To say that the Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae was controversial would be a gross understatement. Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae (“of human life”) on July 25, 1968. It was addressed to “all men of good will” and was subtitled “on the regulation of birth.” The encyclical did not teach anything new but reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the relationship of human persons to God and one another as manifested within Christian marriage. Nevertheless, it became the spark that ignited widespread dissent, especially on its reaffirmation of the constant teaching of the Church on artificial birth control (i.e. contraception).
|Father Anthony Craig
What led up to this widespread dissent was a perfect storm of social and political factors that challenged man’s dignity. Up until 1930, there was a constant moral rejection of contraception across the board among Christians. There were concerns of over-population stemming from Anglican scholar Thomas Malthus’ book entitled, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” This work predicted that the world’s population would grow faster than the means to support it.
Malthus himself opposed contraception, favoring rather delayed marriage. Debate began immediately after its publication, especially in Britain. Pressure was laid upon the Church of England to make a response to these concerns. The Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference in 1930 approved contraception, but under strict conditions. When this became public, the Catholic Church also needed to respond to this question about regulation of birth.
The same year as the Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Canubii, which reaffirmed the traditional teaching on marriage. It also rejected abortion, eugenics, and contraception, stating: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature” (56). Later, Pius XII in 1951 reiterated that couples within marriage could regulate when they had children by having sex during those times when the wife is naturally infertile. This led to a question about the use of the Pill to prevent ovulation and simply extend the infertile period.
In 1963, Pope John XXIII established a commission to study the question of birth control. After his death, the commission was expanded by his successor Paul VI. In 1966, the commission produced a majority report that endorsed artificial contraception and a minority report that did not. These reports were not to be published, but to put pressure on the pontiff’s response, they were leaked to the press in 1967. This attempt to pressure Paul VI did not work.
Humanae Vitae came out in 1968 reaffirming church teaching that within marriage, sex has two purposes. One was procreative and the other unitive. By God’s design, these purposes were to always go together. He acknowledged that couples can use the gift of reason to decide on having more children, but this must ensure that the means they employ be in harmony with God’s plan. While this was meant to reaffirm church teaching, it clashed with the spirit of “free-love” rampant in 1968.
The reaction to the encyclical was widespread, contentious, and immediate. As a result, Paul VI spent the rest of his ten years as pope never to write another encyclical. Despite this reaction, he displayed his courage in regards to this encyclical in his homily on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, 1978.
The homily consisted mainly of the resume of the major documents of his pontificate. He was sitting in front of the altar of St. Peter and reading from his prepared manuscript. He announced the name of each of the various documents that he issued. When he came to Humanae Vitae, he put down the papers he was holding, he looked up, and with an enormous amount of sincerity said, “Humanae Vitae. I did not betray the truth. I did not betray the truth.” Then he picked the papers up and continued his discourse.
Loyal to his memory, how can we be faithful to the truth and not in any way diminish the integrity of the moral principles and teachings embedded in that encyclical?
In this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, one opportunity to understand better the way a Catholic married couple can remain faithful to the truth is an event this summer entitled “Celebrate ’68.” Natural Family planning is the way a couple can remain faithful to the truth of marriage and family life. Here in the Diocese of Duluth, Northland Family Programs seeks to assist women and couples in their reproductive health by sharing the wisdom found in the Creighton Model FertilityCare™ System. The event “Celebrate ‘68” will be at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Crosslake on July 21 at 4 p.m. This event will be filled with live music, dinner, and great speakers. This is co-sponsored by the Diocese of Duluth Office of Marriage, Family, and Life. Thus, it will be a way to faithfully follow God’s plan. This is one way to emulate the courage Paul VI displayed in issuing Humanae Vitae as he was a great herald of the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family.
Father Anthony Craig, S.T.L., is assistant director of the Diocese of Duluth Office of Marriage, Family, and Life.