50 tumultuous years after ‘Humanae Vitae’

This July will bring the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial Church documents in modern times — Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”), Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Its defenders see its issuance as an act of courage by the pope in the face of rampant sexual permissiveness. Pope Francis three years ago designated Paul VI “Blessed,” a step toward his possible future recognition as a saint. Critics dismiss the encyclical as a relic of outdated morality that Catholics can safely ignore. According to the polls, a large majority of U.S. Catholics do exactly that where contraception is concerned.

One thing the defenders and the critics agree on: Humanae Vitae was a turning point, a watershed event in the life of the Church. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand some of the background that led up to its issuance.

Traditional teaching

Pope Paul’s encyclical was by no means the first time a pope had spoken against artificial birth control. Particularly noteworthy was Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”), dated Dec. 31, 1930. The document is a comprehensive presentation of Church teaching on marriage, but what it says about contraception was widely seen as an implicit response to a high-level Anglican Church statement from earlier that year giving limited approval to birth control.

Pius XI said: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” In the years that followed, Pope Pius XII repeated the condemnation of contraception a number of times. In an address in 1951, he said the teaching “is in full force today, as it was in the past, as it will be in the future also and always, because it is not a simple human whim but the expression of a natural and divine law.”

Catholic theologians also uniformly upheld the teaching. There was no visible dissent within the Church. In his 1979 book “The Battle for the American Church,” Msgr. George A. Kelly quotes a report prepared in 1965 for the U.S. bishops saying Catholic theologians in the United States “have unanimously condemned contraception.”

'Humanae Vitae' on Christian Compassion
“Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

“Nor is there any tendency in their published writings to defend the idea that the Church will or can change her substantial teaching on birth control,” added this document, which had been prepared in response to a Vatican inquiry.

By the early 1960s, nonetheless, pressure for change was gradually growing, fed by widespread acceptance of birth control, a shift in government policy that saw public funds starting to flow to birth control at home and abroad, propaganda about an alleged “population explosion” and the appearance on the scene of oral contraception — the pill. Now, too, some influential Catholic moralists, including the German Jesuit Father Josef Fuchs and American Jesuit Father Richard McCormick and Father Charles Curran, were publicly floating arguments that opposed the traditional teaching.

The birth control commission

Pope St. John XXIII established a papal commission to study population issues. Pope Paul expanded its membership and placed the question of oral contraception on its agenda. Suddenly change began to seem like a real possibility.

Msgr. Kelly says in his book that the creation and management of the papal birth control commission “was an example of how not to organize a scientific study group.” But the mere existence of such a body encouraged a mindset favoring change — especially when a document called “the majority report,” leaked to some Catholic publications and quickly publicized by secular media, showed a majority of members in favor.

As all this was happening, Pope Paul reflected and prayed. The delay by the pope, whose hesitation in making hard decisions had caused some people to liken him to Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, increased the expectation that change was on its way.

Then, on July 25, 1968, the pope issued Humanae Vitae. Citing the “inseparable connection” between the “unitive” (love-giving) and “procreative” (life-giving) means of the conjugal act, Paul VI said: “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” He added: “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.”

Coming amid the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the heady days of the immediate post-Vatican II period in the Church and the widespread expectation that the pope would change the teaching, this reaffirmation of traditional teaching received a firestorm of angry criticism led by theological dissenters, which spread by blanket coverage in the media. Paul VI was the target of much of it. Although an exodus from the priesthood and religious life had in fact begun several years before, now the pope was blamed for it. Defenders of the encyclical were either ignored or vilified. The mood of dissent spread and became entrenched.

Ongoing ramifications

Since then, the teaching of Humanae Vitae has been endorsed by Pope St. John Paul II (who is said to have had a hand in drafting the encyclical), Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. In his own document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, published in 1981, Pope John Paul II expressed sympathetic understanding for married couples who have difficulty living the teaching on contraception, and quoted Paul VI: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.”

Pope Francis echoed his predecessors last year in his marriage document, Amoris Laetitia: “From the outset, love refuses every impulse to turn in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning.” The passage carries a footnote reference to Humanae Vitae.

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Francis also recommends that the teaching of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio now be “taken up anew” with the aim of countering “a mentality that is often hostile to life.” The 50th anniversary of Pope Paul’s courageous but much-maligned encyclical might be a good time for doing that.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.