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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Happy Anniversary 'Humanae Vitae'

Happy Anniversary Humanae Vitae!

          Today (July 25) is the 44th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).  This encyclical, of course, reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching against the use of artificial contraception, which is what it is known for.  But it said a lot more than just that.
          I was born eight years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae and grew up in a post-sexual revolution culture that had already been shaped by the very things that Humanae Vitae warned against, so it is hard for me to imagine living in a world that upheld the standards celebrated by Pope Paul VI.
          The encyclical was written after the release of a report from a pontifical commission that spent three years considering the issue of artificial contraception.  Though there were sharp divisions within the commission, the majority suggested that Church teaching on the issue should be changed.  Pope Paul VI, however, in what we can recognize as a confirmation of the charism of papal infallibility, pronounced otherwise.
          Humanae Vitae begins with an overview of the background that led to its publication.  The pope then goes into an in-depth reflection on the issue.  Contrary to the accusations of those unhappy with the encyclical, the pope does not simply list off “Thou shalt not’s.”  He shows that he clearly understands all sides of the issue, as well as the challenges that modern married couples face with regard to having children.  In a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas, Paul VI demonstrates that he clearly understands his opponents’ positions as well as possible objections to his teaching.  Then he clearly and lovingly answers those objections.
          The pope puts the marital act into the context of a total vision of man, and God’s plan for life and love.  He elevates sexual intimacy between married couples and shows very clearly why such a sacred act is incompatible with artificial contraception.  He also affirms that couples can licitly have recourse to Natural Family Planning (NFP) if they have serious reasons for wanting to delay pregnancy, and explains why NFP is totally different than artificial contraception on a human and moral level.
          Finally, Paul VI gives pastoral advice to priests, bishops, scientists, medical professionals, public authorities, and especially to married couples.  All this in one of the shortest papal documents you are likely to read.
          One of the most famous sections of Humanae Vitae consists of three short paragraphs in which Paul VI shows himself to be a prophet, as he warns against the consequences of widespread acceptance of artificial contraception. 
          The pope suggests that artificial contraception will lead to a general lowering of morality, and a lack of respect between man and woman, as men will begin to regard women “as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” 
          No one can deny that when people began to (erroneously) believe they could remove the risk of pregnancy from sexual encounters, promiscuity went through the roof, along with marital infidelity, divorce and pornography.  Simply remember that the pill was introduced widely in 1960.  Observe the social trends since then.
          The pope also warns that if we accept artificial contraception, there will be grave temptations for governments to misuse it, compelling people against their will to make use of the most preferred method in order to try and achieve desired social and demographic goals.  The worst case of this prophecy’s fulfillment is China’s one-child policy, which has begun to spread.  But President Obama, with his HHS mandate, has now made this concern a reality even in the United States.
          Finally, the pope suggests that once we fail to protect the “mission of generating life” from our “arbitrary will,” other limits will come crashing down, “limits which no man…may licitly surpass.”  Sure enough, the spread of artificial contraception has led to a massive increase in abortion, in line with the thinking of Pope Paul VI, and not the promises of the social engineers of the 1960s.
           Humanae Vitae has had a lasting effect on the Church.  Besides giving us a greater understanding of the meaning and sacredness of sexual intimacy, and the development of methods of NFP that obliterate any artificial contraception in terms of effectiveness, much dissent arose.  Some pastors and theologians were counseling Catholics, after the commission’s report, that the pope would disavow the Church’s long-standing teaching, and in anticipation, they could lawfully begin to use artificial contraception.  When that didn’t happen, of course, the response of many Catholics was to refuse to accept the teaching of the Church on this issue.  Then, like Paul VI warned about limits coming crashing down, every teaching of the Church was up for grabs based on one’s personal preferences.
          This negative effect, thanks to the fidelity and holiness of our recent Holy Fathers, has begun to finally diminish.  And Paul VI reminded us that teachings given to us by Almighty God can not be changed by the Church, even as the broader culture changes.  The Church can more fully understand what she has been given, but she has not the authority to contradict her Head, Jesus.
          Most Catholics, especially those who refuse to accept it, have not read Humanae Vitae.  It is well worth a read, though.  It is short and easy to read, but packed with spiritual and philosophical wisdom.  Even those who have read it before would benefit from revisiting it.  I always do.
          It can be found online at the Vatican’s Web site,, or you can purchase it at many Catholic book stores, or at the link below.