What an understatement, this prophecy of Pope Paul VI about how his encyclical Humanae Vitae would be received by members of the Church and others.
Indeed the publication of the encyclical, forty years ago this month, set off a firestorm of debate, a debate that still manages to inflame passions today.
Humanae Vitae, the “birth control encyclical,” stands as a watershed moment in the contemporary Church. Its promulgation divided the Church along now very familiar fault lines: conservatives against liberals; those who accepted the teaching authority of the Church against those who didn’t; those who affirmed objective moral norms against those who opted for subjective standards of morality. As such, the battle over Humanae Vitae was the precursor of many other theological battles that would follow in subsequent years.
One of the reasons Humanae Vitae was rejected in some corners was that critics focused only on its restrictive language. Make no mistake – the encyclical clearly prohibited the use of artificial birth control: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life . . . Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means.”
The whole text, however, which provides the context for the prohibition of birth control, is actually positive and affirming. The letter is not just a “no” to birth control – it’s a resounding “yes” to life and love, a lesson that was missed in 1968 and continues to be overlooked today.
Paul VI begins the encyclical with a beautiful description of marriage as designed by God. Marriage is not the “effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces.” It is, rather, the “wise and provident institution of God the Creator” whose purpose was to include human beings in His loving design. The Pope couldn’t have begun to imagine how relevant his words would be in 2008, when even the basic concept of marriage as a union of one man and one woman would be under attack.
The Pope speaks of responsible parenthood: “In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.” The Pope adds: “They are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting of life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide the right course to follow. They are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.”
The encyclical also speaks beautifully of married love. “This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit . . . It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul and together attain their human fulfillment.”
Humanae Vitae complements the description of the love-giving dimension of marriage by emphasizing its life-giving element. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage.”
Children as the “supreme gift of marriage.” What a refreshing reminder that is for our culture, a culture that frequently sees children as a burden, a problem or a mistake, rather than a blessing.
Here I cannot help but think of Senator Barack Obama’s ridiculous response when asked about his stance on using contraceptives. “Look, I’ve got two daughters,” he said. “If they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” What an insulting thing to say about children, describing them – even his own grandchildren – as “punishments!” How quickly we’ve abandoned the Christian vision that welcomes children as blessings for the family!
Pope Paul concluded his encyclical with words of understanding and support for Christian couples. While recognizing the difficulties married couples might experience in fulfilling the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the Pope doesn’t condemn or criticize them. Rather he encourages them to seek the help of God in “unremitting prayer,” in the Eucharist which is the “unfailing fount of grace and charity,” and in the Sacrament of Penance where they “have recourse to the mercy of God.”
Without a doubt, the message of Humanae Vitae is counter-cultural and challenging. Nonetheless, the fact that many people, including Catholics, do not understand, accept or practice the teachings of the encyclical doesn’t nullify its inherent truth. It just means that we’ve got to do a better job in preaching and explaining its core values.
Humanae Vitae is a resounding “yes” to life and love. It’s a message that’s relevant and refreshing for every age.