July 25, 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI. In the encyclical, the unitive and procreative aspects of sex are explained and emphasized as equally important, to the point where neither can be denied, ignored, or interfered with. It affirmed that contraception is an intrinsic evil and cannot be accepted.
Humanae Vitae is often regarded by people on both sides of the argument as a very controversial and divisive teaching. Some people believe that it is a wonderful and prophetic encyclical, which the Church was right to put forth and reaffirm the teachings on contraception which had been in place for the whole history of the Church. Others, however, believe that it represented a true separation of the Church from the "real world," and that the Church was wrong not to change its stance on contraception as many believed it would. It was the release of Humanae Vitae that caused large numbers of people to begin publicly dissenting from the Church, especially about matters of sexuality.
Pope Paul VI believed that if contraceptive use became common practice, it would lead to some very negative consequences for society. He predicted greater infidelity in marriages, a widespread lowering of morality, men objectifying women and using them as objects of pleasure instead of beloved partners, and even governments taking this contraceptive mentality and turning it into a requirement for their citizens - as the encyclical asks, "Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty?" The Pope also believed that by using contraception, humans would come to think they have complete dominion over their bodies, which can be seen today in immoral practices such as in-vitro fertilization, euthanasia, and others that show how unwilling humans today are to accept our bodies the imperfect way they are - even abortion can be seen as a result that stems from this.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, we are able to step back and see that the consequences of contraceptive use predicted by Pope Paul VI were not very far off. Contraceptive use has not helped to strengthen marriages - the divorce rate has been continually increasing since contraception became common practice. With the perceived "threat" of children supposedly eliminated, there is no need for personal responsibility when it comes to sex. Premarital sex is more prevalent than ever, and divorce and infidelity are all too common. In addition, seeing children as this threat almost inevitably leads to a mindset that considers it permissible, and in some cases even preferable, to end unexpected and unwanted pregnancies in abortion rather than accept responsibility.
For many Catholics today who are trying to stay faithful to the Church's teaching on chastity and sexuality, it's easy to get disheartened when many surveys of the population - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - seem to indicate that we are fighting a losing battle. There is hope, though. Increasing numbers of people are beginning to accept what the encyclical says, or at least are becoming aware of it and further investigating the reasoning behind the teaching. More and more young Catholics are realizing the benefits of Humanae Vitae and are becoming strong advocates for it. As people stop dismissing it as outdated and unimportant without even bothering to read the encyclical, perhaps more will begin to see the wisdom it contains and start to follow it.
Couples can greatly benefit from the truths found in Humanae Vitae, and it is a wonderful resource to have. All Catholics should read this encyclical at least once. Buy a copy as an inexpensive gift for any couples you know - married, engaged, or even just people wanting to know more about the Church's teaching on contraception. Visit the Theology of the Body store to check out all our great books on Pope John Paul II's deep and beautiful talks as well, which go into more explanation on the topics found in Humanae Vitae as well as other relevant topics that explore the nature of the human person. For an easy introduction to the talks, a book such as Theology of the Body for Beginners is a great resource.
To read more about forty years with Humanae Vitae, read Janet Smith's essay on the topic here.