Humanae Vitae: Still Correct After 53 Years

News: Commentary
by Dr. Christopher Manion  •  •  August 6, 2021   

Interview with Dr. Janet Smith

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Author, lecturer and newly retired professor of theology Dr. Janet Smith has published widely on Humanae Vitae, which turned 53 years old just last week. Dr. Smith was interviewed by Dr. Christopher Manion, director of the Population Research Institute's Humanae Vitae Campaign.



Dr. Manion: Today we welcome Dr. Janet Smith, longtime professor of theology, founder of the Women’s Care Center, and one of America's most valiant expositors and defenders of Humanae Vitae, the beautiful encyclical of Pope St. John Paul VI on marriage, the family and the true meaning of human sexuality. This week we are celebrating Humanae Vitae's 53rd birthday. Janet, thanks for joining us today at the Population Research Institute. Now, Humanae Vitae was promulgated 53 years ago. How has this teaching of the Church fared over the past half-century?

Dr. Smith: Well, for a very long time and still today, for the most part, it's been ignored by the priests and the hierarchy, and of course, more importantly, in a sense, the laity — but they haven't been taught by the priests and the hierarchy.

Clergy and laity have ignored Church teaching on contraception

Though I think there's been an uptick in the last 20 years or so of abiding by it. A lot of it has to do with a growing awareness, honestly, of the abortifacient qualities of many of the pills that women are taking, contraceptive pills, and then also the harmful effects of hormones on everything about a woman's body.

And so, I think a lot of people have turned away from [contraception], initially, because of health side effects and relationship effects. But I think over time, they begin to realize that it really builds being faithful to the Church teaching on sexuality in every respect, it builds relationships. And I think that once people live it, even though it can be very hard for some people, especially if there are difficulties in a woman's cycle that require extended abstinence, that can be very difficult.

Nonetheless, living in accord with God's will always has its benefits. 

Dr. Manion: Some years back, an American priest told me he did his theology in Rome, and his professors told him and his fellow students to forget Humanae Vitae — "It will be overturned before long." I haven't seen a papal document to that effect, but sometimes I wonder if that's not been the situation in practice.

Dr. Smith: Well, they certainly did [seem to forget it]. I mean that's what Charles Curran told them that — it would just be a matter of time before the Church caught up to the modern world.

But I should have mentioned, as well, a reason for the uptick in interest is really the Theology of the Body. It's something that gives people a very in-depth understanding of Christian anthropology and therefore sexuality. And I think people have begun to appreciate more the great design that God has written into the human body.

But I agree with you. I mean, I met a priest years ago who said he hadn't studied Humanae Vitae in the seminary, and then he went on to Catholic U to study moral theology. And he realized there was something wrong if he hadn't read Humanae Vitae. And he decided 10 years after he left seminary to read it, and he read it, and he was convinced that it was true. And he was incredibly offended and upset that he had not been introduced to this document or teaching before.

I think seminaries now are doing a much better job of teaching this because under the pontificates of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict, with them there was a real concern to teach orthodox Catholic teaching in the seminaries. I would like to think it was because bishops were recognizing the truth of this, but I think sometimes it had more to do with careerism — that they could point to their seminaries and say, we're being very faithful because that mattered to John Paul II and Benedict.

But anyway, I think there's still hope in the seminaries because most of the seminarians come from faithful homes, and they're already predisposed to want to teach whatever the Church teaches and are less likely to be swayed by dissenting professors, should they have them. I think most seminaries now still have largely faithful faculty, which is a novelty in the last 50 years, but probably growing in the last 10 or 15 years.

Dr. Manion: What are the hardest parts of Humanae Vitae for teachers to teach and preachers to preach? (That is, why would so many be tempted to avoid it?)

Dr. Smith: Well, you may have noticed, but there's virtually no moral teaching given in church. You generally hear "be nice" and "be kind." You don't hear moral teaching on any subject — possibly now and then on racism. But no. I mean, I started having my seminarians, when I was teaching, give homilies on moral matters, even simple things as modesty or pornography, or tithing. 

And it was shocking. You know, we never heard it, but they didn't know how to do it because we'd never heard it before. I mean, you might get a homily on abortion once a year during pro-life months or near Jan. 22. But you don't hear homilies on anything in respect to morality. And so, I think the major reason, honestly, is we don't talk about moral issues from the pulpit.

And when my young men would do so, they just became beautiful people. I mean, it was an amazing difference that they took on themselves a father's role. And I told them this, I said, you know, your congregation is sitting there saying this man has given up his life and everything for me, because of your concern about my salvation. And if he doesn't talk to me about why fornication or cohabitation is wrong, why contraception is wrong, why pornography is wrong, why missing Mass on Sunday is wrong ... Have you ever heard that? I've never heard it in all my years of going to Mass that we shouldn't miss Sunday Mass. Never. OK?

Clergy may not feel prepared to preach on moral theology

So I told them, the people out there think that if you're not telling them that "x" is wrong, or that "x" is getting in the way of their salvation, they think it must not be important. I said, so what's your job? I told them I have a brother who unfortunately died a couple years ago. But he was a father of six, and I'm telling you, I think most days of his life when his feet hit the floor, his concern was, how am I going to raise up these kids to be good Catholics so I will see them in Heaven?

You know, he was very vigilant over what movies they watched and things that they did. Because he was very concerned about their souls. And I said, "You know, you priests have to be every bit as concerned about the souls of your congregation. You are their spiritual fathers." Now, they hadn't heard that so much. You know, and this was where they were, you know, so I think priests have not been formed in the last 50 or 60 years to preach on moral issues.

Now, I have had priests, after they've had me in class, tell me that they've given homilies on contraception on Humanae Vitae. And they've had a marvelous response from the congregation. I mean, some are mad. But most of those who come up to them say, "Father, I never heard that. Thank you." And I tell them how to preface it. I mean, when they do it, they do preface it in a very beautiful way that, you know, "My soul — the salvation of my soul — depends upon my saying things to you and teaching you things. And I would be neglecting my own soul and your souls unless I preach this." 

Most people have tons of unconfessed sins, sins that they don't even really know are sins — things like cohabitation.

And so you know, they sit there saying, "Well, there's something to that. He's supposed to do this; this is his job." And I always say they should always include an invitation to come to confession. And if people want a private confession, he's available. Give them a call at the rectory, and they'll find a time to set it up. 

Because some people, I think most people, have tons of unconfessed sins, sins that they don't even really know are sins — things like cohabitation. Most people now get married after having lived together for a year or two. It's very possible that the priest who prepared them for marriage never told them that their cohabiting was against God's plan for sexuality.

Cohabitation before marriage violates God's plan for sexuality

I'm trying now to help some of the young people that I deal with understand this. They have a very hard time. They think they're doing something intelligent. And that if you don't live together before marriage, you're stupid and naive. And you're going into marriage unprepared for marriage because they think living together before marriage is a good preparation. And no one has ever told them that they shouldn't.

Some of them, to my surprise, know that it's wrong. They do it anyway, largely because the other person involved doesn't share their view. And they're afraid they're going to lose the other person if they don't go along with this. And so the world that these kids live in is very difficult. Their parents, when you talk about priests not telling them, their parents won't tell them because the parents are afraid they're going to lose the friendship of their children. And so instead of acting like a parent that very lovingly says, "I love you, I want you to come around," they don't want to lose this relationship. But I brought you into this world to bring you into Heaven. And what you're doing now is not easing your way into Heaven. 

So, yes, it's hard to teach, but it's hard to teach because everything in the culture is against it. And then the priests have not been taught in seminary that they should be preaching this. 

Dr. ManionIn the meantime, what can the laity do to encourage our clergy and our theologians to teach Humanae Vitae?

Dr. Smith: Well, I think you have to educate your priests gently, not to assume that they're dissenters, not to assume that they don't want to do this,  just to assume that they haven't been taught how to do it. And I would start with offering to pay for some pamphlets to put at the back of the church, on the Church's teaching on contraception, on natural family planning and say, "Father, it would really help this parish if people had this material available to them." The CD shelves ... my CD is available on "Contraception: Why Not?"

There are other very good things out there, and just take some of that extra money that you want to give to charity and purchase them and say, "Father, I'll buy these" — give him a sample — and say "I'll buy these and I'd like to put these at the back of the church and I'll make sure that it's supplied," and you know, of course, recommend that he listen to the CD and read the pamphlets. And then say, you know, you really think that people might benefit from hearing this from him, and that you want him to know you would greatly support him in doing this.

There are also online examples, I think Priests for Life has a Humanae Vitae preaching section. But if you do an Internet search for "Humanae Vitae preaching" you'll find sample homilies. And again, it wouldn't be harmful. It would be all to the good if the parishioner actually did some of that footwork for the priests and find those that are exceptionally good. And send him the links to those homilies so he can listen to it and hear how it's done.

I had a priest in my class who actually held a long session at his church on homosexual relationships and homosexuality. He had 400 parishioners show up. He required all the confirmation kids to come with their parents. And he asked them to bring a friend. And he had the kids sit with their parents so that they wouldn't fool around and that sort of thing.

Free clip from CHURCH MILITANT Premium

And he had a question-and-answer between himself and Damon Owens, who you might know, is a wonderful advocate for natural family planning. And I asked him, "How did you ever get that many people to come?" And he said, "Well, every year on the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I teach on the Church's understanding of the purpose and meaning of sexuality. So the Church's teaching on homosexuality is not hard to get, once you understand that it's for the complementarity of male and female — to be able to show complete love to each other." 

And it's for procreation. And you say, well, that the homosexual sexual relationship doesn't fit in that picture at all. And so they're not coming so much because they need to be persuaded, but rather because they're trying to learn how to talk to other people about these things. So the benefits of speaking on this particular teaching are widespread. Obviously, if sex belongs within marriage, people will prepare better for marriage; they won't cohabit. If it's for procreation, people will understand what a great gift babies are, and will reduce the number of abortions. Very few married couples get abortions. Some do, but very few. So you strengthen marriages, you reduce the so-called need for abortion, and you help people understand why homosexual relationships are not in accord with God's plan for sexuality.

Dr. ManionSo you're educating the priests, as much as you are their flocks, about the situation in the world regarding sex and marriage. What are you telling these priests?

Dr. Smith: "You can't imagine, Father, how many people out here are cohabiting. And how many people are watching porn. And how many people have done these things before marriage. And they never confess them. And if you teach this teaching it just clears away a lot of fog, a lot of fog." 

You know, even then you don't necessarily need to preach as much on pornography because people who are living this teaching become very reverential towards the sexual relationship. It is really a great gift from God that should be treasured and reverenced. Whereas our culture honestly thinks that sex is kind of a dirty, naughty thing. They love it — they love participating in it, but it doesn't have ... now, when you talk to young people about the sexual act being meant to be an expression of love, and to be an act of complete self-giving, they start looking at you like you're speaking a foreign language — you know, like, "Sex, love — what do they have to do with each other?"

They look at this person and say, 'You know, he's kind of fun, but I'm not sure I want my children to have him as a father or her as a mother.'

I mean, people just hook up; they get drunk and they have sex. They live together long before they think they might love each other. They know they just have a powerful physical attraction and they're lonely. They want someone to be with, to be in bed with, if they can manage that. I mean, they have a series of hookups before they can find someone that they might be willing to move in with. And then I'm not even certain they know they're in love or what love is. I mean, it's like, "I really like being with you." Nothing to do with, "I like your values." All right? "I want you to be the father of my children. I want you to be the mother of my children." That's a very good litmus test for a relationship. That's a very good litmus test. If you think this man would be a good father to your children, you think this woman would be a good mother to your children, you've probably got yourself a gem. 

The qualities of a good parent may also make for a good spouse

Alright, because the person who can be a good father, a good mother, is also going to be a very good spouse. The same qualities are needed — you know, love, attentiveness, responsibility, concern, selflessness, generosity. Those are what you want in a father, for your children, mother, church, women, that’s what you want in a spouse. But people don't look for that. They look for someone who is so-called sexually compatible, that they have a good time with. And then when they get married and start planning a family, like, gosh, they look at this person and say, "You know, he's kind of fun, but I'm not sure I want my children to have him as a father or her as a mother." And a lot of tension comes into the relationship, and often, divorce.

Dr. ManionWell, this has been very helpful, Janet. It's certainly wonderful to have you aboard, and we look forward to hearing you again. Please tell us, do you have any final thoughts?

Dr. Smith: Well, I just wish young people would open their eyes and look around and see who's happy and who's unhappy. And I think that if they look at people who have been faithful to the Church's teaching and are having large families, I go to a Traditional Latin Mass now, and the pews are just filled with people who have had large families or people who were starting their families. And I think when you watch them, you say, "Wow," I mean, it's hard, obviously, a lot of responsibility. And that's what makes adults out of people — is responsibility. 

But the fact that they've got these kids and they're looking out for each other — the kids are looking out for each other, the older ones take care of the younger ones. And the parents who have the younger kids, you can just see that there's this — you know, it's hard to keep them quiet, hard to keep them still. But there's just this pride, that I'm doing something meaningful with my life. And I have these adorable children who it's my responsibility to help grow up to adulthood. 

I just wish young people would open their eyes and look around and see who's happy and who's unhappy.

And you see other people just indulging themselves in this world, you know, just constantly going on the next sort of venture that might give them some delight and pleasure. And those are good things. I like traveling, I like being places, but the delight and pleasure of seeing your kids become more responsible and less selfish and help others and watching them grow — people should not miss out on that. And I think too many in our culture are missing out on that because they think the important thing is a beautiful house, a lot of travel.

I say, you know, you can never go far beyond your small community, and there's a richness of life in that community. I've traveled a lot of places in the world, and it's been a great pleasure. But I doubt that I have a greater — Oh, I don't know — a greater sense of pride in my life than those who have had all these wonderful children. They may never have gone almost anywhere, but they see them grow up, they see their grandchildren. It's a gorgeous thing. And I think people don't — well, again the media tells us one thing; life will tell us another. So I think people should not use media for their teacher of what life is about. But look, look around, look around and see the families that are really happy and say, "Who are the people that are really happy — not just superficially happy but really happy?" 

Dr. ManionThanks so much, Janet. We look forward to having you back soon. May God continue to bless you and your work. 

Janet: Thank you, Chris.

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