Age and maturity seem to be winning an increasing support and appeal for this encyclical as an eloquent exposition on marital love, which especially benefits marriage and women in the first instance, but helps men to treat them as they deserve to be treated – and also build better families and societies.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on artificial contraception and the role of procreation in marriage turned 40 on July 25 and seemed to be finding new life across the United States.
From natural family planning initiatives to sexual abstinence programs for teenagers, parishes and dioceses are increasingly adopting Pope Paul’s vision for a world built on fidelity in marriage and the love shared by husband and wife as the cornerstone of a stable world.
While the 7000-word encyclical – which upholds the Church’s long-standing prohibition on artificial contraception – is rarely addressed from the pulpit, ministries that seek to head off teen sex, cohabitation, high rates of divorce and single parenthood are sprouting in the hope of delivering a positive message on human sexuality.
“There is an army of people out there right now who are desirous of getting this message out,” said Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Detroit Archdiocese.
Smith, who has taken her “Contraception Why Not” presentation across the US and Canada and who lectures occasionally at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, is finding that while the numbers may not be overwhelming, a growing number of people are beginning to understand the connection between the sexual freedom that emerged in the 1960s and today’s violence, depiction of women as sex objects and high incidence of divorce. “It seems to me that 40 years ago people thought that contraception would be advantageous. Now 40 years later, we’d better rethink that,” she said.
Pope Paul issued “Humanae Vitae” as artificial contraception, in particular the birth control pill, began to become commonplace. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Enovid – the pill – in May 1960 after tests on nearly 900 women through more than 10,000 fertility cycles appeared to show no significant side effects.
Initially it was thought that Pope Paul might support the use of birth control, especially after nine of 16 episcopal members of a papal commission in 1968 had approved a draft document that endorsed the principle of freedom for parents to decide on the means of regulating births. Hopes were buoyed in some circles after documents reflecting the commission’s deliberations were leaked to the Catholic press.
Once the encyclical appeared, opposition rose throughout the Church. Clergy in Europe and the US openly voiced their disagreement and thousands of lifelong Catholics left the Church.
Most notably, 87 teaching theologians from American seminaries and Catholic universities responded with their own statement within days. They argued that because the encyclical was not an infallible teaching, married couples in good conscience could use artificial contraception and remain good Catholics.
Whether because of certitude or tradition, or both, the teaching in “Humanae Vitae” remains. Pope Benedict XVI, addressing participants of a church-sponsored conference marking the encyclical’s anniversary in May at the Vatican, called the document a “gesture of courage.” He acknowledged that its teachings have been controversial and difficult for Catholics but he said the text expressed the true design of human procreation.
“What was true yesterday remains true also today,” he said. “The truth expressed in ‘Humanae Vitae’ does not change; in fact, in light of new scientific discoveries, its teaching is becoming more current and is provoking reflection.”
Fuelling today’s efforts to uphold the encyclical is an emerging philosophy known as the “theology of the body.”
Based on a series of 129 talks Pope John Paul II gave at Wednesday audiences during the first five years of his pontificate, the teachings shed light on the human body and the sexual relationship. Supporters say the teachings open people to Christ’s invitation to life-giving love.
Theresa Notare, assistant director of the natural family planning program in the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the US bishops’ conference, said theology of the body particularly is being embraced by younger priests.
“They see how empowering God’s truth is and they want the best for their people,” she said. “So on a one-on-one counselling basis, integrating sermons, doing education in their parishes, our younger priests are marvellous.”
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix knows that clergy have shied away from addressing the issues raised in “Humane Vitae” and has been encouraging priests in his diocese to overcome their long-standing silence. He has regularly addressed the encyclical in his column in The Catholic Sun, the Phoenix diocesan newspaper.
“I think most priests didn’t speak out and they fell silent,” the bishop said. “They lost confidence that it was good news and they wanted to give their people good news. It requires each of us to really get into this document with the help of the Holy Spirit and prayer and see it as good.”
Bishop Olmsted sees the encyclical as being relevant to Catholics today, especially because of its prophetic qualities.
“I think we’re in a time in society where there’s very little support for the truth about human life and about marriage,” he said. “There’s a lot of difficulties for people to hear these truths and to understand them.” He is hopeful, however, that Pope Benedict’s 2006 encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”) will help laypeople reflect on what love means to them.
“If Jesus says you should love the Lord your God with your whole soul, your whole mind, with all your might, that’s what ‘Humanae Vitae’ asks of a married couple,” he said.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Centre, said priests today can find inspiration in both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul in approaching the topic of artificial contraception.
“I think the response has to be along the lines of how the Church responded in the Roman culture, which was very much at odds to the teaching of Christ,” he said.
“Simply continue to live and give example and stand against the current with the kind of fortitude which gets attention from those around you.”
He said natural family planning offers the best alternative for the Church to capitalise on the teachings of “Humanae Vitae.”
“There’s a whole beauty to marriage that is at stake,” he said. “To the extent we can communicate that, people say ‘Wow, the Church is relevant and maybe I shouldn’t be so dismissive.’”
One program that Notare holds up as a model for natural family planning training is that of the Department for Marriage and Family in the Cleveland Diocese. The program is one of the few that is certified by the bishops’ conference to train married couples to teach other couples about natural family planning methods.
Bill Boomer, department director, has found that in addition to couples wanting to learn about natural family planning, teenagers and young adults are yearning for information on how to turn away from the dominant culture which says if you don’t “hook up” for recreational sex, you’re not cool.
“We really have to help parents do this job,” Boomer said. “Parents are surprised when 20 parents get together and find they’re not alone in facing this. They are overrun by the culture. They are afraid and overwhelmed. They can’t stop this message. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ they say. So we tell them to link up as parents to talk about this and also promote retreats and other activities to get young people to think a bit.”
That’s where Pope Paul’s encyclical can help, he said.
“’Humanae Vitae’ gives a beautiful vision of what God’s design for married love is. It’s to be both life giving and love giving,” said Boomer. “That has always been the constant teaching of the Church. It needs to be heard even more today.”- cns