Later this year, Blessed Paul VI will be raised to the altars as a saint. The canonization is expected to take place in late October at the close of a meeting of the Synod of Bishops. It is fitting that his canonization is taking place this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of what Pope Paul is perhaps best known for—his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae.
This significant document reaffirms the Church’s condemnation of artificial “birth control”—a misnamed concept, because as G.K. Chesterton cleverly puts it, “what is quaintly called Birth Control…is in fact, of course, a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control” (The Well and the Shallows, in vol. 3 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton [Ignatius Press]). Not only is this encyclical clarifying, it has proven to be prophetic. The world did not listen to Pope Paul in 1968 and the stark warnings he gave about what the widespread acceptance of contraception would mean for society have all come to pass. And now, a half-century later, the world no longer remembers what he even said in the first place. We would do well to honor the memory of this soon-to-be-sainted pontiff by using this anniversary year to recall and boldly proclaim his oft-neglected message on the nature, purpose, and dignity of married love.
The historical context
When Giovanni Battista Montini was elected to succeed the popular Pope John XXIII on June 21, 1963, he had the task of steering the Second Vatican Council to completion. With this mission before him came the burden of implementing its reforms while maintaining unity between conservative and liberal wings of the Church whose different views of what the Council meant were coming increasingly to the fore. Taking the name Paul VI, he set out to accomplish what would prove to be a near-impossible task.
Western societies were shattered by the two world wars that engulfed them in the first half of the 20th century. A crisis of confidence and identity ensued. Old ways of thinking began to be challenged. The turbulent 60s and 70s were a period of social and moral revolution. Religion, marriage, and the family were certainly not institutions exempt from this spirit of questioning and change. That the reforms of Vatican II were carried out in this context is unfortunate.
The spirit of the age was difficult to distinguish from the legitimate procedure of reform the Church was implementing. The optimistic hope for a great renewal within the Church mixed with the prevailing zeitgeist, often superseding prudence, and the changes that followed were quick and drastic. The immediate years following the Council saw a new drive to foster once-forbidden relations with other religious groups, far-reaching changes to the Church’s ancient liturgy, and the altering of the supreme and universal authority of the pope to work more collegially with conferences of local bishops. Thousands left the priesthood and religious life due to a lack of confidence in the institutional structure of the Church, or to preempt what was thought to be the inevitable end to mandatory clerical celibacy. Everything seemed to be on the table for change. So, surely, the Church’s total ban on artificial contraception—which was increasingly thought to be antiquated—would be changed too, right?
In light of scientific progress, evolving values, and growing opposition to this teaching, Pope Paul’s predecessor, the now-Saint John XXIII, established an advisory commission to study the matter in 1963. Shortly after he became the pope that same year, Paul VI expanded the commission from a mere six laypeople to a total of 72 persons, including theologians, doctors, cardinals, and bishops. Five of the participants were women. The report this commission submitted in 1966 recommended a revision of the Church’s moral teaching that the use of contraception no longer be considered an intrinsic evil but subject to the consciences of the faithful for use in certain circumstances. An intervention was made by a small minority of the commission’s members opposing this position which was then, in turn, responded to by the majority. This back-and-forth was leaked to the media, which led to the wide expectation that the Pope would accept the majority opinion of his own commission. Priests in parishes and professors at Catholic universities were already teaching that contraceptive use in particular cases is permissable.
But to the surprise of many and against tremendous opposition, Pope Paul, in his finest moment, definitively clarified as an exception-less norm of morality that the use of artificial contraception is intrinsically evil. He did so 50 years ago in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, promulgated on July 25, 1968.
The teaching and reception of Humanae Vitae
Pope Paul VI brought clarity to the debate, stating what has always been the Church’s understanding of married love. Citing Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, he stated: “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare” (Humanae Vitae 9). He also reasserted the “…inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV 12). And as a result, that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 11). Thus, sexual intercourse that is deliberately contraceptive through use of unlawful birth control methods is labeled “intrinsically wrong” (HV 14).
The encyclical did however, acknowledge there could be well-grounded reasons for spacing births, and as a result married people “may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained” (HV 16). This practice has come to be known as “Natural Family Planning” (NFP). To be clear, NFP is not a form of contraception, which deliberately renders sexual intercourse incapable of resulting in conception. Pope Paul clarifies: “Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV 16).
The choice to avoid or postpone birth can be licit under just and reasonable conditions that are medical, economic, and social. This is the via media in the debate over birth control. As Msgr. William Smith observes: “Some style themselves ‘providentialists’ in their claim that God will provide for whatever number of children you have…. The providentialists say, do nothing to interfere with procreation (including NFP). The seculars say, have 1.78 children. The Catholic position is neither of these but calls for generosity, while recognizing there can be serious reasons for spacing children or limiting family size. The point is to get the couples to ask themselves are they really answering God’s call to generosity in the service of life” (William Smith, Modern Moral Problems: Trustworthy Answers to You Tough Questions [Ignatius Press]).
Rather than bringing the debate over birth control to a close, the promulgation of Humanae Vitae provoked antagonistic protest and dissent. Pope Paul suffered much for proclaiming the truth on the nature and purpose of married love. The encyclical was received with almost universal scorn and condemnation from the world, including many within the Church. Numerous bishops and priests spoke out against the encyclical. Perhaps the most infamous instance of this was when Father Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America organized a media campaign to protest its principal teachings and arranged to have more than 600 theologians sign a “Statement of Dissent,” which he penned. So fierce was the backlash, Pope Paul did not issue another encyclical in the remaining 10 years of his pontificate. Today, the teachings of Humanae Vitae are, arguably, the most disobeyed doctrines of the Catholic Church.
But 50 years later, his words have proven to be prophetic. Dale Ahlquist observes:
The Holy Father had upheld the truth, upheld the teaching of the Church. He had gone against the tide and was paying an awful price. The rest of the world wanted sex without consequences. But sex without consequences…has consequences. And the Pope knew it, and since then he has been proved right a million times over. All of his predictions about birth control leading to divorce, leading to abortion, leading to perversion, were absolutely correct, but no one listened at the time.
G.K. Chesterton said, “A dead thing goes with the stream. Only a living thing can go against it.” Pope Paul VI was almost the only living thing in the world in 1968.…The world did not listen to Pope Paul VI. And now it does not remember what he said. (Dale Ahlquist, All Roads: Roamin’ Catholic Apologetics [ACS Books])
Not only did Pope Paul say that contraception was bad; he said it would have bad consequences. And he was right.
The prophecies of Humanae Vitae
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI asserts the widespread use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” No one can deny that 50 years later there has been a sweeping decline in morality throughout the world. The vast increases in divorce and children born out of wedlock, the tragedy of abortion being procured on a horrifying scale, and the perversion that pervades contemporary popular culture all testify to this fact.
The encyclical also foretold how the use of contraception would be detrimental to conjugal love. Pope Paul argued that contraception would ultimately lead to a loss of respect for the woman, where “her physical and psychological equilibrium” would no longer be cared for as she would be considered “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as [her husband’s] respected and beloved companion.” All persons have an innate dignity as beings created in the image and likeness of God. The Church’s teaching that the use of artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil that can never be accepted is designed, in part, to protect this understanding of the dignity of the human person. That dignity is violated when spouses use each other’s bodies as mere objects for their own gratification by obstructing the natural end of their sexual union. By this act they display a lack of commitment and authentic love for one another and frustrate the ultimate purposes of their marital union, which are their mutual good and bringing children into the world.
Pope Paul also warned that the widespread acceptance and even celebration of contraception would place a “dangerous weapon…in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” This has certainly come to pass as the prevailing wisdom identifies overpopulation as the primary cause of poverty. As a result, it is the policy of many governments to control population growth through “family-planning programs.” What this means, of course, is the widespread distribution of contraceptives, opportunities for sterilization procedures, and abortion (even forced abortions, in the case of China). Countries implementing birth control practices are given preferential access to resources from first-world governments and charitable agencies, forcing the Catholic poor into the indignity of exchanging their consciences for money. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the plain truth is that there is an actual problem of underpopulation in the West. Most Western nations have a birthrate that is under 2.1, which is not enough to sustain a given society.
The final warning of this prophetic document was that contraception would lead man to think he has unlimited dominion over his own body. God’s will has been replaced with the selfish desire of the individual. Many go so far as to alter their own physical make-up by undergoing sterilization procedures. The emergence of the practice of in vitro fertilization and the transgender movement are not at all unrelated to this. In each of those cases, God’s dominion over the natural order is obstructed to suit one’s own desire.
The voice crying in the wilderness: The message of Humanae Vitae
Today, the most transient and material things of this world—clothes, cars, expensive vacations—are more desired than the joy of children. Our secular world has forgotten God and the greatest blessing he gives to any family—new life. Malcolm Muggeridge poignantly details what our society has lost sight of:
There is no beauty, there is no joy, there is no compensation that anything could offer in the way of leisure, of so-called freedom from domestic duties, which could possibly compensate for one-thousandth part of the joy that an old man feels when he sees this beautiful thing: life beginning again as his ends, in those children that have come into the world through his love and through a marriage which has lasted through 50 and more years. I assure you that what I say to you is true, and that when you are that age there is nothing that this world can offer in the way of success, in the way of adventure, in the way of honors, in the way of variety, in the way of so-called freedom, which could come within a hundredth part of measuring up to that wonderful sense of having been used as an instrument, not in the achievement of some stupid kind of personal erotic excitement, but in the realization of this wonderful thing—human procreation. (Malcom Muggeridge, Malcom Muggeridge on Humanae Vitae [The National Committee of Catholic Laymen])
Pope Paul VI stood firm in the midst of the moral permissiveness which came under the guise of “freedom” in the 1960s and boldly proclaimed the truth of married love. But his message was a like a voice crying out in the wilderness. It is the cause of great controversy, and is despised and rejected. But what ultimately, is the message of Humanae Vitae? Put very briefly: that the long and uncomplicated tradition of a man and a woman falling in love, getting married, and having children is a good thing. That the family is the most important unit of society. And that the natural order of all this should be respected. That this should be the subject of controversy shows how society has lost its way. May the message of the soon-to-be Saint Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, help us to find it again.
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