Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally, in slightly different form, on July 25, 2012, to mark the 44th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
The encyclical, Humanae Vitae, was promulgated 55 years ago, on July 25, 1968. The word often used to describe Pope Paul VI’s encyclical is “prophetic”. It is one of those rather rare cases in which such a daunting, loaded, and strong adjective is exactly on the mark. Being prophetic, in the biblical and apostolic tradition, involves far more than some sort of foretelling of future events. It is, first, a forth-telling of truth, a proclamation of the Word of God. As such, it requires courage and a willingness to be rejected, mocked, and even vilified.
All of that happened to Paul VI, and the case can be made (and has been made many times over) that Humanae Vitae and the immediate response to it—harsh, mocking, dismissive, angry—marked a pivotal moment in the Church’s life in the modern era in the West. There was talk then, as there is even today, that the deep divide over the teachings of Humanae Vitae and the subsequent, related teachings by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI might lead to a divided Church. But viewing it in such a way is rather misleading because, first, the Church is One, and as such, cannot be divided into two (or more) bodies. “Unity”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “is of the essence of the Church” (par 813). There are wounds to the unity of the Church, and these take the form of “rifts”, “serious dissensions”, “ruptures”, and “heresy, apostasy, and schism” (par 817).
It’s hardly a news flash, of course, that there are many who have separated themselves from full communion with the Church because of Paul VI’s clear teaching that contraception is sinful and contrary to God’s plan for marriage, procreation, and family life. I have no doubt that many Catholics who use contraception are ignorant of what the Church teaches—and why she teaches it. Yet there are those who knowingly, willfully, and without shame insist that they and their convenient (and supposedly perfect) consciences have found the Church’s teaching to be inadequate, inconvenient, and incorrect. Taken to its logical, if not altogether comfortable, conclusion, this approach assumes that God himself upholds the dissent founded upon their (poorly formed) consciences.
In other words, if final, definite authority is ascribed to one’s conscience, then what it says is “true” must, when push comes to shove, be what God also says is true (unless one is willing to say God can hold contradictory moral beliefs). Yet this is nonsensical. Such a faulty, narcissistic approach brings to mind this passage of Scripture:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:13-17)
St. James, whose feast is celebrated on July 25th, was not writing about contraception, but the deeper principles certainly apply: when one’s desires and passions and intellectual projects are made the final authority rather than aligning with a final authority, it follows that sin is—ahem—conceived and birthed. And it leads to death, spiritual and otherwise. As Bl. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae:
Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment “You shall not kill”. But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. (par 13)
Three Sundays ago the Gospel reading from Mark 6 (vs 1-6) contained the famous statement by Jesus: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” Having returned to his hometown of Nazareth after time spent proclaiming the Kingdom, healing the sick, and casting out demons, Jesus found that those who thought they knew him best actually knew him the least:
Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
They said, in essence: “Who do you think you are? We are smarter than you. We don’t have to listen to you. You embarrass us! We are scandalized by you and your teachings.” The same things were said to and about the Vicar of Christ in 1968 by those Catholics—many of them priests and theologians—who thought they were smarter, better, more enlightened, more “in tune”, and more “with it” than Paul VI. And yet time has a way of proving the prophet’s points and approving the prophet’s mission. There are several that could be highlighted; here are just a few:
• Responsible parenthood “concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. 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” (par 10). When parents reject their proper duties, they harm themselves, their children, and society. The evidence of the past several decades speaks for itself.
• Gratitude, humility, and self-control are essential to recognizing the boundaries given by God for our good and the good of our children: “But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. ‘Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact,’ Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled.” (par 13). When man believes he has unlimited dominion, the culture of death soon follows. As it did, in a most tragic way, in 1973 with Roe v. Wade.
• Rejection of the Church’s wise teaching about procreation and contraception will result in the undermining of morality and a growing disrespect for women and the feminine: “Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action 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—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—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” (par 17). Pornography is an obvious piece of evidence, but there are other manifestations as well, as any sober observer recognizes.
• The widespread acceptance of contraception will open the door to coercive and unjust actions by the State: “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. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this 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” (par 17). China is a blatant example; others, in the West, are more subtle, but are becoming more open and obvious.
• Many people will reject this teaching: “It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’ She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical” (par 18). As Ven. Fulton Sheen noted, the rejection of the Creed usually begins with a rejection of the Commandments. The evidence is, as they say, overwhelming.
• Civil leaders who promote contraception are not upholding the common good and are destroying the moral fabric of society and civilization; they are also destroying the freedom of the citizenry: “And now We wish to speak to rulers of nations. To you most of all is committed the responsibility of safeguarding the common good. You can contribute so much to the preservation of morals. We beg of you, never allow the morals of your peoples to be undermined. The family is the primary unit in the state; do not tolerate any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God. For there are other ways by which a government can and should solve the population problem—that is to say by enacting laws which will assist families and by educating the people wisely so that the moral law and the freedom of the citizens are both safeguarded” (par 23). HHS mandate, anyone?
• Married couples who follow the Church’s teaching will suffer trials, but will also be witnesses to the Gospel and examples of sacrificial holiness and joyful love: “In humble obedience then to her voice, let Christian husbands and wives be mindful of their vocation to the Christian life, a vocation which, deriving from their Baptism, has been confirmed anew and made more explicit by the Sacrament of Matrimony. For by this sacrament they are strengthened and, one might almost say, consecrated to the faithful fulfillment of their duties. Thus will they realize to the full their calling and bear witness as becomes them, to Christ before the world. For the Lord has entrusted to them the task of making visible to men and women the holiness and joy of the law which united inseparably their love for one another and the cooperation they give to God’s love, God who is the Author of human life” (par 25).
Jesus, upon being rejected by most of his former friends and acquaintances, was “amazed at their lack of faith”, or by their unbelief. The rejection of Humanae Vitae—both 55 years ago and today—is at heart a failure of faith. In considering that failure, we would do well to consider the challenge presented to us by Bl. John Paul II nearly thirty years ago:
At such times the People of God, and this includes every believer, is called to profess with humility and courage its faith in Jesus Christ, “the Word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). The Gospel of life is not simply a reflection, however new and profound, on human life. Nor is it merely a commandment aimed at raising awareness and bringing about significant changes in society. Still less is it an illusory promise of a better future. The Gospel of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus. (Evangelium Vitae, par 29).
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