by Bishop James T. McHugh
July 17, 1998
July 25, 1998, marks the thirtieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae--On the Regulation of Birth. The encyclical was met in 1968 with a barrage of ridicule and rejection and a highly publicized dissent by Catholic theologians. Most who rebelled immediately and stridently had not read the encyclical. It was not that the document's reasoning was flawed or incomplete; it was simply that its conclusions were unacceptable, if not unimaginable, to the world of the late 1960's. This was the decade of the sexual revolution in which sexual intercourse was torn from its moorings of marital love and mutual responsibility and looked upon as little more than a customary pleasurable encounter with no commitments. The contraceptive pill had arrived, the most effective method of birth control for married and unmarried alike.
There was little receptivity for the carefully reasoned papal document that reviewed the Church's teaching on sexuality in the context of conjugal love, responsible parenthood, the sanctity of human life and the virtue of sexual self-restraint.
Three decades later we are reminded that Humanae vitae was motivated, in Paul VI's words, by the "attacks inflicted by civil legislation on the indissoluble sanctity of the marriage bond and the inviolability of human life even while still in the mother's womb." Today we live in a world of throwaway marriages, out of wedlock pregnancies, dangerously low birth rates, the highest divorce rates on the globe, sexual promiscuity that has brought us AIDS and the abortion deaths of more than one million children a year. At the highest levels of government in the United States, we find those who continue to foster and promote this program of sexual permissiveness and free choice.
Nonetheless we are beginning to see a new atmosphere of acceptance for faithful, stable and enduring marriages, and an openness to childbearing and parenting. In this context especially, we should reexamine Humanae vitae.
Paul VI told us that every human problem must be seen in the light of an integral vision of the human person and his or her vocation--not only the natural earthy vocation, but also the supernatural and eternal. We are not lost souls floundering about on planet earth. We are men and women created in the image of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and called to eternal glory.
Humanae vitae speaks of Christian marriage. Marriage, says Paul VI, is "the wise institution of the creator to realize in mankind His design of love." Christian marriage exists in the order of grace: it is a Christian sacrament. The sacramental grace of marriage enpowers the couple to carry God's grace to their children, their families, friends and even to the entire world.
The foundations of Paul VI's teaching on marital morality were conjugal love and responsible parenthood. Paul VI went on to speak of conjugal love as fully human, total--that is to say, a very special form of personal friendship, faithful and exclusive and directed toward the begetting and educating of children.
The companion principle, responsible parenthood, involves the following elements:
In light of these principles, Paul VI concluded that there is an inseparable connection between conjugal love and the transmission of life, and thus in the conjugal act one may not reject or deliberately frustrate either purpose.
In a homily on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, 1978, Paul VI said that while the reaction to Humanae vitae caused him much suffering, the encyclical was motivated by his commitment "to defend life in all the forms in which it can be threatened, disturbed or even suppressed." Thirty years later the Church remains committed to the legacy of Paul VI, and to building a culture of life in which every human being is protected and sustained at every moment of life from conception to natural death.
Bishop James T. McHugh is Bishop of Camden and a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.