Fifty Years of the Gift of Humanae Vitae

When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae 50 years ago, it was a time of social upheaval and dissent, especially in the areas of marriage, family and human sexuality, followed by years of deficient religious education and misunderstanding at many levels.

This 50th anniversary challenges us then in the need for both clarity in our teaching and accompaniment in our effort to achieve reception of the teaching as part of the Church’s healing and saving mission. We need to help all to grasp, understand and appropriate the wisdom of God in their own lived experience (Amoris Laetitia, 82).

Wrongly disparaged as an out-of-touch authoritarian rule, for Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI said that “the key word to enter coherently into its content remains ‘love,’” emphasizing “the unity of spouses and their total sharing in a reciprocal acceptance of offering themselves to each other.” Consistent with the Second Vatican Council, which said that “a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love” (Gaudium et Spes, 51), Pope Paul himself described his encyclical as “above all the positive presentation of conjugal morality concerning its mission of love and fruitfulness ‘in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation’ (n. 7).”

Likewise, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla explained contemporaneously with Humanae Vitae’s publication: “It is a matter of total love, or love which involves the whole man,” he said. “Conjugal love is enriched through the authentic giving of one person to another person. It is this mutual giving of self which must not be altered.”  When he became Pope John Paul II, a substantial part of his magisterium was dedicated to this foundational message of love in his Theology of the Body and other teachings.

What Pope Paul and his successors have said is simply that human sexually should be a mutual expression of love in the context of the great gifts of marriage and life – that is, a fullness of love which is necessarily unitive and procreative, a complete and unconditional gift of self in a communion of persons that is open to new life (Humanae Vitae, 9, 12; Familiaris Consortio, 32; Amoris Laetitia, 80).

In this modern age when sexual activity is often seen as recreational and without consequence, the message of Humanae Vitae is a sign of contradiction to the world and is challenging for some. But as explained in a previous blog series on human sexuality, it goes back to our basic understanding of the dignity and role of human beings, male and female, complementary and equal, in God’s plan.  Moreover, we have the promise of the Spirit of truth, and so we can place our faith and walk with moral certitude in the teaching of Peter the Rock on which stands the Church.