A 2016 poll of 4,500 “practicing” Catholic adults by the Pew Research Center stated that just eight percent of respondents believed contraception is morally wrong, while a whopping 89 percent said it was either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all.
Shocking? Absolutely. Misguided? Totally. Surprising? Sadly, no.
Fifty years have passed since Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968 (the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim). Many people think they know what the document says about birth control (“The Pill”) and regulating child birth. But how many have actually read Humanae Vitae? Most rely on secondary sources or hearsay about the surprisingly brief 16-page text, and subsequently ignore its teachings. In fact, when Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968, it was immediately met with dissent, especially by American theologians at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC.
On this golden anniversary, we have a unique opportunity to reexamine the wisdom of Blessed Paul VI (who is to be canonized this fall) and open our hearts to the truth of the faith which Mother Church desires for us to know.
In Humanae Vitae, the Holy Father rejected “The Pill” as a legitimate means of regulating child birth (most explicitly in paragraph 14) and offered a series of warnings about the consequences of artificial methods of birth control and their negative effects on society if they were to be embraced (as we have sadly discovered). He also spoke about God’s design for married love and the gift of life, reminding us of the improving science behind methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP) which allow for a couple to track fertility through natural markers and practice periodic abstinence in order to avoid pregnancy.
Blessed Pope Paul VI was not the first pontiff to sound the alarm. In 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) and in 1951, he gave an address to midwives in which he reminded them of the immorality of contraception and abortion. In 1958, Pope Pius XII addressed hematologists and touched on the topic of the immorality of steroidal/hormonal contraception. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the oral contraceptive pill. Three years later, Pope Saint John XXIII established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. The future Pope Saint John Paul II (Bishop Karol Wojtyla) offered a vigorous condemnation of contraception that would inspire the future encyclical letter.
During Easter week, I traveled with two women from our diocese to Washington, D.C., to attend a conference at CUA entitled, “Humanae Vitae: Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love, and Life.” In his opening remarks, CUA President John Garvey noted the irony that his university which was the focus of dissent in 1968 now hosted a symposium in support of the document.
In his opening address, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia reminded us of the fundamental truths in Humanae Vitae. “Paul VI argues that marriage is not just a social convention we’ve inherited, but the design of God himself,” he said. “Christian couples are called to welcome the sacrifices that God’s design requires so they can enter into the joy it offers. This means that while husbands and wives may take advantage of periods of natural infertility to regulate the birth of their children, they can’t actively intervene to stamp out the fertility that’s natural to sexual love.”
The conference, sponsored by the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, also featured talks by experts including Mary Eberstadt, Janet Smith and Richard Fehring. Topics covered included the theological and legal realities surrounding the institution of marriage, the now ubiquitous access to artificial birth control, and the resulting uncoupling of sex, marriage and babies. Helen Alvaré, professor of law at George Mason University, addressed the shift in U.S. public policy from one which promotes the physical and economic health and wellness of women and children to one which holds “sex without consequence” as its highest value.
“Half a century after Humanae Vitae, the Church in the United States is at a very difficult but also very promising moment,” Archbishop Chaput concluded. “Difficult, because the language of Catholic moral wisdom is alien to many young people, who often leave the Church without ever really encountering her. Promising, because the most awake of those same young people want something better and more enduring than the emptiness and noise they now have. Our mission now, as always, is not to surrender to the world as it is, but to feed and ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world—and thereby to lead it to Jesus Christ, and his true freedom and joy.”
As a priest who works daily with people who are preparing for marriage, and with those who are striving to live their marriage well, I am inspired by the renewed interest in Humanae Vitae, and want to help spread the good news. How about you?
(Father Andy Vill is the parochial vicar at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford and earned his licentiate of sacred theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.)