April 1, 2018
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical letter, “Humanae Vitae” (Of Human Life) published on July 25, 1968.
Pope Paul VI reminded Catholics and all people of good will that something as sacred as the transmission of human life cannot be cut loose from its moorings without grave consequences to individuals, marriages and families, and to society as a whole. The transmission of life and dignity of married love are integrally entwined. Both are sacred.
The moorings that ensure respect for the dignity of human sexual love are rooted in God’s plan for marriage. The conjugal act (sexual love between spouses) has a meaning that comes from the Creator. As a sign and expression of the covenant between spouses, every conjugal act ought to be both unitive (an act of mutual self-giving love) and procreative (open to the transmission of life).
To separate these two prevents the intimate expression of conjugal love from realizing its divinely intended purpose. To engage in sexual activity outside of marriage or for selfish purposes or while interfering with its natural fruitfulness by contraception is a rejection of God’s intended meaning and purpose. It is sinful.
The publication of “Humanae Vitae” was a reaffirmation of the traditional moral teaching of the Catholic Church. It was met with widespread controversy and a vocal dissent that was symptomatic of the age.
1968 was a year of massive social and political unrest worldwide. In the United States, it was the year of the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the height of American involvement in the war in Viet Nam. It was a year of rioting on campuses and cities all over the country, including at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It should be no surprise that the challenge to authority that characterized that age, and ours, affected the way this teaching was received by many within the Catholic Church and certainly by those outside of the Church.
The secular mentality says that human beings, rather than God, are the measure of all things. Right and wrong are determined on the basis of what is practical rather than what is true or good. This worldview values results over reason.
It has affected the attitudes and values of many in the Church as well. Uncomfortable with being a “sign of contradiction,” some prefer to accommodate the Gospel and the Church’s teaching to the wisdom of the world. The salt loses its savor (Mt. 5:13). The Church loses its credibility as a witness.
Pope Paul VI had prophetic insight in recognizing the grave consequences that follow when people fail to consider where the acceptance of artificial birth control would lead society. Separating sex from babies has disastrous and far-reaching consequences. A contraceptive mentality would lead inevitably, he said, “toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”
It would be disastrous for marriage and families leading to loss of respect for women, “to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his (man’s) respected and beloved companion.”
Certainly, many family problems and social ills are linked to this widespread contraceptive mentality that separates sexual love from its proper context in the divine plan for marriage. The recent judicial redefinition of marriage is a clear result of this separation.
A refusal to accept God’s plan in creating us male and female with a natural complementarity between the sexes has led to gender confusion on a massive scale. It has led to plummeting populations and a “demographic winter” in many countries.
Skyrocketing divorce, widespread tolerance for extramarital and homosexual activity, abortion and a host of other problems follow in its wake. The loss of respect for God’s plan for marriage erodes respect for the dignity of human sexuality and the sacredness of life.
It has contributed to the explosion of pornography as a multi-billion-dollar industry and society’s slide toward embracing euthanasia, embryonic stem cell experimentation and even human cloning. Instead of reverencing one another, we use one another as instruments for our own selfish purposes and enjoyment.
The Church cannot change its teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception, however unpopular and admittedly difficult it can be to embrace and live. The Church does not create the moral law, but is only its guardian and interpreter. Ultimately, contraception is morally unacceptable because it is contrary to the true good of both the human person and marriage.
Catholics who strive to live according to the Church’s teaching will find divine assistance by having recourse to the grace of the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, as well as to prayer and the cultivation of virtue.
A priceless gift also is available through the scientifically-proven methods of Natural Family Planning. NFP is a healthy means of family planning that enables couples to cooperate with God and one another in spacing pregnancies in a way that actually strengthens their relationship.
Perhaps now is a good time to take another look at the benefits NFP can offer to you and your marriage.