Humanae Vitae’s vision still as relevant as ever


Catholic Register, 5 June 2018

Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Blessed Paul VI which  reaffirmed the immorality of contraception at a time when many in the Church and the world expected a change.

It was the “most important and controversial Catholic document of the 20th century,” said Michel MacDonald, executive director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), at their annual conference held May 31-June 1 in Ottawa.

MacDonald gave the opening address at the conference, dedicated to Humanae Vitae, and argued that the encyclical, while prophetic and vindicated by subsequent events, still needed further deepening in the life of the Church. The “anthropology” — or vision of the human person — in Humanae Vitae remained only “implicit” and was subsequently made explicit in the teaching of St. John Paul II.

Humanae Vitae was of such importance because the principal social revolution of our time has been the sexual revolution. Humanae Vitae refused to reconcile Catholic teaching with the sexual revolution, as other Christian denominations would do. But while maintaining the integrity of the Christian tradition on marriage and family, it did not adequately address the larger anthropological questions. 

At the heart of the sexual revolution is a vision of freedom that sees personal fulfilment in the realization of one’s own will and desires. That runs contrary to the Christian tradition that understands freedom as the ability to choose what is good in accord with one’s own identity and vocation.

MacDonald pointed out that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla — the future John Paul II — argued that Paul VI had provided an implicit vision, but that it needed to be made explicit. For that reason, John Paul undertook the nearly five-year series of general audience addresses that would become known as the “theology of the body.”

Fifty years after Humanae Vitae, the document itself is rarely read and presented. However, its vision, made clear in the “theology of the body,” shapes everything from youth groups to adult formation in parishes to marriage preparation. The combination of Paul VI as interpreted by John Paul II has almost entirely changed the way the Church teaches on this most delicate and counter-cultural of topics.

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