July 25th marks the 50th anniversary of the papal encyclical written by Blessed Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). Its beautiful teachings cover God’s will for married life and its critical role in the creation of human life. Blessed Pope Paul VI defended the importance of marital love and prophetically warned of the terrible consequences of reducing sex to simply a means of bodily pleasure. He emphasized that, through married love, we can collaborate in the gift of creation.
Unfortunately, upon its initial release and throughout much of the ensuing 50 years, the teachings of Humanae Vitae have met extreme resistance both within and without the Church. Yet, the ignoring of these teachings has led to many terrible developments that were prophetically proclaimed by Blessed Pope Paul VI. He warned that contraception “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”(1) Moreover, he predicted that men would start to objectify women and “forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."(2) Lastly, contraceptives would “give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”(3) There is no argument that all three of these prophecies have seen fulfillment over the subsequent 50 years.
In Humane Vitae, Blessed Paul VI writes about the truth of married love, that it is fully human, total, faithful, and fruitful:
9. In the light of these facts the characteristic features and exigencies of married love are clearly indicated, and it is of the highest importance to evaluate them exactly.
This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.
It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.
Married love is also faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death. This is how husband and wife understood it on the day on which, fully aware of what they were doing, they freely vowed themselves to one another in marriage. Though this fidelity of husband and wife sometimes presents difficulties, no one has the right to assert that it is impossible; it is, on the contrary, always honorable and meritorious. The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage, but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.
Finally, this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”(a)(4)
The use of artificial contraceptives is destructive of authentic conjugal love and fruitfulness because it separates the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. These two meanings and goods of marriage have an intrinsic connection to each other which God has established and man must respect. “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”(5)
St. John Paul II further enhanced our understanding of this critical relation with a series of Wednesday audiences collected under the title of Theology of the Body. St. John Paul II starts at the beginning…literally the beginning before the fall. He writes about a time when man was outside of the condition of the knowledge of good and evil, called original innocence. During this time of original innocence, our parents Adam and Eve exhibited clearly that “we are in the image of God not only through the gift of our intellect and free will, through our ability to know and to choose, but also through our ability to possess ourselves and then give ourselves to another person, forming a communion of persons in love, since God who is love is also a communion of persons in the Trinity."(6)
Under original innocence, men and women would have been able to give themselves freely to each other as subjects worthy of love and not as objects ready to be used. Through this freely given gift of self, mankind comes to fully understand its own essence, “‘alone, the man does not completely realize this essence. He realizes it only by existing ‘with someone’—and, put even more deeply and completely, by existing “for someone.”(7) St. John Paul II exhorts that it is not only our intellect and will that defines ourselves as an image of God, but also how we react as a human community, particularly the relationship between a man and a woman. This is his concept of the nuptial meaning of the body.
Today’s society has moved quite far from these beautiful teachings. In addition to the challenges outlined in Humanae Vitae, even newer challenges face our culture, including abortion, STDs, high divorce rates, pornography, lower birth rates, the breakdown of family life, and decreasing commitment to marriage. Sex and marriage have been made trivial as simply a way to self-pleasure as opposed to the blessing that God originally intended. A return to the teachings of Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body can be a strong pastoral answer to the false ideals that are widespread in society today. The Church’s authentic teaching about human sexuality, courageously proclaimed, is attractive to a generation in search of dignity, beauty, and meaning.
St. Patrick’s Seminary is committed to forming courageous men of reflection and action that can go out among the flock and preach this good news. We must go and proclaim God’s truth about human love with the greatest of care and charity. Priests and deacons must be partners with the flock as they work through the difficulties of living according to God’s plan. Thanks be to God for the wonderful teachings of Humanae Vitaeand Theology of the Body and pray for God’s grace to courageously spread this good news to our increasingly confused world.
To learn more about Humanae Vitae, please visit our SF archdiocesan web page at https://sfarchdiocese.org/hv.
(1) Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968, par. 17.
(2) Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968, par. 17.
(3) Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968, par. 17.
(a) Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, no. 50: AAS 58 (1966), 1070–1072 [TPS XI, 292–293].
(4) Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968, par. 9.
(5) Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968, par. 12.
(6) ______, “The Theology of the Body – What, Why and How?” Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body(2003), at http://www.theologyofthebody.net/.
(7) Pope John Paul II, General Audience (9 January 1980), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 14:2, 182.