On 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, reasons for hope

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Fifty years after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the landmark encyclical reaffirming Church teaching against contraception, many Catholics still don't really understand the document and what it teaches.

"The woeful fact is that pathetically few have ever read Humanae Vitae or ever heard a homily or defense of it," said Dr. Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

However, she told CNA, "[t]here is encouraging evidence that when they do, they find it persuasive."

Smith, who is also a consulter to the Pontifical Council on the Family, has written and spoken extensively on the Church's teaching in Humanae Vitae.

A quarter-century ago, for the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, she released "Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader" in the hopes of helping people see the wisdom in Catholic teaching.

For the 50th anniversary, Smith is releasing an update of essays, entitled, "Why Humanae Vitae is Still Right."

"Much has happened in the last 25 years, including the tremendous influence of the Theology of the Body on our understanding Humanae Vitae, and the scientific evidence of the detrimental effects of contraception on women's health and male/female relationships. While the first volume remains relevant, an update of essays was needed," she explained.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned of serious social consequences that would follow if the widespread use of contraceptives became accepted.

Smith said that 50 years have shown the "prophetic power" of Humanae Vitae to be "abundantly substantiated," with clear connections between widespread contraceptive use and the rise in unwed pregnancy, abortion, divorce, pornography, same-sex unions and transgenderism.  

"When the baby-making power of sexual intercourse is no longer considered a defining feature of sexual intercourse, virtually all sorts of sexual relationships are permissible, providing, I suppose, that they are consensual," she said.

One common misunderstanding of Humanae Vitae, Smith said, is that "it is based upon an outmoded notion of natural law that gives undue weight to simple biology."

"The fact is that the literally infinitely greater value of human sexual intercourse is the foundation of the Church's teaching," she said, emphasizing that human sexuality has a dual purpose: "the facilitating of a lifelong, faithful committed relationship and the participating in God's creation of new immortal souls – hence the necessity for human sexual relationships to be rooted in marriage, open to new life."

Another common misconception, she said, is that Catholics may follow their consciences, even against Church teaching, whereas the Church actually says that "freedom to follow one's conscience is based on the requirement that individuals form their consciences in accord with Church teaching."

"I believe that few faithful Catholics [who] prayerfully read Humanae Vitae and seek out further instruction should doubts arise would not find the teaching true to God's plan for sexuality."

Most Catholics today fail to follow Humanae Vitae, Smith acknowledged. But rather than finding this figure discouraging, she sees hope in a study finding that Church teaching on sexuality is accepted by 37 percent of Catholic women between the ages of 18 and 34 who attend Mass weekly and go to Confession at least once a year.

"In a Church where the teaching is rarely presented and a culture that mocks the Church's teaching, such compliance is astonishing," she said. 

And there are other encouraging signs that the Church is working to better reach people with the message of Humanae Vitae, Smith said, such as recent efforts by the U.S. bishops to teach about the issue and encourage priests to do so as well.   

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In addition, she said, diocesan family life offices and young seminarians and priests have the training and desire to teach and promote Natural Family Planning, through which a couple uses a woman's natural fertile and infertile periods to pursue responsible parenthood. Unlike contraception, this method is accepted by the Church because it cooperates with human fertility rather than trying to stifle it.

Smith also noted marriage preparation programs that address cohabitation and contraception, as well as new teaching materials inspired by Theology of the Body, websites with resources and testimonies that are widely accessible, and an increase in faithful Catholic colleges and universities.

"My count indicates there are about 40 conferences being held that feature support of Humanae Vitae in the U.S., not to mention the webinars and likely hundreds of supportive pieces being published in print and online journals and blogs," she added.

"More of all of this needs to be done, but a tremendous start has been made."

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