Opinion & Features

Amoris Laetitia: An ode to Humanae Vitae

Buried deep in the middle of Amoris Laetitia is one of those little barbed asides for which Pope Francis is famous. He throws out the comment that “some Christian families, whether because of the language they use, the way they act or treat others, or their constant harping on the same two or three issues, end up being seen as remote and not really a part of the community. Even their relatives feel looked down upon or judged by them” (182).

So far as I can tell, this remark seems to have no genuine thematic connection with what precedes or follows it. As with Melchizedek of old (cf Hebrews 7:3), that is probably all the more reason to take notice of it. Despite not really fitting into the text, the Holy Father presumably feels that – somewhere, anywhere – the point needed making.

All of which, I suppose, makes me feel a little sheepish to be, yet again, harping on about one of my own pet subjects.

And to be fair, the Holy Father is perfectly right: outside of certain pockets, this truly is one that can make a family seem “remote and not really part of the community”.

Think of this column, then, as a kind of public service announcement. If it helps, you might imagine it read out in the style of those “Charley Says” cartoons from the 1980s. Who, after all, am I to judge?

Two things. First, Amoris Laetitia is crystal clear as to the enduring force of Paul VI (beatified – let the reader understand – during the first of the family synods) repeating the Christian prohibition of artificial contraception.

But secondly, it also uses a specific phrase “responsible parenthood” – lifted directly out of Humanae Vitae – no less than four times. Essentially, what that means is that, for serious reasons, parents may legitimately decide to postpone having more children (perhaps indefinitely) in the light of “social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires” (182, quoting St John Paul II).

Beyond such general indications, the Church leaves Catholic parents, prayerfully and with a suitably informed conscience, to make those kind of calls for themselves. No doubt the most obvious considerations here relate to money or health (mental and physical). “Own situation”, however, covers all manner of possibilities: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37).

Taken together, these two affirmations raise a problem: how precisely would two such parents avoid pregnancy, with good reason, without either practising total abstinence or contracepting? The short answer, in Humanae Vitae’s zippy phrasing, is to “take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile”.

Easier said than done? Undoubtedly. But in the near 50 years since Pope Paul’s final encyclical – having perfected the genre, he never promulgated another – the ability of most couples easily and reliably to track such cycles has come along in leaps and bounds. (This is something that is just as helpful for couples trying to get pregnant as it is for those trying not to.) The various methods of doing this have come to be known as either Natural Family Planning (NFP) or Natural Fertility Awareness (NFA).

If I have one criticism of Amoris Laetitia, it is that neither phrase is explicitly used. This is a genuine missed opportunity. Googling one of them might get a curious couple to somewhere of practical use pretty swiftly. Googling “methods based on the ‘laws of nature and incidence of fertility’” – Amoris Laetitia’s unhelpfully oblique reference (222) – probably won’t.

But Amoris Laetitia is hardly alone in this fault. For example, the websites of Britain’s two bishops’ conferences contain neither phrase (although England and Wales’s makes a single, albeit very general, mention of Humanae Vitae). With very few exceptions – take a bow, Westminster and Liverpool! – diocesan websites follow suit.

“How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). Fortunately, help is at hand…

Admittedly, the National Health Service’s promotion of NFP/NFA on the ground can be uneven at best: my wife has her own anecdotes here. However, its website and leaflets, while hardly in full accord with Church teaching on all points, provide a wealth of detailed and useful information. This includes, for example, the statement: “If the instructions are properly followed, natural family planning methods can be up to 99 per cent effective, depending on what methods are used.” That, by the way, is a higher effectiveness than the NHS estimates for correct condom use.

Given the other benefits of following the Church on this point (including not using large doses of hormones to disrupt the healthy and natural functioning of the reproductive system), perhaps this is something that our would-be “responsible parents” might be interested in hearing.

Stephen Bullivant is a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant