July 24, 2016

All of Pope Paul VI’s Warnings About Artificial Birth Control in Humanae vitae Have Come True. And a Reason for Hope

Pope Paul VI

July 25th marks the 48 year anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI's landmark encyclical Humanae vitae (Of Human Life: On the Regulation of Birth). It reaffirmed the Church's teaching on the immorality of artificial birth control, the meaning/purpose of conjugal love between husband and wife and the sanctity of marriage. The encyclical was greeted with criticism in many circles, but was applauded by others, including St. Padre Pio, who days before his death conveyed his support in a letter to Paul VI.

Pope Paul VI’s seventh and last encyclical, in addition to affirming the Church’s long held prohibition against artificial contraception, articulates a vision of marriage and responsible parenthood that underscores the immense dignity and divine calling of husband and wife. Paul VI spoke of marriage as "the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love" (HV 8).

Marriage properly understood, is the conjugal union of a man and woman for life, of exclusive and mutual fidelity, for the procreation and education of children. The dual purpose of sexual union is unitive: the bonding of spouses in greater love and intimacy, and, procreative: to collaborate freely and responsibly with God in the transmission of human life so as to be open to the blessing of children.

In addition to discussing the joys and challenges of matrimony, Pope Paul IV enumerates four consequences should the Church's teaching on contraception be dismissed. They are: infidelity and moral decay; a loss of respect for women by men; the abuse of power and; unlimited dominion, the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments. (The text from Humanae vitae cited below is from paragraph 17 of the encyclical.)

1. Infidelity and Moral Decay

Five decades after Humanae vitae's release, the number of divorces, abortions, our-of-wedlock pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases have skyrocketed. Paul VI's observation that: "Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards," has only grown more prescient with the passage of time.

2. Loss of Respect for Women by Men

Even when women were second class citizens, their role as mothers, wives and nurturers was widely valued. Every effort was made to honor and protect their virtue. With the advent of artificial birth control, men increasingly view pregnancy as their female partner’s responsibility and refuse to marry even after fathering children. Paul VI's words have proved to be prophetic. "Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

3. The Abuse of Power

Paul VI contends that the widespread acceptance of contraception would be a "dangerous weapon... in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." Many parts of the world face underpopulation; whereby the birth rate is far less than the number of deaths annually. Such societies face "demographic suicide" amid an "anti-child" mentality that discourages large families and putting children ahead of career. Paul VI predicted public authorities embracing such a mindset:

"Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law... Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? ...

It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife."

4. Unlimited Dominion

Test-tube-babies, gender reassignment surgery, frozen embryos, and the passage of euthanasia laws all reflect our attempts to conform nature to our desires instead of cooperating with it. Paul VI's insight presages these developments: "Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed."

A Reason for Hope

Paul VI makes a positive observation about the good that comes from following Church teaching on contraception. While acknowledging that spouses may face difficulties acquiring the self-discipline needed to practice periodic abstinence, he nonetheless affirms such self-discipline is possible, with the help of sacramental graces. In paragraph 21, he states:

"For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace."

Paul VI's positive vision of self-discipline between spouses is further explicated by Saint John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. Moreover, the proliferation of information and interest about natural family planning and its increasing use among Christians of every denomination is proof that it is a viable alternative to artificial contraception. Paul VI's vision of married love is a powerful response to the excesses and moral depravity of the "Sexual Revolution."

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