bedroom experience. This line of thinking has less in common with Jesus Christ and His Church than it does with the utilitarianism of David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, with its over-emphasis on sensual pleasure as the basis for our moral choices.
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