Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood. Thus, we do well to consider responsible parenthood in the light of its varied legitimate and interrelated aspects.
With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.
With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 10
Reflection – ‘Responsible parenthood’ is one of the key phrases of the encyclical, one which is necessary to understand what the Church is teaching. It is worth pausing to parse out exactly what this phrase means.
The two antitheses of this phrase would be irresponsible parenthood and autonomous parenthood. The first is obvious—the Church does not present a model of reproduction where couples simply exercise their fertility without a care in the world. We are not animals who couple and mate randomly or in simple accord with their instinctive drives. Human sexuality is wholly taken up into and is meant to be lived in accordance with, human rationality and relationality.
The Church is, in other words, in favor of ‘birth control’ and of ‘planned parenthood’, reading those two phrases according to the strict letter of the law. This is quite different of course from being in favor of Planned Parenthood, which is the single biggest abortion provider in North America and has the blood of countless human beings on its hands.
But for a couple to plan their family, to be making rational, careful decisions about when it is time to welcome another child and when it is not that time, and to order their sexual lives as a couple accordingly to whether or not it is that time—this is deeply responsible parenthood, and the Church not only ‘approves’ that (horrible word, and not ours), but simply states that this is part of the dignity and grace of state of husband and wife in the vocation of marriage.
Responsible parenthood is different, however, from autonomous parenthood, and that is what the Pope is getting at in the last bit here. ‘Responsible’ implies ‘response’, and response implies that one is living one’s life in a dialogue with an other. In this case, it is an Other. In short, responsible parenthood is one vital element of how a Christian called to the vocation of marriage lives out his or her call to discipleship, to conformation to the will of God, to obedience to God.
The Church has no interest whatsoever in stepping into that dialogue, into that individual path of discipleship. That is why the Church does not go into great details about when or why couples might choose to not have a child or to have another child. This is between them and God, and nothing and no one can interfere in that discernment.
But it is, indeed, between them… and God. In all of our lives, whatever our vocation is, there is this God, this Other, this One who continually calls us to greater heights of love and generosity, greater openness to serve and surrender and follow and trust. Every Christian, without exception, is called to the pattern, height, depth of love that is revealed and given to us by the death of Jesus on the Cross. Every Christian is called to be that kind of lover, that kind of disciple, be he a priest, a religious, a husband, a wife, a single person in the world—all of us trying to make some kind of muddled sense of how each of us is supposed to become that living offering of love through, with, and in Jesus.
The whole matter then, of fertility within marriage and the difficult questions of how many children when, cannot be rightly answered from a Christian point of view apart from this fundamental awareness of who we are, who we all are, as disciples of Him whose own ‘openness to life’ brought him to the Cross, and whose fruitfulness in love involved a pretty bloody and difficult disposition of his body and his person towards his spouse.
All of this—everything the encyclical has said and that I have written as commentary—sets the stage then for where we will go tomorrow, when the Pope will reiterate the teachings of the Church on the question of artificial contraception and it moral status within marriage. Talk to you then. But remember—the Church’s teaching in Humanae Vitae 12 makes no sense, and can make no sense whatsoever, outside of this context established and expressed with great beauty and depth in HV 1-11.