Fifty years after its promulgation, Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, is viewed by the people of today in a completely different way: in 1968, it was considered a courageous document — and therefore controversial — that ran contrary to the attitude of that time, a time of sexual revolution in which reliable contraceptives and access to abortion were essential. In those days, economists also spoke of the “population bomb”, that is, the danger of overpopulation that threatened wealthy nations, decreasing their prosperity.
Two powerful forces, therefore, aligned themselves against the Encyclical: the ideal of happiness that the sexual revolution promised to everyone, and wealth, which would have been the logical consequence of a large-scale decrease in population.
Today, 50 years later, we see things in a completely different manner. These two utopian visions have been realized, but they have not produced the desired results: neither happiness nor wealth, but rather, new and dramatic problems. In developed countries the fall in birth rates is being reluctantly compensated for by the arrival of masses of immigrants. Although necessary, it is at the same time unacceptable for many. Meanwhile, medical birth control has given rise to science’s invasion of the process of procreation, and the results are ambiguous and frequently worrying and dangerous.
Now, as we pay the price of a sudden and dramatic decrease in birth rates, and many women, after years of using artificial contraceptives, are unable to conceive a child, we realize that the Church was right, that Pope Paul VI was prophetic in his proposal of a natural regulation of births that would have been salutary for women's health, the relationship between the couple, and natural procreation. Today, young women are enthusiastic about ecology and turn to natural methods to control fertility, without even realizing that Humanae Vitae exists. Today, as governments seek to enact policies that promote population growth, we must read this Encyclical again, but with different eyes. Instead of seeing it as a serious defeat of the Church faced with rampant modernity, we must regain that prophetic clarity by understanding the dangers inherent in these changes. We Catholics should congratulate ourselves, because once again the Church has not fallen into the tantalizing trap of a 20th-century utopia, but has promptly recognized the limits and the dangers.
Very few succeed, however. For many, it is still difficult to leave behind the old conflict between progressives and conservatives — amid which this Encyclical was torn to pieces — without recognizing its critical spirit and innovative strength. Even now, it seems that nobody remembers that, for the first time, a Pope had accepted the idea of the regulation of births and invited doctors to investigate natural and effective methods [of birth control].
It is thus of tremendous importance to be able to look at Humanae Vitae with new eyes, with the eyes of humans living in the 21st century, by now aware of the failure of many utopian ideals and economic theories that were proposed as infallible. Only in this way will we be able to address the problems that families face today, the new role of women and the difficult relationship between ethics and science, whose roots — although in some regards unknowingly — lie in that now distant text of 1968.