Humanae Vitae Marks 40
Giovanni Maria Vian
A sign of contradiction
Forty years ago, on 25 July 1968, Paul VI signed Humanae Vitae, the Encyclical that rejected contraception with artificial means, against the hedonism and family planning policies that richer countries often imposed on poorer nations.
As soon as it was published on 29 July, Humanae Vitae sparked such unprecedented opposition within the Catholic Church herself that the Pope decided no longer to use the solemn form of the Encyclical, in all likelihood in order not to expose Papal authority to useless attrition.
"Rarely has a text in the recent history of the Magisterium", Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, "become such a sign of contradiction as this Encyclical which Paul VI wrote after making an anguishing decision".
Many factors contribute to an explanation of the dissent and the polemical reactions, ranging from the overall cultural climate of those years to the enormous financial interests involved.
However, Pope Montini did not change his attitude on this crucial subject. Indeed, a few weeks before his death, in speaking to the College of Cardinals on 23 June 1978, he reaffirmed the decisions taken at that time consistent with the Second Vatican Council, "after the confirmations that have come from the more reputable ranks of science", in order to assert the principle of respect for the laws of nature and "of conscious and morally responsible parenthood" (Address to the Sacred College of Cardinals, 23 June 1978; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 6 July 1978, p. 7).
In his Discourse for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, explicitly presented as a review of his Pontificate, Pope Montini mentioned the Encyclicals Populorum Progressio and Humanae Vitae as expressions of that defence of human life which he defined as an indispensable element in the service to the truth of faith.
Depicted contemptuously as the "Pill Encyclical", the Papal Document — in continuity with the Magisterium of Pius XI and especially of Pius XII, recalled in this regard also by Gaudium et Spes —is consistent with the important Conciliar innovations on the concept of marriage but was nevertheless engulfed by disputes.
Today, in the face of the disturbing developments of genetic engineering, Humanae Vitae appears clear and farsighted when it says: "if the mission of generating life is not to be exposed to the arbitrary will of men, one must necessarily recognize insurmountable limits to the possibility of man's domination over his own body and its functions; limits which no man, whether a private individual or one invested with authority, may licitly surpass" (n. 17).
The storm unleashed against Paul VI's Encyclical obscured above all his teaching on marriage, described not as: "the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces" but rather instituted by God (n. 8).
Yet, Humanae Vitae forcefully affirms that Marriage, as a Sacrament for the baptized, is "first of all love [that is] fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit", as it is also "a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything" (n. 9).
Prior to drafting the text a Papal Commission had carried out a study on the population, the family and the birth-rate which, as is well known, concluded in 1966 with a contested majority in favour of — and this is less well known — the legitimacy of contraception within the framework of "responsible parenthood".
However, Paul VI did not feel hound by these conclusions and was criticized and attacked for his decision. Yet the consensus should not be forgotten. In the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano dated 6 September 1968, Jean Guitton described the Encyclical as "ferme mais non fermée" [firm but not closed], since "if it speaks of the narrow way" it demonstrates that this is "a way open to the future", while the Jesuit Cardinal Jean Daniélou stressed that the Document "has made us aware of the sacred character of human love" by expressing a "revolt against the technocracy".
An authentic sign of contradiction, Humanae Vitae is not remembered gladly. Certainly this is due to the demanding counter-cultural nature of its teaching; but its infamy also emerges because it does not help in the recurring game of highlighting Papal discrepancies. While this method might be useful from a historiographical perspective to delineate evident differences, it should be rejected when exploited, as continually happens, on the media scene.
Champions of Paul VI were in fact Cardinal Karol Wojtyła — Archbishop of Krakow who had played an important role in the enlarged Commission, and who, with his Papal Magisterium, was to introduce great innovations with regard to the body and sexuality — and Joseph Ratzinger, another Cardinal ab eo creatus.
This shows the vital continuity Christianity also proposes, regarding the issue of birth control, since already on 23 June 1964, the Pope described as "most serious", because "it so closely touches upon the life and happiness of men" (n. 1).
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2008, page 1
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