Marking 50 years of ‘Humanae Vitae’:
April 18, 2019
The church is a “pilgrim” church – she is always journeying toward the second coming of Christ. As a pilgrim church, we constantly face new challenges and questions.
On July 25, the church celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae,” the famous encyclical of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which confronted one of modernity’s many challenges and questions: the rise of artificial methods of birth control and the regulation of birth. This document continues to be relevant and foundational for the challenges we face today regarding married love and responsible parenthood.
Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae” with these opening lines: “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships. The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings.”
In our own day, public policy is replete with laws requiring the widespread, taxpayer-funded distribution of (low-cost and free) artificial contraception. While our state participates in such federal policies, Nebraska law has not fully implemented such laws through our Medicaid program. Nevertheless, nearly every year some legislator pushes to expand access to artificial contraception.
Such policies more deeply ingrain into our cultural fiber a “contraceptive mentality” which has as its logical successor what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” This throwaway culture does not see human life as gift, but rather as something to be controlled and, if necessary, disposed of if it becomes unwanted, inconvenient or undermines personal pleasures and ambitions.
But Holy Mother Church – who dearly cares for her children – seeks the total fulfillment of the people of God and proposes a way of freedom. By returning to “Humanae Vitae” and its proposal of true freedom, we have the building blocks for a countercultural revolution of love, a revolution that respects the institution of married love and the dignity of the human person. “Humanae Vitae” presents the vision we need to offer a prophetic witness to those who confront the difficult questions, problems and realities regarding the transmission of human life and responsible parenthood. “Humanae Vitae” offers a divine plan that is visible in our human nature, that illuminates the beauty of marital love and the sexual act.
“Humanae Vitae” is no naïve document. The encyclical was the product of extensive prayer and input. Notably, that input was not unified. Various opinions were offered and considered, including opinions that “were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church” (no. 6).
Despite the varied opinions, especially those advocating the permissibility of artificial contraception, Pope Paul VI courageously reiterated the fundamental principles of married love, namely, that married love should be total, faithful, exclusive and fruitful. Spouses give each other their entire selves in a “very special form of personal friendship” without exception. Spouses devote themselves in a lifelong union in fidelity only to one another. And spouses order their conjugal love “toward the procreation and education of children” who are the “supreme gift of marriage.”
What’s more, Pope Paul VI recognized the wisdom of God, through creation, of providing the ability to naturally space children based on a woman’s fertility patterns. Within this framework, the pope reiterated the constant teaching of the church that each and every sexual act must be unitive (bringing the spouses physically together) and procreative (open to children) and that any form of birth control that interrupts the fulfillment of the sexual act is to be rejected as undermining the dignity of married love and the human person.
As we celebrate this incredible anniversary, take an evening to read and reflect on “Humanae Vitae.” The document is only 10 pages long, yet rich in wisdom. As you read and reflect, pray for a renewal of married, sexual love and for a renewal of family love in our culture and politics.
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.