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The reality of family life 50 years after Humanae Vitae

Q: Archbishop J, was Pope Paul VI right about Humanae Vitae?

Humanae Vitae (HV) was an encyclical letter issued by Pope Paul VI 50 years ago, July 25, 1968. It was a watershed in the Church. Up till that time, lay Catholics followed the teachings of the pope. With Humanae Vitae, there was a violent reaction. Many theologians, priests, religious and laity alike were vocal in their rejection of the teaching. It created turmoil in the Church.

Some married couples simply rejected the teaching; others struggled with it; very few in the western world happily embraced it. For many years it was a hot topic of great tension. Or it was simply ignored. Fifty years on, there are young couples, both for reasons of faith and health, who are embracing the core teaching and using natural means of planning their family. The shock and trauma remain for many of the generation who were confronted with this teaching.

The core teaching

All the Christian Churches have taught that sex belongs in marriage between a man and a woman and that there should be no artificial separation between the unitive and the procreative aspect of the sexual act. These two, unitive and procreative, are inseparable. Together they constitute the moral requirements for a married couple engaging in the sexual act. Furthermore, the Christian leaders all taught that if these two, the unitive and the procreative, were ever separated, it would create much confusion, great distress and the unhinging of society.

In the sacrament of marriage it is clear that the man and woman are committing to become one flesh. This is not simply the coming together of the bodies for the sexual act. It is the entwining of the two lives into one. It is physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual entwining. The two are no longer two therefore but now one flesh (Gen 2:24, Mk 10:8).

The unitive dimension is the capacity of the two to become one flesh in all dimensions of the human being. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. This is the easy part of the teaching. It is the core teaching of the book of Genesis on marriage—“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24)

During the marriage rite the couple is asked: “Will you accept children lovingly from the Lord and bring them up according to the teachings of Christ and His Church?” This is the second dimension of the sexual act—there should be no unnatural barriers to procreation.

Every sexual act should be within a context of one flesh and open to conception. This is the teaching of the Church. It was the teaching of all the Christian Churches until 1930. In this encyclical 50 years ago, the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI went against the findings of a special commission and the majority opinion in the Church and world, leading the Church to remain consistent with the received Christian teaching that artificial contraception is a grave moral evil. Pope Paul VI said that “…a conjugal act which is deliberately made infertile…is intrinsically wrong…” (HV14)

The Christian witness

The secular hope was that with very limited family size and unlimited sex, couples would be happier and divorce would become almost unknown. The fact is current American contraceptive marriage with sexual freedom and small families has a 50 per cent divorce rate. Marriage did not get better and more stable; it got less frequent and far more unstable.

In the Protestant tradition, the major reformers came out clearly against contraception. John Wesley in the 1700s said, “Taking preventative measures is unnatural and would destroy the souls of those who practised it”. Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, said: “Birth control is sodomy”. The mainline churches all held very strong views that condemned birth control as an unnatural act to be preached against.

In 1930 the Anglican Church accepted birth control for married couples. A leading Anglican bishop, Charles Gore, said to the Conference: “Accepting contraception would open the door to accepting homosexual sodomy.” The Washington Post in 1930 came out against the Anglican Church proposing that contraception would bring indiscriminate immorality. The facts are there to see.

Pope Paul VI was right. Sexual immorality has increased; infidelity has increased; abortion is legal in many countries and has increased and used as a contraceptive; pornography has increased; our children are being sexualised at a younger age and in the last few years many nations have accepted homosexual marriage.

What did Pope Paul see?

Pastors work on the level of the couple. The Holy Father worked on the level of civilisation for which he saw that any space between the unitive and procreative act would have dire consequences. In the encyclical, he warned that contraception would lower moral standards, increase infidelity, it would be of grave harm to the young, it would objectify women reducing them to being an instrument for desire.

Another serious consequence is at the level of governments who will use these means to regulate population creating laws around birth (HV 17). Well that was his reasoning, and all of this has come to pass.

Another impact of Humanae Vitae is that half the world’s population live in countries with a birth rate of less than 2.1 births per woman. This is an unsustainable position which means that the race could die unless there is a change of direction. With the wide adoption of contraception and abortion, populations are now at risk and many nations, including Caribbean ones, will need to import workers to be sustainable.

The family is the load-bearing wall of civilisation. As the family goes, so does civilisation. Pope Paul VI saw a threat and was courageous to take the unpopular position and stand against the sexual revolution with his encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Fifty years on, we are beginning to see a bit more clearly the truth of his witness and the courage of his stance. Every pope since then has reaffirmed the truth and importance of the teaching. We in our time need to think with the Church both in her teaching and in her mercy.

Key message: Thinking with the Church is sometime difficult, sometimes troubling, but always part of a disciple’s journey. It always requires prophetic vision and courage.

Action Step: Reflect deeply on your assumptions and attitude towards human sexuality. Are you thinking with the Church? Do you have the capacity to live what the Church teaches? Clarify the Church’s teaching and ask God for the grace to live it generously.

Scripture Passage: Gen 2:20–25, Mk 10:1–12, Rom 12:1–2