Affirming and celebrating Humanae Vitae

George Weigel

July 25 is the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on the integrity of love and the appropriate means of family planning. Issued during the cultural meltdown of the 1960s, and in a year when irrationality stalked the entire Western world, Humanae Vitae instantly became the most vilified act of the papal magisterium in history. And to what should have been their shame, entire national episcopates distanced themselves from Pope Paul’s teaching by a variety of strategems, many of which exhibited some degree of theological confusion and some of which were downright cowardly.

Paul VI came to the judgment he did in Humanae Vitae for two reasons.

First, because he was convinced that using the natural rhythms of fertility to regulate births was the most humanistic means of family planning, and the method most congruent with the dignity of the human person – and especially the unique dignity of women.

And second, because he came to understand that many of those advocating a change in Catholic teaching on the morally acceptable means of family planning were in fact promoting a fundamental change in the Church’s way of moral reasoning: they denied that some acts are simply wrong because of their nature, and they argued that moral judgment is really a calculus of intentions, acts, and consequences. Had that “proportionalism,” as it’s technically known, been enshrined as the official Catholic method of making moral judgments, Catholicism would soon have found itself in the sad condition of liberal Protestantism – another Christian community with utterly porous moral boundaries.

His abandonment by a lot of the world episcopate deeply wounded Paul VI, a sensitive soul who had supported the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that bishops are something more than local branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., and who probably thought he was owed a little loyalty in return. So as the Church and the world mark the golden jubilee of Humanae Vitae, and as Catholics around the world prepare to celebrate the canonization of Paul VI in October, perhaps those bishops who understand that a serious breach in episcopal collegiality took place in 1968, when so many of their predecessors failed to defend the Bishop of Rome against his often-vicious critics, might consider making these affirmations about the encyclical, in one form or another:

1. I am deeply grateful to Pope Paul VI for his courageous witness to the truth about love in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. With Pope Francis, I believe that Paul VI “had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on culture, [and] to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism,” which treats the gift of children as a societal and economic burden.

2. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae on the appropriate means to plan a family are important for human well-being today; that conscious use of artificial means of regulating fertility distorts the truth about human love inscribed into Creation by the Creator; and that conscience must respect these intrinsic truths in family planning.

3. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae about natural family planning have proven themselves in pastoral situations around the world; that those truths have made significant contributions to family ministry and marriage preparation in various cultures; and that those who deny the human capacity to understand and live the disciplines of natural family planning often engage in racism, new forms of colonialism, or both.

4. I believe that the “contraceptive culture” of which Paul VI prophetically warned in Humanae Vitae is a major factor in the sexual abuse of women that has come to public attention through the #MeToo movement, along with the related abortion license; and I invite feminists to rethink their celebration of artificial contraception and abortion on this fiftieth anniversary.

5. I believe that St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” has given the Catholic Church a compelling tool for explaining both the truths taught by Humanae Vitae and the unhappiness caused by the sexual revolution.

6. I pledge to make this anniversary year an occasion to celebrate the gift of Humanae Vitae and to use my pastoral office to deepen understandings of the Catholic sexual ethic as a celebration of human dignity and the gift of life. 

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.