BY Most Reverend Alfred A. Schlert, D.D., J.C.L.
This past week, we marked the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical letter regarding the transmission of human life entitled Humanæ Vitæ. On the anniversary of such a famous papal teaching moment and at a time when a moral voice on this issue can perhaps be even more relevant than it was in 1968, we continue to benefit from the words of Paul VI today.
History & Context
Much as in our own time, the world during the pontificate of Paul VI was experiencing rapid social and cultural transformations in almost all facets of life. New political and social philosophies developed which were a striking contrast to the status quo before the 20th century. Amid all these transformations, there had been a steady change in understanding and experiencing human sexuality—culminating in what is now commonly called a “sexual revolution.” In short, the Western values regarding sex that were based on common ethics and Christian Revelation were called into question and often rejected.
As a new and ever-changing sexual ethic developed through the first half of the 20th century, the once commonly accepted belief that sexual intercourse was moral between spouses only was upended in a general movement toward “free-love.” The new expression of sexuality as “free-love” was at the same time a “cheap-love.” It was not exclusive to committed spouses, but for anyone at any time. Without an intention to seek the natural goods of sexuality, such as unity of spouses or having children, the simple goal was to please the partners. Rather than encouraging youth to virginity before they are sacredly wedded to their spouse and “become one flesh” ; the new culture ridiculed the traditional model as archaic, impossible, or otherwise repressive.
The Church in the Changing World
In the past as well as today, sweeping cultural changes do not take place in a vacuum, but are really in the lives of individuals. Despite the contrasts with Christian teaching, the new approach to human sexuality began to seep into the lives of Christian people everywhere. This is not to claim that chastity was previously universal or easy, but it was known to be a general benefit for society. But as the once apparent connection of sex to marriage was dismantled, many also began to question the necessity of wedded love’s openness to procreation, which until the 20th century was held by all Christian denominations as required by Divine and Natural Law. One by one, beginning with the Church of England in 1930, many Christian denominations once opposed to the burgeoning usage of artificial contraception changed with the times, and informed their members that openness to procreation was no longer necessary for the marital act to be good. Was it time for the Catholic Church to change as well?
Blessed Pope Paul VI Speaks to the Changing World: The Encyclical Humanae Vitae
Recognizing the need to speak to the questioning world, Pope Paul VI surprised some and irritated many by confirming the constant teaching of the Church on the transmission of human life. The Holy Father was not relating something new to the world, as he himself would point out; rather his encyclical letter Humanæ Vitæ presented what faith and reason held as good and holy about sexuality, and what could do damage to that goodness.
Pope Paul VI brings to our attention that Marriage itself is not an accident of history, but is designed and created by God Himself, “whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design.” The encyclical stresses that humankind is not only biological and spiritual, but each human being is a composite of body and spirit. Every action we make therefore involves the whole person: body and spirit. When considering the marital act, it too involves not just one person but two persons: with bodies and souls unified to contribute to the ultimate fulfillment of human life, our eternal communion with God.
The Holy Father names three aspects of human love particular to marriage. First, the love is total. It is not thinking of self-benefit, but loving the spouse for the spouse’s sake. Second, love is faithful. It is exclusive to the beloved and lifelong through difficulties and the blessings of life, leading to a profound trust and joy in the marriage. Finally, the love is fecund or fruitful. It is not confined to the spouses alone, but naturally brings new life into being, a life that enters the world to become part of a family whose core is the very total, faithful, and fruitful love of husband and wife, who because of that new life are also made into father and mother.
RESPONSIBLE PARENTHOOD & PROCREATION
The Holy Father acknowledges that the use of our human reason in the planning of one’s family is certainly permissible, and the spacing of births for well-grounded reasons as well. Couples have always experienced periods rightly considered good for an increase in family size and periods rightly considered difficult, often times with many factors outside the family itself. Therefore, Paul VI upholds what is apparent from nature: that it is certainly moral for a couple to abstain from intercourse during known fertile periods, in order to avoid conception when the couple has a good reason to do so.
Blessed Paul VI reminds us that we must always be respectful of God who made our nature, and His design of marital love. God has written into human nature our ability to procreate, and commands that we “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:2). As Christians, married people also share in the vocation to build up the Church, as the Second Vatican Council exhorts, couples must “be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day.”
Since marital relations freely occur between a married man and woman, they themselves must always remain open to procreation with God; who has created us for total, faithful, and fecund marital love. To do something that eliminates the very possibility of new life from marital intercourse removes a part of God’s design for human nature, and also disregards Divine commands. This results in an act that is no longer the work of God, but more closely resembles the “free-love” created by man. Thus, artificial contraception used to preclude or worse, permanently destroy the potential fruitfulness of marital love would not be moral, even if the couple had well-grounded reasons to avoid pregnancy at that time.
Reception and Prophetic Message
Blessed Paul VI, recognizing that there would likely be an outcry against the Church’s teaching, encouraged the faithful to recognize and embrace their vocation as a sign of contradiction to the wisdom of the world. He offers simple clarity of the mission of the Church’s teaching office: “Since the Church did not make 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.”
Later in the encyclical, the Holy Father was able to prophetically anticipate some of the consequences of widespread use of contraception. He warned that there would be an “increase in marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”—and that as men grew accustomed to sex without external consequences, they would forget the due reverence to women—and women would become “mere instruments for the satisfaction of his own desires.” Finally, the Pope warned, as has come to pass, that governments could even impose contraception upon their people, whose offspring would be considered, for whatever reason, unwanted.
Humanæ Vitæ Today
The new sexual ethic that Blessed Paul VI confronted in his Pontificate was not confined to the 20th century. The sad consequences predicted by the Holy Father not only came to pass, but they are ingrained in society. Today, nearly half of marriages end in divorce. Reverence due to women has been forgotten as the exploitation of women is now enshrined in a soaring multibillion dollar pornography industry selling to the married, unmarried, and even children. Governments have institutionalized contraception or even sterilization. Our own tax dollars are being devoted to the provision of contraception and abortifacients, and pay for the indoctrination and encouragement of school children to use them. Even in the Church, the lack of clear pastoral teaching by clergy on this topic has led to moral ambivalence.
Move Forward with the Good News
Fifty years ago, the Holy Father understood well that when the creature seeks to redefine what he did not create or define in the first place, nothing prevents endless redefinitions to satisfy the current appetite. This mindset proposes that there really was no meaning in the first place. It may also lead to the reality that anything may one day, though abhorrent now, become acceptable. In the last century, the spiritual aspect of man was ignored by the desire for “free-love.” Today our biology and nature are being denied, so much so that to some, even the science of gender has been deemed irrelevant to a discussion of human sexuality.
It is quite understandable that the faithful feel a sense of fatigue bridging the vast chasm between the Church’s teaching and the practice of the world. Blessed Paul VI lived in a time when many obsessed about overpopulation as a justification for a sterile lifestyle. Today usage of contraception in the western world is so commonplace that the fertility rate is below replacement levels, which has disastrous socio-economic impacts just now being recognized. In addition to infertility’s natural consequences, Pope Francis implored married couples not to follow the carefree logic of the world, which may result in a life of many material things, but “ends in the bitterness of loneliness,” with the love of children not offered or received.
As Christians our message can never simply be about what is forbidden concerning sexuality. Our message must announce what is true, good, beautiful, and holy about physical love. The best demonstration of this truth will not come from words, but rather in the manner of our lives. Those living the truth in an age of confusion are the greatest evangelizers of the Gospel of Life, and are a treasure to the whole Church. As ever, to be a sign of contradiction brings about suffering by conflict with the world. However, to choose against God’s plan and natural law results in a multitude of self-inflicted wounds we commonly witness today.
As we mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of Humane Vitae, we seek the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church whose example of trust in God’s plan provides us both hope and an opportunity for evangelization. Like Mary, we should never fear to share with all what is true, good, beautiful and holy. As bearers of God’s Word, we do not merely have an opinion, but rather the Truth to share. This is a beautiful Truth that will seem new to many, but really is, as Saint Augustine phrases, “ever ancient and ever new.”
i Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31.
ii Encyclical Letter Humanæ Vitæ, Pope Paul VI, 25 July 1968, 8.
iii Pastoral Constitution, II Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 50.
iv Humanæ Vitæ, 18.
v Humanæ Vitæ, 17.
vi Pope Francis, “Homily to Anniversary Couples”, 2 June 2014.