There are many burdens in life, but a husband and wife can have no greater burden than creating new life. Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza: The blessings and burden of living Humanae Vitae

By 
  • November 14, 2018

Is living the teaching of Humanae Vitae regarding the moral means of managing fertility burdensome? Yes, and effective pastoral support for couples who are attempting to do just that — using natural family planning (NFP) rather than contraception — is served by acknowledging that up front. NFP is a burden.

It is not only a burden, to be sure. But that it is a burden should not be denied: the required education about a couple’s fertility, especially the feminine reproductive cycle; the discipline of daily measurements and recording of same; the abstinence required, even for considerable periods of time, when attempting to avoid pregnancy; the greater trust in Providence when NFP “fails” and another child is conceived.

That it what I proposed to a conference organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto and held at the University of St. Michael’s College on Nov. 10. The conference marked the 50th anniversary of Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical in 1968, and the day opened with the Holy Mass offered by Cardinal Thomas Collins.

To acknowledge the burdensome aspect of fertility is a realistic starting point for couples who are living the long Christian moral tradition regarding contraception. They often do so heroically and deserve the robust pastoral support of the Church — not only from their pastors, but from fellow Catholic disciples. It does not help them to minimize or ignore the difficulties; rather it only makes it perplexing for them when those difficulties come. They may well begin to wonder if they are doing some wrong, or if something is wrong with them.

Not the case. Like all teaching on the moral life, it is true that the teaching of Humanae Vitae constitutes a recognition of the “Liberating Potential” that God gives to us by nature and by grace.  That was the title of the Canadian bishops pastoral letter on the 40th anniversary in 2008. But it doesn’t mean that realizing that potential is easy.

Indeed, as a consequence of sin, we receive many objective and subjective blessings precisely as burdens in some respect.

For example, food. Is it a blessing or a burden? Certainly a blessing in that it enables life to continue. Certainly a blessing in that it is, or ought to be (!) pleasurable, and an occasion for unity between family and friends, even strangers. It expresses the richness of a culture and constitutes a patrimony across generations.

But is it not also received — at least on occasion — as a burden? The expense required, and the time: planning, shopping, cooking, serving, cleaning up afterwards, only to begin again later that same day. The sheer unrelenting demands of feeding a family every day are not to be denied. And for many, due to health and fitness issues, everything to do with food is burdensome. Consider the family with young children who have severe allergies, or someone who struggles with weight and the associated psychological and emotional dimensions of what is not only a physical challenge.

Or consider work. Work is given to us by God as a gift, to shape our character and, to use the phrase, liberate our creative potential. It is a blessing, as those who are involuntarily unemployed will tell you. But we also experience it as toil and drudgery, as a burden.

Life itself, always a good, can be experienced as a burden. We see this not only in those who now request voluntary euthanasia, but also in those faithful disciples who, under the burden of years and infirmity, desire nothing more than to go home to God.

We should not be surprised by this. Biblical revelation begins with that lesson. The harmony with which God made His creation is lost in the Fall, and thus we often receive as burdens what God intended for us as blessings. Indeed, the Lord God instructs Adam and Eve that, because of sin, the blessing of work will be marked by the burden of toil; the blessing of masculine and feminine complementarity will be marked by the burden of rivalry and exploitation; the blessing of children will be marked by the burden of childbirth.

It is children of course who are the greatest burdensome blessing of all. Parents love their children. More often than not the children are the delight of their parents’ lives. But make no mistake, children are burdensome, from the sleepless nights in infancy to the sleepless nights in adolescence.

And if children are blessed burdens, it stands to reason that fertility would also be a blessed burden, too. The first step is not to be surprised about that; it’s normal. That prepares the way for practical support, to which I will return in future columns.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.) 

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