Humanae Vitae receives new respect 40 years later

  • August 5, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae shocked Catholics and non-Catholics alike with its ban against artificial birth control.

But on its 40th anniversary, marked July 25, the encyclical is widely seen as prophetic and worth a second look for its teachings on human love.

“I think people are beginning to realize Paul VI was onto something,” said Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. “I think oftentimes we don’t realize what happens when changes are proposed.”

Using the more example of Canada’s 2005 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, Prendergast noted supporters say the sky has not fallen. “It takes time for consequences to work their way through.”

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI warned artificial contraception would lead to a breakdown in moral standards and a lowering of respect for women, saying they would be reduced to instruments for satisfying men’s sexual desires.

Social science surveys provide ample evidence of marriage and family breakdown over the past 40 years, including rising rates of children born out of wedlock, high rates of abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. But in 1968, the West embraced feminism and the so-called sexual revolution as liberation, especially the reproductive freedom offered by the birth control pill.

Ethicist Margaret Somerville recalled the shock that greeted Pope Paul VI’s encyclical 40 years ago. “We all thought the Pill was going to be allowed,” by the Catholic Church, she said.

The founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law said the invention of the Pill 50 years ago was as significant an event in human history as the discovery of electricity. “I understand now what the church may have intuited in terms of its profound and wide-reaching impact,” she said.

“The Pill was a radical dividing line between the past and how society developed from then on, for good or ill,” she said.

Crossing the threshold of artificial contraception opened up a line of events that fundamentally altered the concept of human sexuality and the passing on of life; the relationship between men and women and the meaning gained in life through these relationships, as well as the values surrounding them, drawing very different lines as to what is ethical or not ethically accepted, she said.

Prendergast, who was studying classics at the University of Ottawa in 1968, also said many were surprised at the encyclical because the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were in the air and many interpreted the council as a rupture from previous church teaching.

“What Paul VI did was say, ‘No, this teaching is valid for all times; it’s not going to be changed,’” he said.

He described Paul VI as prophetic but also lonely, as someone who became deeply discouraged in his ministry after trying to do “something good for the church.”

Prendergast said he has encouraged priests both in Ottawa and in Halifax to teach on Humanae Vitae and make it part of marriage preparation and family life courses. Prendergast said the encyclical is more about the “beauty of following the natural law that God has prescribed in our nature” than it is about contraception.

London, Ont., Bishop Ronald Fabbro praised Humanae Vitae following a seminar the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) held last March, marking the encyclical’s 40th anniversary. Seminar participants spoke of how young people “being inundated” with a view of sexuality “that doesn’t respect them as persons,” he said. “Our young people are hungering for an alternative and for a vision, for something they can believe in that they are not getting from the society that they live in.”

Prendergast admitted, however, he is not sure how prepared most people are to rethink their views on contraception. “I hope they would,” he said.

Social conservative activist John Pacheco is critical of the Canadian bishops’ Winnipeg statement that said Catholics who “have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives . . . may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”

Pacheco has created an online petition to urge the Canadian bishops’ to retract the Winnipeg statement, which was released shortly after Humanae Vitae as a response to the encyclical.

Prendergast said the Winnipeg statement was an attempt by the bishops at the time to handle the teachings pastorally and that a subsequent statement attempted to clarify confusion. “Conscience cannot simply be what I think in light of my own life,” he said.

Ten years ago, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops held a straw vote during the plenary on whether to revisit Humanae Vitae at that time, Prendergast said. The result was not favourable, but “it might be different now.”

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