Catholics revisit natural birth control

Brighton, UK - Nancy Restuccia says she is happy for phone calls that interrupt her routine.

"With the kids, it's not often I get to hide in the bedroom for serious chats," says the 38- year-old mother of eight, with a bright laugh.

Restuccia and her husband, Eric, abide by the strict tradition of the Catholic Church. They practice only natural birth control, timing the sex in their relationship for when Nancy cannot become pregnant -- unless they want more children.

"It is exciting for me," Nancy Restuccia says. "It reveals the truth about how God is giving in his essence. And the gift that he wants to give us, sometimes, is a person."

Forty years after a papal statement on human sexuality reiterated the ban on contraception and abortion, Catholic leaders are revisiting Humanae Vitae, seeking to reinvigorate its message of chastity and love.

Despite an overwhelmingly negative response from Catholics to Humanae Vitae and rampant noncompliance, some priests say a growing number of Catholics are now curious about it, and those who abide by the doctrine say they find their lives are fuller, their marriages more stable and that they are closer to God.

"Our purpose is to deepen the understanding of the teaching, so that it will be accepted by Catholics, and to make them better defenders of it," said Janet E. Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, where a conference on the encyclical, a document issued by a pope that often sets out church doctrine, is scheduled for next month.

"And certainly we're trying to meet those who have rejected it to reconsider, and hopefully to accept it."

That may take some doing.

In the United States, surveys over the decades regularly show that easily more than 90 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control, and about the same number of Catholics think the church should permit condoms and the pill.

Many Catholics, including no small number of priests, have misgivings about how the encyclical was promulgated. A special Pontifical Commission established in the mid-1960s studied the issue and lent some credence to individual decisions regarding pregnancy. The commission, composed of clergy, theologians and lay experts, then issued a report to Pope Paul VI supporting birth control.

However, the minority report asserted in part that if the church changed its teaching on such a fundamental issue, Catholics would question other policies. Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, clinging to church traditions and proscribing artificial birth control and abortion.

'A big disappointment'

"There was a big disappointment among a number of people," said Thomas Kyle, an active member of Elephants in the Living Room, a group that raises issues of concern among Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

"What we were left with was the concept that every sexual act must be open to conception, and that's just not something that many young people can accept."

Over the years, Humanae Vitae earned a reputation among Catholics as a teaching that was, in the diplomatic parlance of the faithful, "not received." Today, birth control is not frequently a topic of conversation, according to many priests, with many laity deflecting the issue and continuing to consider themselves good Catholics.

However, some priests say more young couples are inquiring about natural family planning and expressing a willingness to at least attempt to abide by the encyclical.

"It is most commonly an issue in the context of the marriage preparation course," said the Rev. Robert McClory, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Detroit. "Most of the young generation was not involved with the intensity of the introduction of Humanae Vitae, and it comes across as a new approach to our sexuality."

Catholics who abide by the encyclical say all that was forecast about allowing for a more permissive sexuality has come to pass: weaker marriages, a recreational pursuit of sex and millions of abortions. They say they have found more love in their marriages without contraception.

'Truly liberating'

"I think people tend to think of contraception teachings as restrictive or oppressive when it is truly liberating to live as we were meant to live," said Nancy Restuccia. "Natural family planning has been extremely effective. We've practiced it on those occasions when we need to, and our children have arrived as God has sent them."

Letta von Bulow, of Dexter, said she and her husband used contraception for a time. But she read about Humanae Vitae in the context of forced abortions in some countries and other practices that she regarded as "horrific."

"I was thunderstruck that his was the voice of the Holy Spirit and I thought, 'How did Paul VI know this?' "said von Bulow, a mother of seven.

"And so we gave up contraception in about 1985 and embarked upon this liberating, empowering adventure."

Still, it is clear from private conversations with many priests that many of the faithful avoid the topic and that if they were to insist upon holding to the church's line on sex, it would spur considerable dissent in the pews.

One Catholic woman, who held several lay positions in the archdiocese until she retired, said she and her husband, a public school teacher in Detroit, abided by the rules for years and had three children.

When a fourth child surprised them and overwhelmed their financial plans for the family, they attended a session on birth control with two young priests who were open to the use of the pill.

'I'm going on the pill'

"I remember walking out of there and deciding, `I'm going on the pill,' " she said. "I got the prescription, but I went to fill it at J.L. Hudson's, the department store, so the local pharmacist would not know.

"We just could not afford to raise a larger family."