by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of “Humanae Vitae,” an encyclical letter that was the fruit of a five-year process of study and reflection regarding the church’s teaching about the moral principles governing the transmission of new human life.
It is hard to appreciate today the courage it took for Pope Paul VI to issue this reaffirmation of consistent Christian moral teaching that was in direct opposition to the strong and prevailing cultural winds of the sexual revolution.
In what proved to be an understatement, Paul VI acknowledged: “It can be foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all.” Sadly, this year marks also the 50th anniversary of the unleashing of a poisonous dissent within the church. No other teaching of the church in the past almost 50 years has sparked as much criticism as “Humanae Vitae.”
In the early 1960s, about 65 percent of Catholics accepted and lived the church’s teaching that each marital act remain open to the creation of a new human life. If polls of American Catholics today are reliable, a majority of Catholics do not accept the moral principles articulated in “Humanae Vitae” and a minority of Catholic couples in child-bearing years actually live in conformity with church teaching.
Paul VI challenged priests to present this teaching with conviction and confidence, while at the same time being sensitive to the challenges experienced by married couples in their efforts to live in accord with moral truths expressed in “Humanae Vitae.”
Paul VI encouraged priests in their pastoral care of married couples to exercise patience and mercy, inviting them to strive for holiness and not yield to discouragement.
Having served as a priest for 43 years and a bishop now for more than 20 years, I must acknowledge my own failure in effectively communicating the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.”
As we observe this 50th anniversary, we are at a new moment with new opportunities to open minds and hearts to the wisdom of “Humanae Vitae” confirmed by the tragic consequences of the sexual revolution.
It is illuminating to compare the accuracy of the predictions by Paul VI of the consequences of a disregard for the fundamental moral principles regarding the transmission of human life and the promises by the advocates of the contraceptive culture.
The advocates for the acceptance of widespread use of contraception believed it would: 1) strengthen marriages by relieving the pressure of large families and limitations on sexual expression; 2) result in a dramatic decrease in unwanted pregnancies; 3) eliminate the need for abortion; and 4) eradicate child abuse because every child would be a wanted child.
Pope Paul VI, on the other hand, asserted that embracing the contraceptive mentality would:
1) lower moral standards; 2) devalue marriage as a result of increased premarital sexual activity; 3) wound marriages as result of increased instances of adultery; 4) result in governments implementing coercive population policies; and 5) result in a diminished respect for the human person in general and women in particular.
With the perspective of the experience of the past 50 years, I can only marvel at the accuracy of Pope Paul VI’s predictions and miscalculations of the proponents of contraception.
For decades, we have been dealing with alarmingly high rates of teenage pregnancy in addition to over one million abortions annually in the United States. The transmission of venereal diseases has been at epidemic levels for a couple of generations. Pornography is the fastest growing addiction.
The divorce rate doubled since the widespread use of contraception. For the first time in our national history, fewer than half adult Americans are married. The number of children living without a father in the home has tripled from 1960 to 2016. Forty percent of all children today in the United States are being born out of wedlock. The weakening of moral standards facilitated by the widespread availability of contraceptives has been a disaster for marriage, family life and, most of all, children.
Now is also a favorable time to re-present the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” because of the heightened appreciation of ecology and the wisdom of preserving the natural balances in creation.
We have become more sensitized as a culture to the threats to the natural environment caused by blindly accepting technological advancements in the name of progress.
The same ecological principles are at work with regard to human sexuality. God did not make some huge mistake when he united in sexual intercourse the most profound expression of human love and bonding with the capacity to engender new human life. Our efforts to rearrange the natural order by separating sexual intimacy from the ability to conceive a new human life has resulted in an astounding trivialization of sexual expression.
Female fertility, a healthy condition, has been defined in our public health policies as a disease to be prevented. Hormonal contraceptives are designed to interrupt and disrupt the natural health of women in order to make them sexually available to men.
There are physical health consequences for women that have been largely ignored in order to achieve a cultural goal of complete freedom of sexual expression.
Sadly, 50 years later, the evidence is mounting that the contraceptive culture has not only separated one of the natural results of sexual intercourse — the potential conception of a new human life — but also disconnected sexual expression from love.
This is evident both in the hookup culture of casual sex that has become widespread among young adults and the addiction to pornography that afflicts so many Americans of all ages. In the contraceptive culture, sex is no longer about conceiving life or communicating love, but simply about pleasure.
The question for all of us now 50 years post-“Humanae Vitae” is: What vision for human sexuality do we choose to embrace?
The vision of the church accepts the reality of our human biology as designed by our Creator. It affirms the twin purposes of sexual intimacy: 1) a profound expression of human love that can only be authentic within the marital commitment of fidelity and permanency; and 2) an openness to the conception of a new human life.
Or do we embrace the prevailing cultural vision of human sexuality as an unlimited access to pleasure, free from responsibilities of love and the potential engendering of new life?