Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later
Aug 9, 2018
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. This was a momentous event in the life of the modern church. It is remarkable that it became so momentous, because the entire Christian church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—always taught artificial birth control was wrong up until the Anglicans waffled in 1930.
Nevertheless, it became abundantly clear in our time that human beings want to control anything and everything around them, regardless of the fact that they don’t know the ramifications of the changes they are making. (Climate change is a good example.) And it has always been clear that human beings are overly interested in sex.
Paul VI prophetically saw what would happen if human society broke the necessary connection between sexual intercourse and the generation of life. So modern humanity and secular culture have made sex largely a form of recreation.
Here, in part, is what Pope Paul wrote. I know a lot of people disagree with him on this issue, but what he said deserves careful consideration, and loyal dissent requires sound and serious reasons.
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. (HV1)
It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.
Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.
In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife. This course of action shows that the Church, loyal to the example and teaching of the divine Savior, is sincere and unselfish in her regard for men whom she strives to help even now during this earthly pilgrimage “to share God’s life as sons of the living God, the Father of all men.” (HV18)
How easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. (HV17)
Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners? (HV29)
As a final word on this matter, let’s consider the words of the Didache, the first Christian catechism we know of. “If you are able to bear the entire yoke (law) of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able, then do what you can.” We will surprise ourselves…over time we are able to do more.