Forty years later, ‘Humanae Vitae’ proves prophetic

by: Archbishop Joseph Naumann

If someone had predicted 40 years ago that by the Third Millennium, marriage and family life would be thriving, child abuse eliminated, abortion almost nonexistent, teenage pregnancy a thing of the past, and people in general enjoying a level of contentment and happiness unsurpassed in human history, we would not consider this person a very accurate social forecaster. A meteorologist, who was so mistaken on his predictions, would be unemployed.

On the other hand, if someone 40 years ago had predicted that in the beginning of the Third Millennium, the institution of marriage itself would be weakened as in no other moment in the history of Western civilization, sexual promiscuity and its related health problems would be rampant, abortion would be both legal and common, pornography would become culturally acceptable, and some nations would actually force their citizens to limit family size, we would have to acknowledge this person ’s wisdom and adeptness at recognizing the long-term consequences of social trends.

Those who are my age and older, can remember the societal and cultural debate initiated by the development of the so-called modern means of contraception, popularly referred to as “The Pill.” In the early 1960s, those advocating for widespread acceptance of oral contraceptives argued that marriages and families would be so much healthier if couples were relieved of the stress caused by:
1) rearing more than one or two children; and
2) the periodic abstinence from sexual intimacy required by the natural means for the regulation of family size.

The argument was made that the widespread use of artificial contraception would result in every child being a wanted child, virtually eliminating child abuse and abortion. It was asserted that easy access for adolescents to contraceptives would rid society of teen pregnancy. Liberated from the repression of sexual activity, caused in part by the fear of pregnancy, advocates of “The Pill” predicted that the mental health of the general population would improve significantly.

On the other hand, Pope Paul VI, in his much-criticized 1968 encyclical letter, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), in the process of re-articulating the church’s teaching on the nature of marriage, identifies many of the inevitable societal consequences resulting from a redefinition of the meaning of sexual intimacy that excludes its life-giving power. He specifically cites: 1) “the general lowering of morality”; 2) an increase in marital infidelity; and 3) the effect on the young, particularly young men, encouraging a disregard for the moral law and the treatment of women as “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment.”

Pope Paul VI also anticipated China’s One-Child Policy by predicting government policies that would attempt to impose contraception on their citizens. Pope Paul VI also foresaw that the widespread use of the artificial means of contraception would lead to a cultural acceptance of both abortion and pornography.
The ancient and consistent teaching of the church presented in “Humanae Vitae” is based on a reverence for the Creator’s design of the human person. In many ways, the embrace of artificial contraception by our culture reflected the pride of 20th-century man, believing he could improve upon the design of the Creator by uncoupling the power and the responsibility to give life from the most intimate and powerful expression of love.

In effect, God designed a balance in our physiology that provided a natural and effective deterrent from the trivialization of sexual intimacy. Hard-wired into every act of sexual intercourse is both the power to create a new human life, as well as the physical expression of the total giving and sharing of oneself with another. This can only be completely authentic when a couple is ready, able and willing to commit all of their lives to one another in the marriage covenant.

Within marriage, a couple can honestly communicate to each other physically what they have already pledged before God and their family and friends. Within marriage, they can welcome the awesome privilege and responsibility of being co-creators with God of a new human life. It is in the family, founded on the faithful and committed love of a husband and a wife, that a child is given the best environment in which to grow and develop physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

However, once the balance created by God is upset by negating either the life-giving or the committed faithful love-giving dimensions of sexual intimacy, then an essential aspect of our human ecology has been disturbed. Casual and recreational sexual activity, resulting from the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception, has brought about epidemics of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, cohabitation and adultery. It has led to a culture that accepts pornography as entertainment and has redefined sexual intercourse as something trivial — stripping it of its beauty, power and responsibility.
The message of “Humanae Vitae” was harshly criticized both outside and inside the church when it was promulgated. Even though time has proven wrong the premises and predictions of the Sexual Revolution, Americans have become addicted to many of its attitudes and behaviors. Our society has become dependent on artificial contraception to manage the symptoms of some of the most obvious negative consequences of the abandonment of traditional moral values. Many Catholics do not understand the church ’s teaching regarding artificial contraception, in part because they have not been exposed to a convincing presentation of its rationale.

At last November’s meeting of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we promulgated a new document entitled, “Married Love and the Gift of Life.” It is a re-presentation of the church’s teaching, specifically aimed at couples preparing for marriage. However, understanding this teaching is not just important for engaged couples, but for all of us.

I want to spend the next few weeks reflecting on elements of this document and the church ’s teaching about marriage and human sexuality upon which it is premised. I ask all of us to take this occasion to pray over our own understanding of the church ’s teaching and to be open to its meaning and applications in our own life.

Was “Humanae Vitae” a desperate effort to present an antiquated morality? Or was it a prophetic statement of the truth and consequences of abandoning our traditional morals? What does the experience of the past 40 years teach us? Think about it!

Used by permission -
The Leaven, the newspaper for the Kansas City, KS archdiocese