I am rethinking Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial birth control. Well, actually not rethinking since I cannot remember ever thinking about it much at all, ever, except dismissively. So best to say, I am considering it seriously for the first time. I actually sat down to read it.
This, I admit, is a bit unusual for a Lutheran pastor, or for any Protestant, pastor or not. The subject of preventing unwanted pregnancy artificially or of being open to any pregnancy at any time cannot be located on any spiritual GPS we use. Among Roman Catholic teachings, I cannot think of one less appealing to Protestants and, so it must be said, to many Roman Catholics as well.
It makes sense to space children; I did. No child was unwanted or unexpected. We had one miscarriage, a wistful loss we still discuss from time to time. But no bones about it, the birth order placements were designed by what Paul VI called “unlawful” methods.
Protestant acceptance of birth control was not always so. Until the mid-twentieth century, Protestants were as iffy on birth control as Roman Catholics. By and large, Protestant churches discouraged artificial birth control, regarding it as a contravention of the procreative purposes of marriage. That has changed. So has marriage.
Two things recently prompted me to give serious consideration of Humanae Vitae.
A friend reminded me, first, of a 1997 critique I wrote in reaction to an article in The Lutheran, the house magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Lutheran’s piece highlighted two couples, active church folk, one couple married and the other couple cohabiting. What The Lutheran did with marriage wasn’t anything recognized in classic Lutheran theology.
The second prompt was a USA Today piece recapping an episode of ABC’s The Bachelorette. I stumbled across that by accident.
The Lutheran’s article—“Living Together: Couples Share Why They Didn’t and Do”—did a typical liberal Protestant approach to moral discourse. It rounded up some pro’s and some no’s, gave everybody a say and reached a summary conclusion offered by an expert. From the no’s: Unmarried couples lack commitment; they are “playing house.” From the pro’s: “A church ceremony and legal marriage ties [will] not improve what we have.” The expert cited was a University of Minnesota Lutheran campus-ministry counselor. “When I prepare [couples for marriage],” she was quoted, “I find it easier to talk to those who have lived together because they know what it takes to live with another human being. I see much more openness to sharing things that have been struggles.”
It was the absence of any theological discussion; no consideration of what in fact constitutes a Christian marriage and family that hacked me off so badly. Lutherans—before the dichotomous split between classicists and progressives—once had a rich pastoral and theological perspective on marriage. From a certain reading of the Lutheran confessions, marriage may be regarded as a sacrament, though not cited among the chief sacraments. It was viewed as a Christian vocation initiated in baptism, as calling and gift and obligation. The married couple sought to do in their home what the Church seeks to do in the world: Make the reality of redemption evident in the lives they touch and nurture. As I read Humanae Vitae, that’s not far from Paul VI.
The article in the 1997 issue of The Lutheran missed marriage entirely. But that is what happens when marriage is divorced from the construction of family. At heart, I think this necessary connection between marriage and family formation is what Paul VI sought to preserve.
The male half of the cohabiting couple featured by The Lutheran was quoted: “At this point, emotionally, spiritually, mentally there is nothing I could gain from marriage that I don’t already have.”
Oh? How about the task and joy, the duty and delight, of serving Christ in the public vocation of marriage, that necessarily intrinsic connection once existing between sex and marriage?
Culturally, marriage no longer has a purpose beyond self-fulfillment. The Lutheran’s article was an implicit admission of it. The couples sought fulfillment of self in each other. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can become thin gruel if it is the only purpose. There was little in the 1997 article to suggest anything else.
Oh, and The Bachelorette? The recap covered a reunion of dumped bachelors, called “contestants,” a three-hour episode said to be laced with “bleeped-out swear words.” I’m old fashioned. Contestants or not, gentlemen should not talk like that about any woman.
As Paul VI put it,
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (HV 17)
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.