Humanae Vitae: A Manual for Better Sex?
Much popular Catholic literature on NFP makes utilitarian claims
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.
Popcak is not alone. Notre Dame business professor Margot Cleveland presents similar ideas in an article titled “Why Practicing Catholics Definitely Have the Best Sex” (TheFederalist.com, April 5, 2017). She writes, “On the other side of the vows [of chastity] is something wonderful. The. Best. Sex. Ever. It is not just a matter of faith or philosophy (natural law), but also statistics and science. Research shows that monogamous married couples report the highest level of sexual satisfaction.” She later adds, “If you want happiness, respect, and truly amazing sex, just remember married sex is the best.”
Nathan Lloyd, in a more recent article titled “How Humanae Vitae’s Contraception Ban Liberated My Sex Life” (TheFederalist.com, July 26, 2018), argues that understanding the teachings of Humanae Vitae “makes sex so much better.” I’m not sure that selling better sex is what Pope St. John Paul II meant by a new evangelization.
I was the recipient of a polemical onslaught from better-sex NFP apologists in response to an article I wrote titled “The Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons” (TheCatholicThing.org, August 12, 2017) in which I raised concerns about such well-meaning but misguided pro-NFP propaganda. I connected it to the Americanist heresy, which Pope Leo XIII condemned in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899). Leo rejected the idea that the Church in America is somehow “different from what it is in the rest of the world.” As I argued, NFP advocates sometimes claim — in language that seems oh-so-American — that submission to Church teaching on sex will “make everything better,” and that whatever is right and good must necessarily mean “easier,” “happier,” or “more fulfilling.”
Though many readers thanked me for a more honest portrayal of the realities of following Church teaching on sex, others accused me of denigrating NFP and encouraging Catholics to disobey Church teaching. One reader, who claimed I demonstrated a “typical millennial attitude,” asserted, “You must be going about [sex] in the wrong manner and intention…. It IS way better!!” She also criticized my and my wife’s decision to abstain from sex during the pregnancy of our third child — we were living in Bangkok at the time, and a Zika outbreak in the city had raised concerns about microcephaly. The woman claimed that our abstention reflected a lack of trust in God and a “contraceptive mentality.” Ironically, when I further explained to her that our decision sought to avert the threat of a lifelong disability, she did an about-face, illogically arguing that contraception is permissible in such a case to preserve the health of the baby. When one embraces a utilitarian ethic regarding sexual mores, an “ends justifies the means” pragmatism apparently follows.
Let’s back up and examine the “sex is better for practicing Catholics” argument. Yes, sociological research demonstrates that married couples, and even doctrinally faithful Catholic married couples, report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than others. But consider if they didn’t. Would that then mean we would be free to disobey Church teaching for the sake of “better sex”?
I wonder what the results would be of a study of the “happiness levels” of devout Catholic couples in oppressive Muslim nations. My experience with Pakistani Catholics seeking asylum in Thailand suggests to me they are not a particularly “happy” group. Perhaps such persecuted religious minorities should abandon the Catholic faith to increase their happiness levels. Using utilitarian logic, you see, is a double-edged sword.
Moreover, I can think of scenarios in which Catholic sex (for lack of a better term) might not be “better.” Consider a single man or woman who lives a “sexually adventurous” lifestyle for years but eventually finds God and marries a devout Catholic who has been chaste. Not to be too explicit, but perhaps that chaste Catholic is unusually awkward, shy, or boring in the bedroom. The other, more experienced spouse might wind up “sexually frustrated” — and perhaps also frustrated with the NFP advocates who misled him or her into thinking that Catholic sex was “toe-curling” and “mind-blowing.”
We must tell the convert in such a scenario that sex might not ever be “better” in the physical sense, but it could be in the deeper theological and emotional senses, if it is embraced as an act of mutual self-giving between two people who love each other and are committed to a life of monogamy. But if we’re selling our convert Humanae Vitae as the key to living a Catholic version of some steamy romance novel, we’re the ones to blame for proffering a false bill of goods.
Following Church teaching on sexuality is not easy, and we shouldn’t suggest to people that it is. When my wife and I chose to abstain for months for the sake of the health of our baby, it was difficult — but certainly worth it, as our daughter came into the world healthy. Our friends in Thailand, including well-meaning evangelicals, urged us to resort to contraception for the duration of the pregnancy. “What’s the harm?” they asked. It’s not like a condom would prevent a pregnancy; we were already expecting a baby. To a pragmatist or utilitarian, Catholic sexual teaching doesn’t make a lot of sense.
To take another example, I have friends who after more than 10 years of marriage still cannot figure out the wife’s fertility cycle. They have sought the help of medical professionals and experts — to no avail. They have a large, very happy family with wonderful children, but they’re on a tight budget. At one point in their marriage, terrified of having another child they could barely provide for, they abstained for eight months. I’m not sure I’d call that type of obedience to Church teaching “pleasurable” or “liberating.” Purgatorial might be more appropriate. I’m sure they both grew in virtue during that eight-month stretch, while perhaps also banging their heads against the wall.
The idea that following Christ and His Church should be “better,” “happier,” or “easier” is not Gospel teaching. It is materialist, utilitarian ideology draped in Catholic vestments. When the wayward Corinthian Church was awash in sexual misconduct, St. Paul did not appeal to their desire to live “more fulfilled,” romantic, sexually gratified lives. Rather, he declared, “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:18-20). Moreover, Christ urges us to expect tribulations and crosses to carry (Jn. 16:33; Lk. 14:27), while St. Peter exhorts us not to be surprised by the “fiery ordeal” we experience in this life (1 Pet. 4:12).
Of course, adherence to Humanae Vitae’s teaching — including NFP — will reap significant benefits for a marriage. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ website, USCCB.org, lists a number of them, including stronger communication and cooperation, deeper intimacy, and a better understanding of the woman’s body and cycle. Yet only one point really matters: NFP “honors God’s design for married love!”
Humanae Vitae is worth celebrating because it is Christ’s own teaching for the salvation of our souls — not because it teaches techniques of sexual gratification. We are right to praise it, as so many Catholics have done effectively this year — I especially recommend the book Why Humanae Vitae Is Still Right edited by Janet Smith. We are also right to censure the contraceptive culture and the fallout of the sexual revolution, as has been done effectively by such writers as Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve after the Pill. Yet we must ensure that our apologetic is founded on the principles that make our faith ever strong and new — truth, beauty, and goodness — rather than cheapening it with appeals to orgasmic nirvana. Otherwise, we may come to regret what we’ve sown.
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