May 4, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

50 years later, ‘Humanae Vitae’ is still prophetic

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

On July 25, 2018, the papal encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”) will be 50 years old. Nineteen sixty-eight was a time of profound cultural and ecclesial change. “Humanae Vitae” was a prophetic voice in that unsettled time, and it remains an important, but controversial, message half a century later.

The controversy centers on “Humanae Vitae’s” reaffirmation of the Church’s opposition to abortion, sterilization and artificial birth control. In 1968, advances in modern technology had made access to various means of preventing conception or terminating unborn life easy and affordable, effectively separating the unifying purpose of sexual intercourse from its procreative purpose. In a cultural context that celebrated “free love” and uninhibited sexual expression, the Church’s position as articulated authoritatively by Blessed Pope Paul VI seemed hopelessly old fashioned, even repressive.

“Humanae Vitae” is clear and direct about the Church’s opposition to preventing or terminating the natural results of sexual intercourse, but the fundamental purpose of the encyclical is to affirm, not deny, the beauty and the dignity of human life as it is expressed in the sexual love of a husband and wife in marriage. According to “Humanae Vitae”:

“This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. 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” (#9).

“Humanae Vitae’s” emphasis on the beauty and dignity of married love has been reinforced during the past five decades by the writings of the popes who succeeded Blessed Paul VI. St. John Paul II was especially prolific in his writing and speaking about human life and dignity.

In his encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), St. John Paul II offered “a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!” (#5).

In his encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI confirms the principles that underlie the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” He points to the “link between life ethics and social ethics,” saying that “a society lacks solid foundations” when it claims to support human values, but tolerates or actively supports activities that devalue and violate human life, “especially where it is weak or marginalized” (#15), as in the case of the unborn, infirm or elderly.

The writings of Pope Francis show the relevance of the message of “Humanae Vitae” message five decades later. “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” the current pope’s prophetic teaching on the environment, makes it clear that the protection of human life and dignity is intimately connected with the protection and care of our earthly home.

In “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis echoes the teaching of Blessed Paul VI both in his discussion of the family’s vocation and in his reflections on what love means in the day-to-day reality of marriage and family life.

As Blessed Paul VI says about marriage, “this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”

“Humanae Vitae” insists on the beauty and dignity of married love, the unbreakable bond between union and procreation, the fundamental importance of responsible parenthood, and the call that married couples have to remain faithful to God’s design for their participation in the work of creation.

The past 50 years have not made the prophetic teaching of “Humanae Vitae” easier to accept or less controversial, but since the encyclical’s publication, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called sexual revolution is not the solution to the problems confronted by married couples, families or society as a whole.

“Humanae Vitae” provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life. In this 50th anniversary year, all of us—clergy and laity, married and single people—would do well to re-read this prophetic encyclical and meditate on what it tells us about God’s love for us, the members of his family, and our responsibility to protect and defend God’s sacred gift of human life. †

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