“Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the subsequent ‘theology of the body’ developed by Pope John Paul II issue an immense challenge to a world that is too often occupied with protecting itself against the extraordinary life potential of sexuality,” the Canadian bishops wrote during Humanae Vitae's 40th anniversary in 2008. CNS file photo

Fr. Raymond J. De Souza: Humanae Vitae’s vision still as relevant as ever

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  • June 5, 2018

Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Blessed Paul VI which  reaffirmed the immorality of contraception at a time when many in the Church and the world expected a change.

It was the “most important and controversial Catholic document of the 20th century,” said Michel MacDonald, executive director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), at their annual conference held May 31-June 1 in Ottawa.

MacDonald gave the opening address at the conference, dedicated to Humanae Vitae, and argued that the encyclical, while prophetic and vindicated by subsequent events, still needed further deepening in the life of the Church. The “anthropology” — or vision of the human person — in Humanae Vitae remained only “implicit” and was subsequently made explicit in the teaching of St. John Paul II.

Humanae Vitae was of such importance because the principal social revolution of our time has been the sexual revolution. Humanae Vitae refused to reconcile Catholic teaching with the sexual revolution, as other Christian denominations would do. But while maintaining the integrity of the Christian tradition on marriage and family, it did not adequately address the larger anthropological questions. 

At the heart of the sexual revolution is a vision of freedom that sees personal fulfilment in the realization of one’s own will and desires. That runs contrary to the Christian tradition that understands freedom as the ability to choose what is good in accord with one’s own identity and vocation.

MacDonald pointed out that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla — the future John Paul II — argued that Paul VI had provided an implicit vision, but that it needed to be made explicit. For that reason, John Paul undertook the nearly five-year series of general audience addresses that would become known as the “theology of the body.”

Fifty years after Humanae Vitae, the document itself is rarely read and presented. However, its vision, made clear in the “theology of the body,” shapes everything from youth groups to adult formation in parishes to marriage preparation. The combination of Paul VI as interpreted by John Paul II has almost entirely changed the way the Church teaches on this most delicate and counter-cultural of topics.

In 2008, for the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Canadian bishops celebrated the encyclical with a pastoral letter, Liberating Potential. The bishops spoke in the language of John Paul, making explicit the vision of Paul VI.

“Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the subsequent ‘theology of the body’ developed by Pope John Paul II issue an immense challenge to a world that is too often occupied with protecting itself against the extraordinary life potential of sexuality,” the bishops wrote. “In the wake of these two prophetic popes, the Church, ‘expert in humanity,’ issues an unexpected message: sexuality is a friend, a gift of God. It is revealed to us by the Trinitarian God who asks us to reveal it in turn in all its grandeur and dignity to our contemporaries at this start of the third millennium. The theology of the body has been compared to a revolution that would have positive effects throughout the 21st century of Christianity. We invite the faithful to be the first to experience its liberating potential.” 

That the teaching of Humanae Vitae would be seen as a path to freedom, of a “liberating potential,” was not how it was seen in 1968 by an incredulous world. In the Church, too, Paul VI faced stiff opposition from those who thought he was refusing to embrace a future of greater freedom and greater happiness. It did not, as MacDonald presented, turn out that way.

MacDonald argued that Paul VI’s implicit vision was not only made explicit by John Paul’s “theology of the body” but also by Pope Francis, who has picked up the theme of “human ecology” from his predecessors. Benedict XVI notably argued that if the ecological movement insists that we respect the laws written into the natural world around us, so too must we pay attention to a human ecology, to how the human person best flourishes in accord with the natural law that governs his own body. 

Pope Francis has extended that in his teaching on ecology, notably in his encyclical Laudato Si’. There the Holy Father warns against seeing nature, including the human person, as an object to be manipulated. He speaks of a “technocratic paradigm” that is at odds with a Christian vision of the human person, of marriage, of family and of life itself. 

MacDonald argued in effect that Humanae Vitae planted seeds that are bearing fruit 50 years later, precisely in the most contested ground between the Gospel and contemporary culture.

“The 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae affords an ideal opportunity to deepen our appreciation of this extraordinary mystery of Christ’s love,” wrote the Canadian bishops in 2008. “The free, total, faithful and fruitful love of Christ who gives His life for His spouse the Church and its members is the love to which spouses are especially called. The promises of their sacrament of marriage in fact come down to the desire to love the other as God loves us. Thus, each time that they become ‘one flesh’ they are called to renew, through the language of their bodies, their marriage commitment to live a free, total, faithful and fruitful love, which is expressed in new lives. What dignity!” 

What was true on the 40th anniversary remains all the moreso at the 50th.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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