This past July 25th marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s controversial and still little heeded encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). Many both within and without the Church – heady from the many changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council – fully expected that the Church would change her clear and constant teachings on human sexuality and procreation. Proponents of change then argued that the development of the contraceptive pill made such change in teaching not only possible but imperative.
However, Pope Paul VI (advised closely by the then Cardinal Wojtyla) realized that while much in the Church was rightly changeable (for example, liturgical rites and languages had changed often in the Church’s two thousand year history) no one – even the Pope – could change the received teachings of the Church in matters of faith and morals.
In Humanae Vitae, giving an ecclesiastical example of a profile in courage, Paul VI reaffirmed the immorality of recourse to artificial means of birth regulation. While Pope Paul VI and the Catholic Church practically stood alone in reaffirmation that the procreative and unitive ends of the conjugal act could not morally be arbitrarily separated, it is important to remember that up until the early 20th century this was also the constant teaching of all other Christian ecclesial bodies – Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant.
Of course, the Church is not against sexual pleasure as some of her opponents allege; but, more importantly, we are for the happiness of the human person. The fostering of that happiness requires understanding the gift of our sexuality as God has intended it. Sex, in God’s plan, is more than just a “recreational activity”. As Catholic feminist and philosopher, Janet Smith says: “…sex is for babies and bonding. If people are not ready for babies and bonding, they ought not to be engaging in acts of sexual intercourse.” And what are nuptials but the public expression of a couple’s readiness to do just that?
A careful rereading of Humanae Vitae – especially in the light of the “sexual revolution” unleashed in society over the past 40 years –can help us appreciate how prescient the Pope was in his warnings of the dire consequences that a “contraceptive mentality” would have on society. The numbers of unwanted pregnancies and abortions did not decreased with the widespread acceptance of contraception – they increased. And the “pill” far from freeing women from male domination made them more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation by men. The break up of families and the epidemic of divorce in our culture, the increasingly high incidence of women bearing children out of wedlock, the flight from adult responsibility and the extended “adolescence” of men, all point to – in hindsight –the rightness of Paul VI’s and the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
The Church condemns artificial contraception not just because of its bad consequences. She condemns artificial contraception because it is intrinsically evil (and because it is evil it has bad consequences). Contraception is evil because it violates the very purpose and nature of the sexual act – and in doing so violates the dignity of the human person.
Pope John Paul II reaffirmed Humane Vitae throughout his pontificate. His “Theology of the Body” has sought to represent the perennial teachings of Church on human sexuality in an idiom more accessible to our contemporaries. The sexual act, he teaches, implies self-giving, a self giving denied in the very act of contraception. One’s “body language” should mean as much as one’s words do. Happiness and human flourishing cannot be built on insincere language or lies. Contraception – like pre-marital or extra-marital sex - is a lie because it denies the unconditional “yes” of one to another implied in the very act of love making.