Here in the Catholic Church, we like to celebrate anniversaries—wedding anniversaries, ordination anniversaries, birthdays, dedication days of churches, and all the perennial saint days. And sometimes we also celebrate the anniversaries of documents. That’s right, even paperwork has a birthday party. Now, admit it, this is not the strangest thing we Catholics do. You can probably think of a few other traditions that are not so easy to explain to your non-Catholic friends.
I bring this up because we are celebrating one of these anniversaries this week, and it is a big one. This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the pope’s letter Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1968. Letters such as this one, which are called encyclicals, are written by popes in order to address a certain issue or to proclaim a definition or teaching of the Church. These encyclical letters carry the teaching authority of the Pope; that means the faithful, that is, all of us, are bound to follow the teaching in faith and obedience. What, then, is this letter with a Latin name, and why is it a big deal?
Well, firstly, all encyclicals are known by the first two or three words of the body of the document. These two or three words then become its title. The first sentence of the letter tells you what it’s about. Here’s the first sentence:
“The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.”
So, we know that this letter is a teaching about married couples and creating new life. The title comes from the words, “of human life,” which, in Latin is humanae vitae. This encyclical was the fruit of a commission that the Pope called in 1964 to study and make recommendations on a new and history-making invention: the birth control pill.
The pill was approved in America in 1960, and it was an instant hit. Millions of women worldwide were regularly taking it by the time the Pope’s commission ended their study and issued recommendations to the Pope. Their recommendation? The majority were in favor of the pill. They did not think that it was a sin to prevent pregnancy by taking artificial birth control. The opinions of theologians were well-known, and everyone expected the Pope to go along.
But then Blessed Paul VI issued his encyclical, and it shocked the world. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul went against the majority opinion of the commission and condemned the use of the pill. Many people, including many Catholics, were angry at the decision. It was an act of true bravery and wisdom on the part of Pope Paul to stand in opposition and issue a very unpopular teaching. Yet, what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.
Pope Paul didn’t just issue this opinion out of thin air. He stood on the traditional teaching of Christians from time immemorial. In fact, every single Christian denomination officially condemned contraception right up until 1930, when the Church of England changed its teaching. Other Protestants followed, and everyone wondered when the Catholic Church would “get with the times” and give in. In 1968, they got their answer: She’s not giving in.
In Humanae Vitae paragraph 9, Pope Paul lays out some beautiful principles as he seeks to define what marital love is. He said that true marital love has four main characteristics:
- Free – it comes from an act of free will. Love is a choice. If it is forced, it is not love.
- Total – love seeks to give all one has to the beloved. In marriage, we don’t just love each other partially or sometimes—it is a love that involves our whole being.
- Faithful – the marital partnership is exclusive and permanent. One man, one woman, till death do us part.
- Fruitful – marriages bear fruit in new human life. Marriage, by its very nature, is ordered towards the procreation and education of children.
Based on these principles, Pope Paul reasons that contraception is an obstacle to marital love. Specifically, it seeks to withhold part of oneself from one’s spouse, namely, one’s fertility. It is to say, “I give you my all, sweetheart, except for my fertility.” That is placing limitations on love. And this mentality of “holding part of myself back” manifests itself in all sorts of ways in a marriage. When a spouse becomes cold and resentful, recoiling from his wife, or from her husband, it is often because he or she has an engrained habit of not giving himself totally to her, or she not giving herself totally to him. There is a practiced mistrust, a practiced fear that another new human being will put limits on my freedom and comfort. It is fear driving out love, instead of a love that drives out fear.
When two Christians get married, they are a sacramental sign of Jesus Christ’s love to the world.
- Christ gave himself fully. He did not prevent his persecutors from killing him.
- Christ gave himself freely. He even said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; but I lay it down on my own.”
- Christ gave himself faithfully. Our Messiah came to us, just as he promised thru his holy prophets. He resisted Satan’s temptations in the desert, refusing to worship him. He established the definitive and everlasting covenant with his people, even though we had broken all our previous covenants with God. He is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful.
- Christ gave himself fruitfully. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
If it seems difficult to make your marriage into an imitation of Christ’s love for the world, YOU BET IT’S DIFFICULT! It is a daily choice and a daily effort to live one’s vocation. Yet, the benefits and joys of marriage make it worth the difficulty. We are called to do something difficult, and we will be better, stronger, holier for it. We will be made fit for Heaven by heroically living out a vocation to marriage that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. And that means that a Christian marriage is always open to new life.
In the encyclical, Pope Paul says that it’s not OK to think of my whole marriage as being open to life, when there are stretches of time when a couple is not open to life.
Now, a personal story. A couple of my friends got married 12 years ago. They said back then that they were open to having children, just not yet. Well, she is getting close to the end of her fertility, and so far, they have only raised a couple of dogs.
Here I must digress. Dogs are not children. They don’t have immortal souls. They can’t call you mama or dada. They can’t grow up and get a job and take care of you when you’re old. They only live a decade or so. They are not a substitute for children. End of digression.
My point is, if you’re not open to children now, then when? When will you ever have enough money in the bank? When will you ever be totally out of debt? When will you finally say, “now I’m open to life?” In my experience, one year becomes two, becomes five, becomes ten. Then it’s too late.
When Catholics get married, they commit to being open to life. That commitment lasts the whole length of the marriage, till death do you part. What is permitted, is to use the body’s natural cycles to decide when to have children. This is a method called Natural Family Planning, and it’s approved by the Catholic Church. If you want to know more about it, ask me sometime.
Finally, Pope Paul was concerned about the future effects of widespread use of the birth control pill. He warned us that bad, unintended consequences would follow if society started using birth control. Here is what the Pope said 50 years ago:
- There would be an increase in marital infidelity.
- There would be a general lowering of moral standards.
- There would be a loss of respect for women (man would reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires)
- Governments would coerce people into using contraception and intervene in citizens’ sexual relationships.
If you’ve never heard this before, I hope it is shocking to you just how prophetic this document was. I don’t even need to cite examples for each of these points, because they are in the news all the time.
Despite the Pope’s moral leadership on this issue, many Catholics dissented and left the Church. Most other Christians had no such moral leadership, and so contraceptive use became widespread. And sadly, Blessed Paul VI’s predictions came true.
But we do not despair and flee from the world, hide in a bunker somewhere and wait for the world to end. No, we are the leaven of this world. We are the salt of the earth. We season the world and make it a better place by bringing the light of truth to it. I meet converts from time to time who have a certain light twinkling in their eyes, because they are so joyful to know the truth and to have access to the immense and prophetic wisdom of the Catholic Church. I even recently did an interview for a graduate student from Baylor, a non-Catholic young woman, who was enthralled by this very encyclical, Humanae Vitae. She was so impressed that the Pope had been right, 50 years ago, that she based her whole Master’s thesis on it. I suspect that it’s not long before she becomes Catholic, but it’s out of my hands.
Humanae Vitae is something to celebrate because it is true. It is evidence that the Holy Spirit truly guides the Pope and the leaders of our Church, even today. Jesus Christ looks after his sheep, and he gently pulls them back in when they are approaching danger. We celebrate this anniversary, because it is evidence of the Father’s care for us.
 John 10:17-18