This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) promulgated by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968. As I look back personally on that moment, and on the reception that was given to the encyclical within the church and in society, a couple of things have become more clear to me.
First, there existed at the time a very weak and confused understanding of the role of the Holy Father as teacher of the faith. This lack of understanding is still prevalent today within and outside of the church. Second, those who did their best to promote and explain the pope's teaching seemed to lack a manner of speaking of the beauty of married love that could help many people of good will understand how to live in the midst of serious cultural changes.
Much of the discussion now surrounding the anniversary of the encyclical recalls how Pope Paul VI was often seen as the source of controversy surrounding the issue of contraception and married life. It was as if the pope had intruded in people's lives, much like a skunk at a garden party, ruining what had been a fine time until he showed up. In fact, the Holy Father taught what the church had always taught about the nature of chaste married love. His authority to do so is the authority given by Jesus himself to Peter and the apostles to proclaim the truth and to bind disciples of Jesus to live by the truth.
At the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) it was understood that the pope would address questions being raised by the availability of the contraceptive pill. The pope received expert opinions from theologians, physicians, sociologists and married couples to help him articulate the church's age-old understanding of God's design for married love, in the face of new cultural circumstances.
There was a fairly strong misunderstanding in the church that anything that was being examined might be expected to be changed. This misunderstanding of the role of the church's teaching authority led many to be disappointed and even angry with the pope for not changing the teaching on marriage. Worse, it led many to disregard the words of Pope Paul VI, which were beautiful and consistent with all that had been taught previously.
Happily, in recent years, new voices are being heard in the church to articulate the plan of God for married love that was proclaimed so bravely by Pope Paul VI. In a series of talks given at his weekly audiences, Pope John Paul II developed a way of understanding the nature of human sexuality and married love that has come to be known as the "theology of the body."
The late Holy Father understood the teaching of Humanae Vitae to be based in the spousal meaning of the human body, on the God-given power of the body to be a sign of the gift of self between man and woman. A number of students of this theology of the body have given talks and prepared catechetical materials that are of great value as we apply the teaching of the church to our contemporary challenges.
In recent years, too, we are blessed with a greater understanding of the power and the effectiveness of natural family planning. Church teaching affirms the link between the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. To maintain this necessary connection, couples must remain open to life in every act of sexual intercourse. Modern methods of natural family planning aide couples in following God's will for the family, which is a community of life and love, but enabling couples to space births when it may be necessary.
Our diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life is happy to provide you with printed and online materials that explain the church's beautiful teaching on married love. I also encourage you to refer to the section "The Love of Husband and Wife" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2360 and ff.).
Printed with permission from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.