The 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae


The 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae

by Michael D. O’Brien

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. It is hard to believe that so many years have passed, more than a generation. How swiftly it has gone, and how changed is the face of our world. Let us not blame war or economic trouble or abortion for the current state of the world, for this would be to blame symptoms and ignore the source of the disease. It is, in fact, contraception that is destroying Western civilization.


In many of the documents of Vatican II and in subsequent papal encyclicals, the Church continues her timeless task of fostering the full meaning of conjugal love and the ultimate destiny of the human person. If affluent Western man has found it difficult to accept this vision as “realistic,” this is not so much evidence of a communication failure on the part of the universal Church as it is a measure of how far modern man has drifted from the mind of Christ and has begun to assess reality according to the “spirit of the world.” Statistics, if they are to be believed, maintain that a majority of Catholics in Europe and North America have simply turned their backs on official Church teaching in this matter. In my country, Canada, 80% of church-goers, apparently, have “problems” with the encyclical. In more than 50% of Catholic families, we are told, at least one partner has been surgically sterilized.


It is not necessary to concern ourselves here with the debate which has rumbled beneath the surface of the particular churches in some countries, emerging from time to time like the back of a diseased whale. The dissent is only a symptom. The source is deeper, and upon this hidden wound in the souls of modern Catholics some reflection is due if we are not to simply accept our condition as normal.


I believe that the massive failure to respond in a Christian manner to the exhortation of Humanae Vitae is not so much the result of selfishness or a spirit of rebellion on the part of families, as it is a loss of nerve. The root problem is fear. Anxiety saturates our age, and for a family the generalized angst is multiplied exponentially. It becomes very difficult to maintain a “nuclear” family when the “extended” family disintegrates. And when a society’s economy rolls over in the direction of great benefits to the infertile and relentless troubles for those who are fully open to life, it becomes difficulty squared. For example, many young couples now simply assume that they are condemned to a life of double incomes in order to own a poorly-built house in which they will sooner or later place their theoretical children. Is there an alternative? Even urban poverty is expensive–– a cramped rental apartment in a slum can now cost as much as a mortgage for a bungalow in rural regions. The contraceptive mind is not a private matter. It has dramatically changed the nature of every aspect of society, including its economy, affecting the lives of everyone else in that society. Indeed it would be fair to say that Western economies are now based on a foundation of grave sin.


There are ways of being happy and poor in this society, but it is not easy to find them, and even so it is a choice for difficulty heaped upon difficulty. The whole morass can assume gigantic proportions in the mind of a couple contemplating the foundation of a family. Thus, large numbers of perfectly healthy, fertile people feel forced into near-impossible choices. Our generation has weighed the cost against the benefits, and the child has been found wanting.


Is the full Catholic life now only possible for those with large incomes and robust health? Is this the message of the Gospels? Of course it is not. But there are some hard questions that must be asked if we are to understand why normal Catholicism has come to be considered not only difficult (for it is difficult in any era) but downright impossible. What, for example, would the world have been like if all Catholics had responded to the call of Humanae Vitae? Suppose that in every parish there had sprung up inspired shepherding, teaching and literature to help impart an understanding of the Church’s vision of conjugal love, to help married people see it as the great adventure it is, and not, as it is so often represented, a dreary burden? Suppose the entire community had rallied its energies and resources to encourage young families, had counted each new child as its treasure? Would not our parishes have become places of true home, where struggling parents could find practical and spiritual support? Suppose the older generation had been imbued with a spirituality of the Cross, and understood their retirement years as a time to go deeper, to give more, to stand as a hedge and a bulwark for the beleaguered young against the spirit of the world? Suppose that we had risen up as a people and become a sign of contradiction to a materialistic social philosophy, had refused to permit the rampant growth of anti-family, anti-child trends in our social agencies and political life? Would we now be struggling to retain mere scraps of Christian principles in the powerful arms of the State? Would our churches now be full and thriving?


Educated man is able to weave complex arguments to justify his failures and his impulsive reactions. Once a person (or a “consensus” of opinion) has made a decision to reject a truth, it becomes possible to entertain notions that in another age would have been instantly recognized as absurd. For example, the suggestion that the use of a condom or a contraceptive pill is no different from resorting to eye-glasses or corrective surgery. Are they not each occasions of interference with nature? Such an argument ignores reality: the intervention of a lens or a cancer surgeon is for the purpose of restoring the body to what nature intended it to be. The intervention of a contraceptive is intended to prevent nature from operating as it was created to be. It violates a state of health for the sake of what is mistakenly perceived as a higher good. Having accepted a falsehood, we then gradually lose the ability to discern entire fields of reality. We no longer know instinctively what our great-grandparents knew without any strain whatsoever––that fertility is health and that a tumor is not; that a morally virtuous community is healthy, while a sinning one is not. 


Our generation has chosen to resolve its dilemmas by saying that a certain sin, which is killing us, is not actually a sin. It has accepted the catastrophic lie that security lies in negating the fullness of our humanity. In such a dehumanized climate the heart and mind eventually begin to spring leaks and blow fuses. The soul cries out mutely with depressions, sicknesses, unacknowledged and unrepented guilt, fears and resentment of those who dare to contradict the fundamental compromise––the list goes on. Above all, there is a subconscious despair. It is precisely this despair that saps our life without our knowing it, bleeding away vital energies and driving us further and further into a complex of compromises. No restoration of the world will occur until this despair is recognized for what it is and replaced by hope. Little renewal of our Church in the West will come to pass until there is repentance, which is the foundation of hope. If we as a people and as individuals do not repent, then the Body of Christ in our part of the world will continue to deteriorate. However much we may deny the reality of our condition, if real medicine is not applied we may even come close to extinction. As St. James points out: “Sin, when it is full grown, brings death.” (James 1:15).


Genuine Christian hope is not a facile optimism nor is it a gloomy pessimism. It is a willingness to look into the face of a very difficult and confused state of affairs and find there the coming victory of good over evil. Yet we cannot truly understand the enormity of the evil we now face, nor the cost of victory over it,  if we blithely continue to think that all is well, or at least comfortably bad. This is not the time to look back in anger but rather around in awareness and forward with hope. It is precisely at this moment in history, in the face of a growing culture of death, that Humanae Vitae’s prophetic dimension is being revealed as a message of hope. It bears repeating that hope is realism. It examines the damage done to our lives and to our community. It recognizes that a society which violates the conscience, directly or indirectly, is an anti-human one.


If a society can force its citizens (as it does in many nations in the Western world) to fund abortion through taxation, an act which the documents of Vatican II call “an abominable crime,” then we have already entered a period of institutionalized unreality. When the informed conscience of the individual has been usurped by a generic “will of the people” we must recognize that the genuine human community has been replaced by the State. If we accept this as inevitable or natural, we have forgotten that governments make cold mothers. We should consider carefully any attempt by the State to replace roles once exercised by the universal Church, for the Church is a true mother and has a warm heart, if a firm one; for she desires her children to develop an ability to love to the full, and an ability to live by absolute truths. She defends with her very life the moral order of the universe. The State by contrast lives out its limited mandate on a level of expedience and is subject to many weaknesses in the area of Truth.


Where the Church sees a community of human persons, the State by its very nature tends to see statistics, and as a result it runs the risk of negating the humanity of some portion of mankind in the name of “the people.” It tends towards systemic solutions to the problem of man. When state-funded murder becomes part of the solution, (as it has in the country where I live) you can be sure that totalitarianism is not far behind, and in fact may have already arrived. By declaring that life is the possession of the State and not of God, it institutionalizes an ominous lie. In such a fundamentally anti-family climate we can become deluded into thinking it is better not to be born.


But what are we to do? We should turn to a certain Woman, to the heart of our Mother Mary. She has something to tell us about insecurity, she who brought forth her child into an impoverished, radically dangerous world. She is the mother of all families. She is the mother of our souls. She is the mother of our children. She will teach us to see with the eyes of the heart, to see the eternal in our children, to see in them the face of love made visible. In her face we will also see a revelation of the hidden face of God, for she is God’s great gift, the New Eve, the “firstborn among women,” holy and real, present, compassionate, deep, faithful, and true. Caritas and Veritas are perfectly united in her glance. She is gazing inward to the indwelling Trinity and outward to the sorrows of our hearts. She sees back to the lessons of history and forward to the Promised Land. She sees the wounded face of man and the glory of our eternal destiny. She has suffered more than we could ever bear, yet she turns with limitless hope to the love the Father has for us all. In her eyes there are words beyond speech. Her message: love one another, defend the truth in charity, pray, choose life, and do not be afraid.


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originally published August, 2008