My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Forty-five years ago, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, (On the Transmission of Human Life.) It is a magnificent description of the "most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator." He described this role of parents as being a "source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships."
The Holy Father also noted "a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, of the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love." He added that "the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man's stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life — over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life."
In addressing this last topic, the transmission of human life, what most people know about Humanae Vitae is the papal declaration that methods of artificial birth control, along with direct abortion and sterilization, "are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children." What many people don't know about Humanae Vitae is that the pope also had some remarkably prophetic predictions about the consequences of artificial birth control. He quite accurate foresaw several adverse consequences:
Artificial birth control "could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards."
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."
"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."
Sadly, we have seen all of these predictions come true, not only in places like China, which imposes monetary fines for having more that the quota of children lawfully allowed, but even right here in the United States, where government policies and regulations now impose hefty monetary fines on employers with health insurance plans that do not provide free coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
This lack of awareness of the full teaching of Humanae Vitae means that many people think that the pope "just said no" to artificial birth control, but don't know that he also had some very helpful, intelligent, compassionate and practical pastoral advice for Christian couples, public authorities, scientists, doctors, nurses, family apostolates, priests and bishops about natural family planning, the value of self-discipline, the promotion of chastity, Christian compassion and recourse to God. It would be good to read or re-read this document in its entirety.
Instead, far too many Catholics have justified their rejection of this papal teaching, and subsequently, all Catholic teaching on human sexuality, marriage and family life, as a matter of following their "conscience," but apparently without properly understanding what "conscience" means. The word "conscience" comes from two Latin words, "co-" (which means "together" or "with') and "science" (which means to have knowledge about something). Conscience means to share knowledge with someone else about what is right or wrong.
Conscience does not act in isolation on some sort of personal or individual intuition disconnected from someone or something else. For a Catholic, a properly formed conscience means to share God's knowledge and the church's teaching about right or wrong. So those who invoke "conscience" to justify their rejection of divine law as taught by the Catholic Church are saying that they have chosen to follow the thinking, knowledge and values of someone or something other than the pope or the Catholic Church.
For example, when St. Thomas More invoked his conscience in refusing to sign Henry VIII's Oath of Supremacy declaring the king to be the head of the Church of England, Thomas was not just following a personal preference, but was declaring that he was thinking with the pope and would follow him, not the king. Others chose instead to think with the king, and follow him.
Forty-five years after Humanae Vitae, I pray that more Catholics will grow to understand, accept and follow the Catholic Church's teaching on the transmission of human life — as a matter of conscience!
May God give us this grace. Amen.