My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Wednesday, July 25, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the papal encyclical, Humanae vitae, on the gift of human life, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1968. This landmark document provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.
Three key issues framed the context for the writing of this encyclical: the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, changes in the understanding of the dignity of women and their role in society and growing concern that the earth’s natural resources would not be able to handle the huge population explosion that many people expected.
With regard to the fear that the world could not adequately accommodate more people, that reality simply has not materialized. In fact, the opposite trend is now a concern in many countries around the world, namely, a declining birthrate that is insufficient to maintain population. A birthrate of 2.1 children per woman is considered the minimum for a country to maintain population without immigration. The fertility rate in the United States dropped to 1.76 last year. The population in Illinois has decreased for four straight years, dropping Illinois from fifth to sixth place among our nation’s most populous states. Many small towns in our rural communities would love to have more residents. Both public and private schools have had to close due to changing demographics and fewer students coming from smaller families.
With regard to the dignity of women, Pope Paul VI very prophetically and accurately predicted 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” (no. 17).
While Humanae vitae is most often remembered for its condemnation of artificial contraception as immoral, this encyclical set that teaching in the broader context of the church’s understanding of the genuine meaning of marriage. In this regard, Pope Paul wrote, “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who is love, the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man his loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives … . It is a love which is total — that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience” (nos. 8-9).
Based on this understanding of marriage, the church “teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.” (nos. 11-12). The use of birth control outside of marriage is implicitly understood to be immoral, since sexual intimacy between unmarried people is itself deemed to be a mortal sin.
While the church’s teaching about contraception is often characterized simplistically as saying “no” to artificial methods of birth control, it is actually the person who uses artificial contraception who is saying “no” — no to giving oneself totally to one’s spouse, no to being open to the procreation of new life, no to putting self-sacrifice over one’s selfish pleasure, no to following the natural law, and no to trusting in God’s providence. On the other hand, sexual relations between husband and wife unimpeded by artificial contraception should be more properly understood as saying “yes” to love and to life in the marital relationship — yes to giving oneself totally to one’s spouse, yes to being open to the procreation of new life, yes to putting self-sacrifice over one’s selfish pleasure, yes to following the natural law, and yes to trusting in God’s providence.
May God give us this grace. Amen.