WASHINGTON — When Blessed Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae 50 years ago this July, it provoked a firestorm of protests from dissenting theologians and a decidedly muted response from many bishops and the laity.
As Catholics mark the 50th anniversary of an encyclical that reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception, the widespread use of contraception, even among Catholics, may signal the document’s failure to change many minds and hearts. Yet, a growing cohort of Humanae Vitae’s supporters are celebrating the controversial encyclical as a courageous and prophetic teaching that set aside the dire, and now debunked, predictions of overpopulation common during that period and foresaw the damaging impact of the birth-control pill and the sexual revolution it facilitated.
Likewise, while only 12 U.S. Catholic dioceses presently require natural family planning (NFP) instruction in their pre-Cana programs, educators and medical professionals working in the field of NFP and Church-approved treatments for infertility say the encyclical has inspired scientific research and growing support for fertility awareness as an alternative to artificial contraception.
This striking shift in perspective was on display at a recent symposium, “Humanae Vitae (1968-2018): Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love and Life,” held April 4-6 at The Catholic University of America, once a bastion of theological resistance to the encyclical after its release.
The gathering tackled the challenge of transmitting this teaching in a hyperindividualist culture that is losing its taste for marriage and drew top theologians and philosophers, as well as physicians and teachers specializing in natural family planning.
If The Catholic University of America had hosted a conference celebrating Humanae Vitae back in 1968, “it would have been severely criticized,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register.
“It shows how much has changed,” not only in the theology departments of many Catholic universities, but among younger members of the clergy and seminarians who accept Paul VI’s teaching without question, said Archbishop Chaput, who delivered the keynote address for the conference April 4.
Further, the encyclical’s supporters are hoping that even more Catholics will finally give Humanae Vitae a closer read, now that the sexual revolution is facing a day of reckoning, with the “MeToo” movement speaking out against brutalizing drug and alcohol-fueled college hookups and sexual harassment in the workplace.
“There is a mountain of evidence to show that people are not flourishing from the false message of the sexual revolution, and it is time to shine the light on Church teaching,” Theresa Notare, the director of the Natural Family Planning Program for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.
“At one time, there was a culture of silence in Catholic dioceses, and NFP was not spoken about in marriage prep. Today it is.”
However, the anniversary of Humanae Vitae also comes at a time when Catholic moral teaching on marriage and family life faces powerful headwinds, not only from a culture that now embraces access to contraception as a basic right, but seemingly at the highest levels of the Church.
A papal commission, under Pope Francis’ direction, has quietly undertaken a “historical-critical investigation” of the bitter theological debate that ended with Pope Paul VI’s formal repudiation of artificial contraception as an attack on the good of marriage and a threat to the moral foundations of society.
The papal commission’s mission is to “reinterpret” the encyclical’s teaching “in the light of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love),” Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation issued on the heels of two synods of bishops on marriage and the family.
At the helm of this effort is Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, a theological opponent of the encyclical, who has suggested “abandoning a conception of doctrinal patrimony of the Church as a closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now.”
Archbishop Chaput noted that the Holy See has not announced a formal reassessment of Humanae Vitae, and its critics do not say they are “challenging the encyclical.”
Rather, “they say they are finding a new way of applying it” that allows for “exceptions” to the moral law, he added.
But when Church leaders make exceptions to what is true, he warned, pointing to the Anglican Communion’s 1930 decision to set aside its long-standing opposition to contraception, they also weaken their “ability to say what is true.”
Vindicating Paul VI
With the future application of Humanae Vitae in question, the encyclical’s supporters are eager to vindicate Paul VI’s teaching, in part, by showing how the adoption of oral contraceptives has radically reshaped our most intimate and personal choices.
Michael Hanby, an associate professor of religion and the philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, says that contraception and abortion, along with cutting-edge developments in reproductive technology, have fostered a culture that views the separation of sex from procreation as an undisputed norm, even a human right.
“A woman who wishes to succeed in the workforce will have to choose whether to contracept, but her choices are powerfully framed by the availability of chemical contraceptives as a standard part of the regime of so-called ‘reproductive health’ and the market’s expectation that she will use them,” said Hanby in his address at the CUA symposium. “Such expectations are more coercive than we usually perceive, for they operate internally as well as externally.”
With the pill, modern science separated what had been willed by the Creator to be inseparable — the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act. And now, as the growing power of technology confronts fresh challenges posed by the immutable nature of the human body, each new breakthrough, even when it separates the unitive and procreative dimensions in petri dishes or involves the destruction of early human life to produce stem cells for reparative treatments, or exploits poor women as surrogates for couples who cannot have their own children, is almost always justified as a victory for progress and human freedom and an antidote to suffering.
This is the “technocratic paradigm,” said Hanby. It is far removed from the Church’s holistic vision of human life and love, anchored in biblical teaching, natural-law principles and Catholic social doctrine.
Now, as the Church reassesses Humanae Vitae, he said, it must not only address morally illicit contraceptive use but evaluate how it has helped to foster an ethical framework that justifies moral compromises that harm the vulnerable and powerless.
The stakes are high, Hanby told the Register, because “the Church is alone in the world proclaiming the one truth that can resist” the “piecemeal” logic of the technocratic paradigm.
Helen Alvaré, a leading pro-life activist and legal scholar, explained how a similar dynamic has played out in U.S. case law, leading the modern Supreme Court to find a constitutional right to contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut) in 1965, then abortion (Roe v. Wade) in 1973 and, more recently, same-sex “marriage” (Obergefell v. Hodges) in 2015. Over time, these rulings have reshaped the practice of medicine and the focus of federal anti-poverty programs, said Alvaré, citing President Barack Obama’s contraceptive mandate and the promotion of long-acting contraceptives for poor women enrolled in Medicaid.
As powerful forces make contraceptive use a top national priority, it has become more difficult, but also more necessary, to share the Church’s teaching on birth control in a compelling way, said authorities at the symposium.
“We are deeply shaped by culture, and thus we need the natural law and Catholic teaching to guide our obedience to the Father’s will,” said Janet Smith, a moral theologian who has defended Humanae Vitae for the past 30 years and urged the audience to protect the Church’s long-standing teaching on conscience and the natural law.
“Obeying the Church is not an act of surrendering one’s dignity to an external authority, but is responding generously to Christ himself,” said Smith. “Christ was fully one with the Father because he always did the Father’s will, and we can become one with Christ and the Father if we conform our actions to the Father’s will.”
Smith told the Register that pastors are responsible for assessing when and how to help individuals in difficult circumstances accept the Church’s moral teaching. But she disagreed with theologians who contend that some Catholics face too many hurdles and should be welcomed to the Communion rail while following their own precepts.
But if Humanae Vitae’s anniversary has served to highlight the obstacles to widespread adoption of this countercultural teaching, the occasion has also been a cause for gratitude.
Fresh Look at Church’s Wisdom
For when Paul VI bucked the received wisdom on oral contraceptives as an antidote to overpopulation, he paved the way for a fresh look at the Church’s multifaceted teaching on married love in medicine and parish-based marriage-preparation programs.
Dr. Joseph Stanford, a Utah-based physician specializing in women’s health, told the Register that he was excited about new developments in the field of natural family planning, with new studies showing “very high effectiveness (very low unintended pregnancy rates) for the Marquette Model and Sensiplan methods,” two leading approaches to monitoring fertility.
Stanford also uses natural procreative (NaPro) technology to help patients struggling with infertility, and he pointed to new proposals designed to use NFP charting “to improve medical evaluation and treatment.”
Specialists at the CUA symposium reported that mobile phone applications for NFP charting, like the Couple to Couple League’s CycleProGo App, have grown in popularity. And Ed Hopfner, the director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Office of Marriage and Family, told the Register that he attended the CUA gathering to stay up to speed on the best NFP resources.
Hopfner identified FACTS, a clearinghouse organization dedicated to educating health care professionals on fertility-awareness methods, as a top resource.
Co-founded by Dr. Marguerite Duane, FACTS offers a “professional level” resource for priests and health care professionals, he said. But their materials can also help “open doors among our better-educated parishioners.”
The USCCB’s Notare singled out the work of educators and physicians who have witnessed “the pain and suffering of their neighbors and know the truth … will make their lives better.” Their initiatives, she added, need to be celebrated and amplified.
Archbishop Chaput echoed that sense of “gratitude” for Paul VI’s pivotal decision to pen an encyclical that shocked the world and for the fortitude of lay Catholics who have committed their lives to transmitting his teaching, even when their bishops gave it a pass.
“He will be canonized at the close of the upcoming Synod of Bishops in October,” said Archbishop Chaput, “and we can thank God for his great gift at that time.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.