This July, marks another anniversary of the infamous encyclical of Blessed Paul VI called “Humanae Vitae.” I believe that few recent Catholic documents have been as reviled, yet as perceptive, important and accurate in its warnings as Pope Paul VI’s great encyclical. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI both firmly reiterated Humanae Vitae in their own teaching. It remains a powerful, prophetic counter-witness to the widespread sexual dysfunction of our age. As other Christian communities, and even many Catholics, have collapsed in their defense of sexual integrity, Humanae Vitae has remained a timeless testimony to the truth.
Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth,” this eighth and last encyclical letter of Blessed Pope Paul VI was easily the most controversial Church document since the Reformation, and its core teaching probably was the most rejected; and so it remains today.
Pope Paul reiterated what had always been the teaching of the Church, namely, that married couples must be open to life in every act of marital intercourse, and that any act or omission intended to prevent natural conception is morally wrong. This is because the marital act bears within it, by its very nature, the capacity for the couple’s intimate union and the procreation of new human life. These twin aspects ought never to be willfully separated if the gift of marital love is to be respected and lived responsibly.
Blessed Pope Paul presented this teaching in a tone that, while steeped in compassion, was quite realistic toward couples facing difficulties. Yet, he was somewhat pessimistic about the long-term consequences of deliberately separating the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. Sad to say, his heartfelt predictions that moral standards would decline, that infidelity and illegitimacy would increase, that women would be reduced to objects for pleasure and that governments would grow more coercive in the goals of population control, all have proven true. Other damaging consequences can be shown to have resulted as well.
But that mattered little, as Humanae Vitae was countered by a perfect storm. The Anglican-Episcopal Church had permitted contraception more than thirty years earlier, and the decade of the 1960s was marked by selfish individualism (crowned by the invention of the birth control pill), the “free love” movement and liberalized divorce laws. Perhaps most damaging was the fact that the majority of the papal commission studying the issue had voted to permit birth control. The commission report was leaked and became a rallying point for those opposed to the pope’s clear teaching. Those who opposed it included not a small number of influential clergy and academics, who publicly dissented by signing protest ads in major newspapers; and the dissenters soon included a substantial majority of ordinary Catholics. The Church was seriously divided and wounded over a matter of the utmost importance – the truth and meaning of marriage and the sanctity of life.
Today the rift and wounds remain, and only the Holy Spirit can bring healing and wholeness. In the face of almost 50 years of selfishness and disobedience, let’s pray that the Church will zealously continue to teach the truth and beauty of this encyclical, urge repentance for the manifest sins against the sanctity of marriage and life, and call all the faithful to complete openness to the innumerable blessings which flow from the Lord and Giver of Life.