Affirming and celebrating Humanae Vitae

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: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash