Imagine Thanksgiving dinner in the average American home. In addition to the food, drink, and festive décor, lively argument is often a common staple as well. In order to skirt the conflict that will likely be the result of the diversity of lifestyles present at the table, one might be tempted to make it known that certain topics are “off limits.” This typically pushes issues like faith and politics off the table.
Pope Paul VI was not the type of man that would advocate for this false sense of peace. True peace is not achieved by deciding not to talk about matters that are most central to our understanding of what it means to be a human person, or how one is to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the world.
One of the topics that Paul VI was unafraid to address publicly was contraception. In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, he invited all people of good will to consider the moral teachings of the Church as they apply to every single aspect of our lives, particularly within the context of married love.
According to Paul VI, marriage is “the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.” (Humanae Vitae, 8)
The love between spouses differs from the love that exists between friends, neighbors, and other family members, for the marital relationship presumes a sexual relationship. The characteristic features of which are a reflection of the free, total, faithful, and fruitful love that God has for all of us. (Humanae Vitae, 9) “The transmission of human life,” he says, “is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.” (Humanae Vitae, 1)
It is important to note that the fruitfulness of married love is not limited to procreation, for “new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” (Humanae Vitae, 12) There is a difference between sexual activity that is rendered infertile by the actions of the couple, and infertility that is the result of circumstances beyond their control. Any couple that is enduring the pain of infertility must know that their married love is still “noble and worthy.” (Humanae Vitae, 11)
Paul VI warned that if the use of artificial contraception became widespread, several negative consequences would result. He predicted that we would experience an increase in marital infidelity - having removed a natural incentive to keep the moral law. He predicted that we would see an increase in the degradation of women - as it would give men the opportunity to “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” He predicted that we would seek unlimited dominion over the natural functions of the human body - seeking to inhibit or counteract nature, rather than to cooperate with it. And finally, he predicted that it would provide governments with a foot in the door to intervene with decisions that rightfully belong to families. This has manifested itself in imposed population control methods that involve artificial contraception and sterilization in developing countries. As it turns out, his warnings were quite prophetic. (Humanae Vitae, 17)
This July, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publishing of this encyclical. This is an opportunity for married couples to ask themselves: What does it mean to cooperate freely and responsibly with God? This is an occasion for a renewal of our understanding of what the married vocation demands of a couple and of communities, what it means to be prepared to persevere through all of the challenges of this vocation, and how we can rely on the Church to provide us with the truth necessary to make decisions according to God’s plan.
This is the first in a series of articles that will be published between now and July 25th - the date that Humane Vitae was first published. These subsequent articles will go in-depth into particular aspects of the document and its implications. As we begin to reflect together on these challenging topics, we invite you to read this encyclical on your own, and join us in prayer:
God our Father, fill all married couples with your love. Give them the grace to love one another every day, living out their promise to love and to love in a way that looks beyond themselves. Help them to imitate your freely given, sacrificial love, that they may choose each day to give of themselves, reflecting your love for us when you sent your Son to die for our sins. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Blessed Paul VI, pray for us! Amen.
Lita Arroyo is the Director of Parish Evangelization at St. Mary Magdalene.
Prayer via usccb.org
Catholic Church and Paul VI. Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1968.
McGonigle, James D. & Quigley, James F. A History of the Christian Tradition: From the Reformation to the Present. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press,1988, 254-255.
Schreck, Alan. The Compact History of the Catholic Church (Revised Edition). Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books/Franciscan Media, 2009, 153-155.BACK TO LIST