‘Humanae Vitae’: 40 Years Later

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July 18, 2008

I’d like to point out a few things to keep in mind as you read it. There are any number of beautiful lessons in “Humanae Vitae” that are often forgotten or misunderstood. First and foremost, many assume that Pope Paul VI somehow “created” church teaching on artificial birth control in light of the development and widespread distribution of the birth control pill in the 1960s.

Actually, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed church teaching on artificial contraception that is as old as the church. Long before the 1960s, the teaching of the church itself was absolutely clear — and absolutely constant — for century after century: “The church ... in urging the observance of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (11).

Timeless teaching

“Humanae Vitae” was actually confirmation of common practice among married couples, not a banning of a practice widely in use. In fact, it was only in 1965 that the Supreme Court struck down laws preventing the sale of artificial contraception to married couples (and only five years before similarly striking down laws against abortion).

Though the advent of the birth control pill had made contraception more widespread, the contraceptive culture — so prevalent today with all its terrible consequences — was not nearly as prevalent at the time Pope Paul VI wrote “Humanae Vitae.”

There was also a free-floating idea when “Humanae Vitae” was published that Pope Paul VI was establishing only church practice, like Lenten regulations on fasting. This critique tried to define “Humanae Vitae” as putting in place a discipline that could change. This is simply not true. As Paul VI made clear, contraception violates the nature and purpose of the human sexual act, the dignity of the human person and stands in contradiction to “the objective moral order which was established by God” (10). In other words, the teaching that contraception is wrong is not a man-made rule by the church. Like all moral teaching on marriage, it is a teaching based on “the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine revelation” (4).

Many people point to what has taken place in society in the past 40 years as proof of the accuracy of Pope Paul’s encyclical, and the Holy Father certainly warned of the consequences of the contraceptive culture. He warned of governments mandating the number of births and the consequences to marital relationships and the general moral standards of society (or lack thereof) once contraception becomes common practice. One look at ... the divorce rates, the horror of abortion, the skyrocketing number of out-of-wedlock births, the pornographic exploitation of the human person, the sexualizing of children, the desensitization toward individual human dignity … and the prophetic nature of “Humanae Vitae” becomes obvious.

But it is also important to remember that the church in its constant teaching and Pope Paul VI in his reaffirmation of that teaching did not condemn the use of contraception because of its consequences. The use of artificial contraception isn’t wrong because it could lead to bad things. It is bad in and of itself.

Stronger marriages

Pope Paul spelled out so clearly in “Humanae Vitae” how this teaching is rooted in God’s loving design. What is at the heart of “Humanae Vitae” is the true meaning of married love.

“Married love,” the Holy Father wrote, “reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love’ ... Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to elect in man his loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, “cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (8).

So important is that marital bond, the Holy Father wrote, that it is “invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and his church” (8).

The Diocese of Pittsburgh is committed to the teachings so beautifully contained in Pope Paul’s marvelous encyclical. Our diocesan-wide natural family planning classes are one part of that commitment, as well as our rich catechesis that confirms this clear and constant teaching.

“Humanae Vitae”: Forty years later. If you have never studied this vital encyclical, give it a careful and serious read. Its timeless message offers more than just food for thought: it offers a recipe for God-like love!
Read “Humanae Vitae” by going to www.pittsburghcatholic.org and clicking on the button.

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