Next month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant papal encyclical letters in recent history – Humanae Vitae – which was issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968.
Issued at the height of the “sexual revolution” and amidst tremendous societal upheaval, the encyclical prophetically defended the integrity of married love and warned the Catholic faithful against the danger of reducing sexuality to a source of pleasure alone. The issuance of Humane Vitae was a watershed moment in the post-Vatican II era and, for many Catholics, represents a sharp point of contention between liberals and conservatives.
Learn more about the HV50 Conference in southern California
That characterization is unfortunate, as the past 50 years have born witness to the prophetic truth of the encyclical. If you have not read Humanae Vitae recently – or ever – the upcoming 50th anniversary represents an opportune chance to do so, in particular section 17.
In this section, Blessed Pope Paul VI outlines what he predicts as consequences of turning from the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. First, he warned that contraception would “open wide the way for conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
In addition, he warned that contraception would lead men to “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 who he should surround with care and affection.”
Finally, he warned that artificial contraception would allow governments “to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.” Even a cursory review of the last fifty years reveals just how prophetic his words were.
While the issue of artificial contraception commands most of the attention around Humanae Vitae, the encyclical also contains some of the most beautiful Church teaching on the truth about married love. In the document, Blessed Pope Paul VI lists the four essential qualities of married love: it needs to be fully human, total, faithful, and fruitful. In today’s modern society, there is great confusion about what it means to love another. However, our Catholic faith offers a different understanding of love: that to love is to “will the good of another.” Blessed Pope Paul VI noted that married love is not only emotion or feelings of affection towards one’s spouse, but rather it is “above all, and act of the free will.”
Blessed Pope Paul VI was certainly not unaware of the “difficulty” or “controversy” that would result following his issuance of the encyclical. In fact, in it he directly stated:
“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.” (Humane Vitae 18).
Or as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone described evangelization in a post-Christian world in a recent talk at Benedictine College marking the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Church has no choice but to “take the hard way out.”
To mark this momentous occasion, the California Catholic Conference is co-sponsoring a conference July 27-28 at the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, California. The conference will feature over 40 speakers, including Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Professor Janet Smith, PhD, George Wiegel, Christopher West, Patrick Coffin, and Dr. Ray Guarendi. More information on the conference, including how to register, can be found here.
This conference represents an opportunity for all of us to be active participants in the evangelization of the Church’s profound teaching on this most human of subjects. As Blessed Pope Paul VI taught in another exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, the Church’s mission is essentially one of evangelization, the sharing of the Good News of our salvation. This can be an uphill battle in our modern society, where many consider the Church’s teaching in this area to be “repressed” and a source of bad news. However, each of us is called to bear witness that the Good News includes the truth about human love and sexuality. Only in this way can we help spread healing that is desperately needed our society today.