The US bishops have drawn attention to the continual relevance of Humanae vitae, Blessed Paul VI's encyclical on the regulation of birth, to mark the 50th anniversary of its promulgation.
In Humanae vitae Bl. Paul VI “reaffirmed the beautiful truth that a husband and wife are called to give themselves completely to each other,” stated Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the US bishops' conference. “Marriage reflects the love of God, which is faithful, generous, and life-giving. Through their vocation, spouses cooperate with God by being open to new human life.”
“Blessed Paul VI, who bore the criticism of Humanae Vitae with charity and patience, courageously affirmed that when we love as God designed, we experience true freedom and joy. He has also been proven correct in his warnings about the consequences of ignoring the true meaning of married love.”
“On this anniversary, I encourage all to read and prayerfully reflect upon this Encyclical, and be open to the gift of its timeless truths,” Cardinal DiNardo wrote.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington wrote that “The wisdom of 'Humanae Vitae' still rings true in our time and reminds us that marriage lived according to God’s plan brings happiness and fruitfulness to the couple and their relationship.”
“Since the time it was published, the warnings contained within 'Humanae Vitae' have been realized to a devastating and tragic degree as the negative societal consequences and disregard of the life-giving and love-giving aspects of marriage continue.”
The columns were released throughout this month to prepare for Humanae vitae’s 50th anniversary on July 25. Written by Bl. Paul VI, the encyclical is noted for its teaching against the use of contraception and for healthy sexuality.
Besides the Bishop of Arlington, numerous American bishops wrote on the encyclical, including Bishop Robert Cunningham of Syracuse, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, Bishop Nelson Perez of Cleveland, and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln.
The bishops wrote on Humanae vitae’s explanation of the ends of the marital act, confirming that conjugal love is both unitive and procreative. They also commented on the document’s history, accurate predictions, and its promotion of self-gift.
Bishop Cunningham evaluated the historical context in which Humanae vitae was received. Written in 1968, the encyclical was released at the time of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he said.
“Our country was divided by a war many miles away and at home by conflicts, often violent, surrounding racial tensions,” he said. “In the midst of this national turmoil, our Church also experienced unrest with the publication of Humanae Vitae.”
It was written “to reaffirm the teaching of the Catholic Church on married love, responsible parenthood, and the continued rejection of unnatural forms of birth control and abortion,” noted Bishop Cunningham.
Bishop Conley and Bishop Perez both emphasized the prophetic nature of Humanae vitae, which predicted the destructive effects birth control would have on marriages and society.
The Nebraskan bishop pointed to a decrease in birth rates in the last 30 years, noting the rapid decline is not expected to slow down for at least another 10 years. This, he said, will have effects on future economies, labor forces, and societies.
“This means that the American population will get older in the decades to come — that 40 years from now, senior citizens will make up 25% of the entire US population. Declining fertility rates mean labor shortages, shrinking tax bases, and insolvent social safety nets.”
Bishop Conley also wrote on how contraception conditions men and women to be against each other by denying the connection between sex and children.
“Contraception pits couples into a kind of unknowing war with themselves: they seek to discover one another, and themselves, in the mutual exchange and intimate embrace of sexuality, while, at the very same time, seeking to deny an essential component of their actual identity.”
Bishop Perez said Humanae vitae is “best known for its defense of the ancient teaching of the Church that the procreative dimension is an essential and inseparable element of the marital act,” and affirming the unitive and procreative ends as “two essential and related dimensions of conjugal love.”
“This teaching, which ran counter to changes being made in virtually every other Christian denomination of the time, can rightly be regarded as the most controversial teaching of 'Humanae Vitae.' While controversial, it has been extremely influential in subsequent development of Church teaching, from topics as diverse as sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, abortion and surrogacy, along with the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria.”
“The negative reaction to ‘Humanae Vitae’ was predicted by Blessed Pope Paul himself,” he said, noting that the encyclical anticipated “broken marriages, further demeaning and objectification of women and a trivialization of sex.”
“What is unfortunate is that the almost exclusive attention given to this ‘negative’ aspect of the encyclical has resulted in a failure to appreciate the ‘positive’ element of the pope’s teaching.”
Bishop Sartain said it is important to heed Humanae vitae’s prophetic words on the consumerization of sex in secular culture: “Humanae vitae remains to this day the prophetic words of a shepherd. In a world that can easily abide on the surface of things, Blessed Paul VI teaches us to look deeply into human life, our origin, our fulfilment, and our destiny.”
“In a world that prizes expediency and consumerism … Blessed Paul VI challenges us to cherish the gift of human life. In a world whose religion is science and that gives blind adherence to the principle that 'what is possible is therefore good,' Blessed Paul VI reminds us that at the core of a truly fulfilled human life is the act of opening our minds and hearts to the wisdom of God, who created the world and all that is in it, and who knows and loves us more than we can fathom.”
“In a culture where the human body and human life itself are exploited for entertainment and shameful profit, Blessed Paul VI begs us not to forget that the human body has beautiful, God-given worth and wisdom all its own, wisdom that is to be plumbed for its richness and lived with humility and joy,” Bishop Sartain reflected.
Cardinal Wuerl noted that the 50th anniversary of Humanae vitae impresses on the Church “the need for both clarity in our teaching and accompaniment in our effort to achieve reception of the teaching as part of the Church’s healing and saving mission.”
“In this modern age when sexual activity is often seen as recreational and without consequence, the message of Humanae Vitae is a sign of contradiction to the world and is challenging for some. But … it goes back to our basic understanding of the dignity and role of human beings, male and female, complementary and equal, in God’s plan.”