Humanae Vitae at 50
Convivium, 27 July 2018
Convivium editor-in-chief Father Raymond de Souza recounts the fury that greeted the Catholic Church’s historic teaching document condemning contraception.
Fifty years ago this week, on July 25 1968, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) on the morally licit means of family planning. It was the most reviled teaching document in the entire history of the papacy.
The pope “bans the pill” was the headline, but of course popes don’t ban contraception any more than they “ban” theft. They teach what conforms – and what does not conform – to the moral law, formed as it is by the nature of the human person, the scriptural witness, the tradition of the Church and, above all, in light of our vocation to holiness made possible by the grace of Christ.
But in 1968, the idea that Pope Paul VI would reaffirm the traditional Christian teaching on the immorality of contraception was an outrage. It was greeted as such by almost all outside the Catholic Church, and a majority within. By 1968, almost all significant social institutions had already, or were in the process of, accommodating themselves to the most significant social reality of the last century, namely the sexual revolution. That Pope Paul VI would decline to so accommodate Catholic teaching was characterised as everything from an act tyranny to embarrassing bad manners.
The sexual revolution aimed – quite successfully – at eliminating any necessary bond between love and sex, sex and marriage, marriage and children. And for that to happen, above all the bond between sex and babies had to be broken, for which easy contraception – and easy access to abortion – was necessary. When Paul VI insisted that sex and love, sex and marriage, sex and babies – all of it had to be kept together, he was speaking from a Christian tradition to a world that not only did not want to hear it but thought anyone who spoke such forfeited a right to be heard at all.
In the Catholic world, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae has been marked in every Catholic publication. Quite rightly, for it divided the Church and shaped the subsequent half century. The Catholic bishops of Canada published a document celebrating a teaching that their predecessors 50 years ago sought to distance themselves from.
Over at the Catholic Herald, they republished an astonishing 1968 commentary by Malcolm Muggeridge, the great Christian man of letters. It’s worth reading about the broad mission of the Church in our age.
But Humanae Vitae’s teaching about contraception violating the deepest meaning of the marital act is not just a matter for Catholics, though obviously has most relevance there.
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