Humanae Vitae offered prophetic witness to the crucial importance of conforming the use of the human body to the language of truth.
By F. K. Bartels
13 July 2012
Pope Paul VIs Humanae Vitae, promulgated three years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, rapidly became at the time of its release the most intensely mocked and reviled Church document in centuries, perhaps amassing more derision than any other solemn teaching of the Church in the entire history of Christendom. To this day, many Catholic proponents of Pope Paul’s teaching hesitate to mention Humanae Vitae to those who grew up in the 60s and 70s for fear of the adverse reactions which not infrequently follow.
On the other hand, Catholics who broach the subject of Humanae Vitae with those whose birthdate allowed them to be spared the brunt of the 60s sexual revolution and acute-suspicion-of-authority influence, experience a different reaction: Paul VIs encyclical is often not part of their vocabulary because they have never heard of it. So the first step is to invite them to read it.
The situation with these Catholics, especially those who are approximately thirty years of age and younger, is both interesting and encouraging: once they are properly catechized on the theology of the human body and the spiritual language it speaks, along with the consequences of making a lie of one’s body during the marital act through the use of artificial birth control, treating fertility as if it is a disease, objectifying one’s spouse and refusing to be open to life, they very quickly recognize the profound worth of Pope Paul’s teaching. And not only that; as a result, they often develop a deep and lasting appreciation for the Church. They begin to see that the Church is our mother who desires to take us into her womb and, by nourishing her children with the words of truth and the sacraments of life, raise us to new and eternal life in Christ.
These Catholics, then, come to recognize that the teaching of the Church is about eternal salvation; it’s about realizing the gift of unending, perfect happiness; it’s about concern for the whole and complete truth of the human person and the relationships which follow; It’s about building a better world; it’s about understanding and actualizing true human freedom—just as is Humanae Vitae.
Once the light about the Church’s true nature penetrates the soul, which is a gift of the Spirit, a refreshing vision of the Bride of Christ is unveiled before one’s eyes with astonishing clarity. No longer is the Church viewed through a hermeneutic of suspicion, but rather she becomes a “holy temple” and “dwelling place of God among men” (LG 6 § 4; Rev. 21:3), who is the “kingdom of Christ now present in mystery” (LG 3). Transformed by the Spirit, who reveals Christ and his Church in full and penetrating light, the eyes of the soul are opened to the true nature of the Church as the “spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb” (LG 6 § 5; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). Praise God!
But if Humanae Vitae’s release had occurred a mere fifty years earlier, when the American populace’s views on sexuality, marriage and children were not yet so tainted, things would have been different. The dissenting cry of the 60s and 70s would likely have been replaced with approbation, since both Catholics and Protestants frowned on the use of mechanical devices and dangerous chemicals before, during and after sex in an attempt to frustrate procreation.
The fact is, Christendom was in general agreement on the sinfulness of contraceptives up until the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1930. While the conference strongly condemned the use “of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” emphasizing abstinence as the primary method to avoid parenthood, “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid” the generation of children, the Anglican bishops deemed that “other methods may be used.” That, of course, opened the door. Once the birth control pill was legalized in 1960, it became the “other method.” Obviously, it was not only Protestants who began to embrace the use of hormonal contraceptives, but many Catholics as well—although the Church has never approved of man’s attempts at driving an artificial wedge between the marital act and procreation.
It is, then, no surprise that in 1968 Humanae Vitae met up with blatant outrage, since “methods of conception control” had long stemmed not only from selfish motives of “luxury” and “mere convenience” but from the mistaken conviction that men and women had a “right” to enjoy unrestrained sex without being “burdened” by the potential for an unwanted pregnancy. Fertility had come to be viewed as a hindrance rather than a blessing. “How dare the Church insert itself into our bedrooms!” cried the voices of dissent. It would have been more honest if those same voices would have simply admitted their intolerance for any advocates of self-discipline in the area of sexual pleasure.
Today, however, things are changing. Catholics and other Christians in growing number are recognizing the perennial and prophetic witness of Humanae Vitae. What was before despised is now in many cases revered. The whole encyclical is overflowing with profound and wise teaching on the crucial importance of cooperating with the Creator in free and loving obedience, the natural moral law, Catholic anthropology, the transmission of human life, marriage, human fertility, and so forth. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how to live a fully human life of happiness.
When we read the encyclical, it is in a way difficult to imagine it as a source of previous scorn. For instance, in the opening paragraphs we read of Pope Paul’s sincere love and concern for married couples, including the lives and happiness of all human beings:
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 section II, titled “Doctrinal Principles,” Pope Paul taught that when considering the question of human procreation and the use of artificial birth control, since it is a question which touches on human life itself, it is “the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects” (HV 7). Stated another way, the human person is a moral agent who possesses the capacity to shape his character and father his own being by his choices, actions or inactions, and thus seals his eternal destiny by either collaborating with God’s plan of wise goodness or attempting to frustrate and undermine it. There are consequences for heedlessly ignoring or rejecting the natural moral law.
In article 12, Paul VI notes that the conjugal act is ordered toward both the union of the spouses and human procreation, which constitutes an inseparable, fundamental connection inherent in the marriage act. This fundamental connection between an intimate union of the spouses and openness to new life is ordained by the will of God according to eternal law. Simply stated, in creating man and woman, God has wisely written laws into their nature for their own good. It is no accident or mere coincidence of evolution that the human sexual faculties are what they are and do what they do. God has a purpose for human sexuality. When that purpose is thwarted or circumvented by the use of artificial birth control, the will of God, who is the Author of Life, is contradicted (HV 13).
Again, Pope Paul is concerned for the eternal well being of the human person and his or her happiness: the “fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.”
The natural moral law reveals that man does not have unlimited dominion over his body or his sexual faculties (HV 13), for both of these must be used within the limits of the order of reality established by God (HV 16). When these limits are ignored, rejected or exceeded, horrifying consequences result. Here we are brought to Pope Paul’s prophetic words in article 17:
Let [responsible men] first consider how easily [artificial birth control] 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 . . . 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. . . . Should they regard [artificial birth control] as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife. (HV 17).
Many of these predictions have come to pass in one form or other: the grave moral decline of contemporary society; the promotion of false notions of freedom which are detached from the moral law; the wildly out-of-control transmission and use of pornography; the devaluation of the institution of marriage; skyrocketing divorce rates; the “friends with benefits” (FWB) phenomenon in which friendships are arranged to include sexual activity without lifelong commitment to physical, emotional and spiritual bonds.
Just a few years after Humanae Vitae the wedge of artificial birth control was driven so deeply between the marital act and human procreation that it spawned the unspeakable evil of legalized abortion in the U.S. under the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The logical extension of the contraceptive mentality is the abortion mentality.
Further, we are now confronted with the HHS mandate, the attacks on the right to exercise freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, and a President who adamantly insists that it isn’t fair for the Catholic Church to refuse to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilizations to insurance recipients. We have to wonder, what is next?
Not until men and women begin to understand that they are bodily and spiritual beings, moral agents whose bodies must always be used to speak the language of truth, will we see the terrifyingly steep moral descent of America begin to flatten out. The more people who embrace the Church as the city of truth in Christ, a holy womb of love in which men are taught how to live and how to die, the more will society become aligned with the will of our loving God, who “works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
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Photo Credit: By BastienM [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons. Modfied for Joy In Truth.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.