Realizing the “Con” in Contraception – Humanae Vitae at a Half-Century
The document taught nothing new, but rather reaffirmed Church teaching condemning artificial contraception. Yet Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) met with considerable opposition amid the tumultuous atmosphere of the late 1960s. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and a proliferation of protest movements called all authority into question. Even within the Catholic Church, some believed the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council might lead to a relaxing of Catholic teaching involving sexual ethics.
What’s more, a special commission, appointed by Pope John XXIII and expanded by Paul VI to advise on the question of contraception, was reported to have advocated a change in the teaching.
Those who anticipated such a rollback were sorely disappointed with the 1968 encyclical.
Arguing from natural law, Humanae Vitae upheld the principle that “every conjugal act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Catholicism has traditionally taught that the sexual act in marriage has both a unitive purpose and a procreative purpose. It is unitive because it is a sign of the marital union, an exclusive and lifelong commitment of selfgiving love; and it is preeminently procreative because by its very nature it is ordered to the creation of new life.
These purposes also provide the foundation for a large body of Catholic moral teaching. The unitive dimension means sexual expression must be reserved to husband and wife, and that they remain faithful until death. The procreative dimension means a couple cannot interrupt or place artificial barriers to the process of generating life. In plainer terms, that excludes not only abortion and sterilization, but also the birth-control pill, contraceptive devices, and any action “specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”
Some critics predicted Humanae Vitae would collapse under opposition and that papal authority itself would be undermined. But Pope Paul also predicted a few things of his own — consequences for what might happen if the use of artificial contraception were to become widespread.
PROPHECY TO FRUITION
A half-century later, it seems Paul VI was right and his critics wrong: the teaching and the papacy have survived, and Paul is often called “prophetic” for the accuracy of his warnings.
He warned in Humanae Vitae that contraception could “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards,” particularly for young people. He believed contraception would lead to the objectification of women, whereby a man would “forget the reverence due to a woman” and reduce her to “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” Governments might impose contraceptive measures on their citizens. It is not too challenging to find illustrations of these consequences today.
Humanae Vitae also states that married love requires responsible parenthood, which itself means “an awareness of, and respect for” natural biological processes, using reason and will to exercise self-discipline over “innate drives and emotions,” and “due respect for moral precepts.”
Couples who have “serious reasons” for avoiding pregnancy, therefore, may licitly take advantage of the natural cycles of the woman’s fertility and choose to engage in sexual intercourse only during her infertile days. Such morally acceptable methods today are collectively described as “natural family planning.”
The richness of Humanae Vitae has been explicated further by Pope John Paul II, particularly in his talks on the theology of the body. Yet the encyclical’s teachings have not been widely embraced, and the terrible consequences of which it warned – and worse – have come to pass.
Dr. Janet E. Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, believes matters have become even worse than Paul VI imagined.
“Pope Paul VI’s predictions were prophetic and have come true more emphatically than he could possibly have anticipated,” said Smith, who has written and lectured widely on Humanae Vitae and sexual ethics. “The number of children being raised by single mothers, the number of children being killed by abortion and the frequency of fractured marriages is much greater, I suspect, than he would have thought.”
To her knowledge, she added, neither Paul VI nor anyone else in the late 1960s foresaw “that the use of pornography would become an epidemic, that people of the same sex would be able to ‘marry’ each other, and that young children would be able to choose their sex and would undergo operations that would permanently alter them.”
Father Francis J. “Rocky” Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio, lauded Paul VI for his foresight.
“The ‘prophetic’ nature of Humanae Vitae was not due — in my opinion — to some mystical experience of Blessed Paul VI, but based on his understanding of natural law and the importance of following the nature of things,” said Father Hoffman. “Sex is fundamentally about procreation and not recreation, and when that order is confused, the result is what we see today.”
That result — the observable decay in moral standards, marriage and family life — is discouraging. So is the polling data.
A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, only 13 percent consider the use of contraception as “morally wrong.” By comparison, just 4 percent of all Americans held a similar view.
Meanwhile, 45 percent of weekly Mass attendees say contraception is “morally acceptable,” while 42 percent say it is “not a moral issue.”
BE NOT AFRAID
Father Hoffman believes the fundamental resistance to Humanae Vitae may be rooted in fear. “That primal human passion can only be remedied by a deep and trusting relationship with God,” he said.
Smith agreed that fear is a factor. Catholics “must not be afraid of the topic,” she said. “We must not be afraid to be radical Catholics who embrace the faith in its fullness.”
She believes contraception is the linchpin to changing the culture on other moral issues.
“Unless this problem is addressed, not much progress will be made on the others. To address the problems of our culture we need mature, wise, generous persons, and our current culture is not producing such,” said Smith. “The best nurturing environments for the leaders we need are intact, faith-filled households, and spouses who don’t contracept are most likely to establish such households.”
For faithful Catholics who wish to help transform the culture, Father Hoffman prescribes leading by example.
“The best way to promote the teachings of Humanae Vitae is to live what Pope Francis calls the ‘Joy of the Gospel,’” he said, “and witness that joy in large families who have more faith than money, more love and deep human emotion than material things.” Humanae Vitae acknowledges the difficulties couples may face in remaining faithful to the Church’s teachings on contraception and married love. It urges them to find strength in prayer and the sacraments so as to persevere.
Religion is not easy for anyone, said Father Hoffman, and Catholics are no exception.
“To live one’s faith more authentically requires daily spiritual struggle, based on prayer and sacrifice, realizing that the sacrifice most pleasing to God is to make life more pleasant for the people we live and work with,” he said. “But fundamentally, the ability to live a life of faith is a gift from God — a gift we should ask for daily.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
BLESSED POPE PAUL VI AT A GLANCE
Born Giovanni Battista Montini, Sept. 26, 1897, in Concesio, Brescia, Italy
Ordained May 29, 1920
Served in the Vatican diplomatic corps and Roman curia, 1922-54
Served as archbishop of Milan, 1954-63
Elevated to cardinal, 1958
Elected pope June 21, 1963, succeeding Pope John XXIII
Continued Second Vatican Council to its completion, implementing its reforms
Promulgated new Order of Mass, 1970
Dubbed “The Pilgrim Pope,” the most traveled pope up to his time; visited six continents; made pastoral visit to the U.S., 1965
Survived assassination attempt in the Philippines, 1970
Wrote eight encyclicals, including Mysterium Fidei (on the Eucharist), 1965; Populorum Progressio (on the development of peoples), 1967; and Humanae Vitae (on human life), 1968
Expanded ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches
Canonized 84 saints, and beatified St. Maximilian Kolbe
Appointed 143 cardinals, including his next three successors (Popes John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI)
Died of a heart attack, August 6, 1978, age 80, at Castel Gandolfo
Cause for canonization opened 1993; declared venerable, 2012; beatified, 2014; to be canonized Oct. 14, 2018