Encyclical predictions are present-day reality
July 25 marks 48 years since the publication of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" (HV), subtitled "On the Regulation of Birth." The eighth and last encyclical letter of Blessed Pope Paul VI was easily the most controversial church document since the Reformation and its core teaching the most rejected. It remains so today.
Pope Paul reiterated what always had 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 conception is morally wrong.
This is because the marital act bears within it, by nature, the capacity for the couple’s intimate union and the procreation of new human life. These twin aspects should never be willfully separated if the gift of marital love is to be respected and lived responsibly.
The pope presented this teaching in a tone that was at once compassionate and realistic toward couples facing difficulties and pessimistic about the long-term consequences of deliberately separating the unitive and procreative truths of marriage.
His predictions that moral standards would decline, infidelity and illegitimacy would increase, 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 as well.
But it mattered little. HV was countered by a perfect storm. The Anglican Church had permitted contraception more than 30 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. Maybe most damaging was the fact that 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 opponents 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 Catholics. The church was divided and seriously wounded over a matter of utmost importance – the truth and meaning of marriage and the sanctity of life.
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, the Jubilee of Mercy offers the perfect opportunity to beg for these graces.
May the church zealously teach the truth and beauty of this encyclical, urge repentance for the manifest sins against the sanctity of marriage and life, and call the faithful to complete openness to the innumerable blessings that flow from the Lord and giver of life.
Bill Beckman is director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.