The Catholic University of America played host last week to a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, reflecting on the prophetic nature of the document, and on the lessons it still offers.
“In 1968, our university was at the center of a controversy regarding the document in the church in the United States,” said Catholic University of America President John Garvey during the symposium. “The fact that 50 years later, we’re hosting a conference to draw attention to what we now see as the wisdom Paul VI might be seen as a sign of the times.”
Humanae vitae took the world by storm when it was published in 1968. In the height of the sexual revolution, then-Pope Paul VI wrote that the use of prophylactics and hormonal birth control - which had only been on the market in the United States for less than a decade, and wasn’t legal for unmarried women until just three years prior - was morally unacceptable in the marital act.
“Consequently,” wrote Paul VI, “it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”
The encyclical was not universally well-received, and former CUA professor Fr. Charles Curran led a dissent of nearly 100 theologians who were opposed to the content of Humanae vitae. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington described the nation’s capital as one of the “largest flashpoints of opposition” to the document.
The majority of the speakers at the symposium argued that in retrospect, Pope Paul VI was a man ahead of his time, and was able to accurately discern the negative effects that widespread contraceptive use would have on society.
Despite its rather unique history with the encyclical, CUA Dean of Theology and Religious Studies Fr. Mark Morozowich told CNA he considers it a “natural thing” for the college to have played host to the symposium.
“We view ourselves as a theologate--that is, working in lock step with USCCB and under, certainly, the direction of our own shepherd, Cardinal Donald Wuerl,” he explained. The university in the past has played host to similar conferences concerning other encyclicals, as well as one on the anniversary of the Protestant reformation.
Planning for the conference took about a year and a half, said Fr. Morozowich. He was part of the team who selected the speakers and the topics for the symposium.
“I think it is an important thing to understand the historical milieu out of which that document came, and out of which the very sort of reactions with all the tumult and society that was going on, explained Morozowich.
One of the major themes touched on by the speakers at the symposium was the prophetic nature of the encyclical, particularly in light of last year’s viral “#MeToo” movement, through which people shared stories of being sexually assaulted and harassed. Morozowich told CNA that he believes #MeToo is a sign of larger problems concerning the sexual revolution.
“It was a document that many are hailing today as being prophetic,” he said. “I think the #MeToo movement is a real symbol of the failure of the sexual revolution. It was a failure of liberation for feminists, because it wasn't the real, concrete entering in to a dignified relationship. So when we look at Humanae vitae, it's calling for clarity about what human sexuality is.”
One conference attendee said that she believed that the encyclical had an important message for modern women: that they don’t need to change themselves with hormones or implants in order to suppress their fertility. What’s more, she said, Humanae Vitae is a message of hope.
“Humanae vitae has a critical message today for all women, because Humanae vitae affirms that women are good as they are,” said Kat Talalas, communications director at Women Speak for Themselves.
“At a time where men and women increasingly feel alienated from each other, Humanae vitae affirms the good of married love. It shares the hopeful message that the romance of total unity open to new life is what we are made for, and can help provide the love, creativity, and connectedness human beings crave."