July 25, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. How much do you know about this important Church document? While the world was running into a revolutionary transformation of sexual morality in human history, the Church dared to ask the question no one else was asking: What are the consequences? The papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1968, provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life. In 1963 Pope Saint John XXIII wanted a serious answer to the question of regulation of birth, so he established a commission. Paul VI enlarged the commission to 75 members who studied the question for four years — completing their study in 1968. Paul VI studied the evidence of experts in various scientific fields, weighed moral arguments, conflicting opinion, and the Church’s unbroken tradition of teaching on life.
This depth of study is why Humanae Vitae remains relevant today. The Pope’s desire to consult fellow bishops and experts is important because one of the most repeated accusations, after the publication of Humanae Vitae, has been that the Pope decided in solitude, in a non-collegial way. This simply is not true. In fact, new research shows that Bishop Fulton Sheen and Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope Saint John Paul II) were among the bishops who urged Pope Paul VI to double-down on the Church’s infallible wisdom on life.
In Humanae Vitae Blessed Paul VI reflects upon how God designed the nature of married love. He drew this from Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Tradition. The Holy Father wrote that married love is fully human (involving the body and soul). Married love is total, faithful, and fruitful. This affirms basic beliefs in how God made men and women, the nature of human sexuality, the nature of marriage, the nature and meaning of the conjugal act, God’s call to husband and wife to co-create with Him, and the centrality of the family are all intertwined. They speak of our God of love who desires to build a people of love. In fact, we read that “to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator (n13).”
Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary, the USCCB released a statement that the world so desperately needs to hear again. Therein, we hear proclaimed that “the Church is not against sexual pleasure as some of her opponents allege; but, more importantly, we are for the happiness of the human person. The fostering of that happiness requires understanding the gift of our sexuality as God has intended it. Sex, in God’s plan, is more than just a “recreational activity.” As Catholic feminist and philosopher Janet Smith says: “…sex is for babies and bonding. If people are not ready for bonding and babies, they ought not to be engaging in acts of sexual intercourse.” And what are nuptials (marriage) but the public expression of a couple’s readiness to do just that?
Humanae Vitae raises up the question of planning births in a family. The Church has always taught that it is reasonable for husband and wife to space and even limit births in their marriage for just reasons; however, they are called to support God’s design not to reject it. Use of contraception or sterilization rejects God’s gifts. That is because contraception and sterilization do harm to the nature of married love and the gift of life–they separate the unitive and procreative nature of conjugal relations. Saying this another way, husband and wife express their committed love not only with words, but with the language of their bodies. The mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse. To reject one’s fertility by using contraception or being sterilized is to reject God’s gift to husband and wife.
A careful rereading of Humanae Vitae – or more likely a very first reading˗ especially in the light of the “sexual revolution” can help us appreciate how prophetic the Pope was in his warnings of the dire consequences that a “contraceptive mentality” would have on society. The numbers of unwanted pregnancies and abortions have not decreased with the widespread acceptance of contraception – they increased. And the ‘pill’ [which has been proven to contain Class 1 carcinogens] far from freeing women from male domination made them more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation. The breakup of families and the epidemic of divorce in our culture, the increasingly high incidence of women bearing children out of wedlock, the flight from adult responsibility and the extended “adolescence” of men, all point to – in hindsight –the rightness of Paul VI’s and the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
Pope Francis, in his 2016 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation On Love in the Family, stresses that “the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life (222).” I urge you to read these documents and learn the TRUTH so that you may share it with all you meet. The sexual revolution has brought about death, violence, confusion, isolation, fear, loneliness and despair. Only by embracing God’s original plan for our sexuality will this darkness be driven out. Become a light in this darkness. Live your Love truthfully!
This article includes sources taken from the USCCB and twitter at #AskTheQuestion and #HV50. You can access the above documents via the USCCB or Vatican websites