Against many expectations and in the middle of the 1960s sexual revolution, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, reaffirming the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and her prohibition of artificial means of birth control. This document created a firestorm of controversy and dissent in the Church, especially since it went against the majority report of the special commission, which Pope John XXIII had set up to theologically evaluate the issue of artificial birth control. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae has stood the test of time, still serving as a prophetic and profound articulation of the Church’s teaching on marriage, sexuality and fertility.
Paul VI lifts up the beauty and truth of Christian marriage, emphasizing four vital components which constitute the reality of the sacrament. Marriage must be fully human, incorporating the mind, body, heart and soul of the spouses in a loving and freely-chosen union that brings joy, peace, grace and goodness to themselves, their children and the broader community. True marriage is total, in that it demands a radical and sacrificial gift of self to the other in all circumstances and in all ways. Christian marriage is faithful and exclusive, as the spouses are joined together in Christ in a bond that is unbreakable. Marriage is fruitful, open to children and to life-giving love. Even couples who cannot conceive children are called to bring life and love to others in a fundamental stance of self-gift.
Pope Paul reflects on the natural law, affirming that the marriage act, the sexual embrace, “while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life” (No. 12). Sexual expression has two fundamental purposes — the intimate and loving union of the married couple and the procreation of children. These two purposes or ends cannot be separated without violating the fundamental meaning of human sexuality as a participation in both God’s unifying love and creative power. Thus, artificial means of contraception suppress the openness of the couple to the full meaning of their sexual expression.
The pope affirms that responsible parenthood may demand the postponement of pregnancy or the spacing of children. He lifts up Natural Family Planning as a method that respects the health of the woman, the mutual obligation of both the husband and the wife to participate in family planning and the truth of the natural law. Contraceptives are known to have negative side effects and are sometimes abortifacient, not only preventing conception but actually destroying initial human life.
Humanae Vitae offers some prophetic concerns regarding the widespread usage of artificial contraception. It will open the way to “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (No. 17). In a contraceptive relationship, a man “may forget the reverence due to a woman … [and] reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires …” (No. 17). The pope also expresses concern about governments coercing people to use contraception as a way of controlling entire populations, thereby inserting political control into the most intimate and holy of relationships.
As we survey the damage of the sexual revolution, we clearly see that, once we sever the intrinsic connection between sexuality, marriage and procreation, we suffer tragic consequences. For many people, sex has simply become recreational pleasure, not a consummation of a marital love open to new life. Sex outside marriage has become the new norm. Marriage has become a private sexualized friendship. Children have become an intentional choice, not the logical fruit of marriage. So now, we have sex without marriage and marriages planned without children. Abortion has become widespread, deemed necessary to prevent the birth of a child when contraceptives fail, as they often do. A quick analysis of the contemporary social landscape reveals that Pope Paul VI’s prophetic concerns have come true in many destructive ways.
But we always have reason to hope. Increasing numbers of young people are pro-life, embracing the importance of standing up for the lives of unborn children. A strong core of Catholics of all ages still believes and lives the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. More young people see the meaninglessness and damage of our casual hook-up culture. People are awakening to the damaging fallout of the sexual revolution, which promised fulfillment through freedom from societal inhibitions, moral rules, biological determination and traditional family structures. The legacy is a 60 percent decline in the number of marriages over the last 30 years, 40 percent of children born outside of wedlock, dramatic increases in divorces and abortions, and many children deprived of a stable and loving family environment.
The Church proclaims the teachings on the beauty, truth and goodness of marriage and sexuality, not to hurt people, not to make them feel guilty, not to stunt their potential and their happiness, but rather, to help them flourish in loving, fruitful, generative relationships that fulfill and bring life, blessings and wholeness to others. We need to pastorally accompany young people with love and support, so that they can hear the good news about love, sex and marriage and put the teachings of the Church into practice with joy, peace and generosity. The damage of the sexual revolution cannot extinguish the beautiful and powerful truth of our human dignity; God has hard-wired us for relationship, generativity, sacrifice and self-gift. Our divinely-created reality will always shine through human weakness, confusion and sin.
As I ponder my childhood, I am so grateful that my parents understood and lived the truth of their marriage and the gift of their sexuality. The love and nurture I received inspires me to strive to build up marriages and families in Christ so that all children will receive what they need to truly flourish as beloved children of God. A central part of the Church’s mission is to serve the domestic Church — the family.
Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.