My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication by Blessed Paul VI, soon to be St. Paul VI, of his encyclical on the regulation of birth entitled, Humanae Vitae. The release of this encyclical, one of the highest-teaching methods of the Church, caused great uproar in 1968. The teaching it contains on the immorality of contraception continues to be controversial today; though perhaps, even worse, for many contemporary people, its teaching is deemed irrelevant and thus ignored.
In 1968, I was in the Seminary finishing my theological studies and was well aware of the national and international controversy that this encyclical caused. Unfortunately, at that time and since then, many people have not even read what this future saint had to say to the world on this important topic.
In the first sentence of Humanae Vitae, which I quote, we see the whole reason for this teaching. “The most serious duty of transmitting human life, for which married persons are the free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator, has always been a source of great joy to them even if sometimes accompanied by not a few difficulties and by distress.”
In this one sentence, we see the prophetic proclamation by Blessed Paul VI on the situation of the world 50 years ago. We are “free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator.” Procreation is not simply reproduction. Procreation is working with God the Creator to bring new life, a new person made in the image of God, into the world. How does the human race continue? In God’s plan for human life, it continues through the loving personal union of a husband and wife in the covenant of marriage. Although today, science can form human life outside the womb, outside the conjugal union, such activity does not respect the dignity of procreation, of marriage, or of the human person, as it does not respect God’s plan.
At the same time, Blessed Paul VI acknowledged that there are difficulties and distress within marriage. Never is it easy for a woman to conceive and carry a child to term. Thankfully, in our own day and age, this has become safer with the miraculous ability of medicine to intervene even in the womb to save an unborn child. Ironically, at the same time, we have seen the horrible results of abortion, where in our own country over one million abortions each year are performed and have diminished not only our moral fabric, but also our demographic position.
The teaching of Humanae Vitae itself is authoritative and builds on the prior teaching of the Church. It continues to offer important insights for our time. In an interview with an Italian newspaper in 2014, Pope Francis praised what he called Blessed Paul VI’s “genius” which proved to be prophetic, acknowledging that he had the courage in 1968 to take a stand against the prevailing ideas of the majority in order to defend moral discipline.
Though scientific advances have made many aspects of human life easier and safer, some “advances,” such as contraception, have instead contributed to the erosion of the moral fabric of our society. Proponents of contraception at the time of the release of the encyclical often argued that allowing it would enhance individual marriages and marriage in general. Yet, we know that society and many in the Church consistently ignore the teaching on contraception; we can then now ask, where are the fruits? Today rates of divorce, single-parent households, and abortion are tragically high.
The prophetic nature of this encyclical tells us where we are today having lived through the degradation of the 1960s and the modern sexual revolution. Today, we see a culture where sex is understood as a form of recreation. The “hook-up” culture that unfortunately prevails today gives no consideration for the transmission of human life. And if by accident human life is conceived, that life can easily be snuffed out by abortion in today’s world. The human race is in a precarious situation. We cannot demean the beauty of sex as being something merely recreational and we cannot treat unborn human life as a disposable entity, in effect, denying the fact that it is human life at all.
An important distinction made by Pope Paul VI on the question of the legitimate regulation of births was between using the immoral means of contraception and having recourse to the woman’s natural infertile times, which is moral and thus permissible. Most recently in Amoris Laetitia No. 222, Pope Francis encouraged the use of these methods based on the “laws of nature and the incidence of fertility” (Humanae Vitae, 11). He notes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favor the education of an authentic freedom” (No. 2370). The fact is that recourse to the period of infertility is even easier since the perfection of the Sympto Thermal Method of Natural Family Planning. The Sympto-Thermal Method is based on three key signs of fertility: cervical mucus, basal body temperature and changes in the cervix. By observing and recording these signs, spouses will be able to identify Phase I, II and III and, therefore, know if they are in a time of fertility or infertility.
These signs are easily noticed by any woman who has learned to watch for them. It takes only a minute or two each day to record the signs in a chart. The chart provides a daily record that can be used to identify the days of fertility and infertility. Once the fertile and infertile days have been identified, couples apply “rules” that they learn in class to frame the boundaries between the phases of the cycle. Yet many couples continue to resist using it. Why? Though it is more accurate than any of the various means of contraception, perhaps it is because this natural means of regulating births requires discipline in charting the fertile periods and refraining from intercourse during those times. Many see this as restrictive. But isn’t it true that all love, and especially the sacramental love between a wife and a husband, requires discipline and restraint? Otherwise, it is not really love at all.
Contraception represents a concession to human weakness in the face of the challenges that are part of authentic love. Humanae Vitae, which is referenced online at the end of this article, is worth reading because it gives support to the difficult yet extraordinarily important “mastery-of-self” that is implied in following not just the teaching of the Church, but Divine Law itself.
In my first reading of this encyclical in my seminary days, there was one sentence that stuck out in my mind, and one that I remember clearly to this day: “And if sin should still keep its hold over them, let them not be discouraged, but rather have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is poured forth in the sacrament of Penance.”
The ideal is held out to us, an ideal not always easy to attain. Blessed Paul VI recognized that human weakness needs and is strengthened by the grace of God. Those who live according to God’s law receive the help and grace necessary to fulfill their responsibilities.
In our own diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, our Pre-Cana program includes some initial instruction on Natural Family Planning. Engaged couples are introduced to the concept of family planning in Christian marriage, which is a process of sensitively balancing the value of being open to new life with the need to be responsible parents. The Church invites us to do this by working with the wife’s natural fertility. The spacing of births can be done by the use of natural means that take advantage of the wife’s natural cycle of fertile and infertile periods.
This year, in order to reach out to as many people as possible, the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis began to offer monthly live webinars on the Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning. This program is available to all couples in the diocese. For more information and resources regarding Natural Family Planning or if you are interested in taking the class, please call the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis at 718-281-9540.
We should recognize that Humanae Vitae, as something based on the teachings and wisdom of the ages, can assist individual couples and, in fact, the whole human family, to be able to transmit human life in a way that is in concert with God’s plan for the human race.
The teaching of Humanae Vitae is a step of putting out into the deep, since the turbulent waters of the time in which it was published, and the new challenges since then, have attempted to sink the positive teaching that was given to us by Blessed Paul VI. Together join me in praying for couples that they see the wisdom of the teaching of the Church and that they have the courage and fortitude to accept this teaching and attempt to put it into practice in their marriage by means of mutual consolation and procreation that is in harmony with God’s loving plan.
Editor’s Note: Humanae Vitae can be accessed at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/ documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html