40 years of 'Humanae vitae':
A sign of contradiction
by Giovanni Maria Vian
Translated from L'osservatory Romano
the 7/25/08 issue of
Forty years ago today, on July 25, 1968, Paul VI signed Humanae vitae, the encyclical which rejected artificial contraception, and expressed itself strongly against sexual hedonism and the politics of family planning generally imposed on poorer nations by the more powerful.
As soon as it was published on July 29, the encyclical raised unprecedented opposition within the Catholc Church itself, to the point that the Pope decided not to use again the solemn form of the encyclical - most probably in order not to expose the Pontifical authority to pointless abuse.
"Rarely has a text in the recent history of the Magisterium," wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1995, "become such a sign of contradiction as this encyclical which Paul VI wrote after making a decision that he profoundly suffered through."
To explain the controversial reaction and dissent provoked by the encyclical, many factors concurred, from the overall cultural climate of those years (it was the fateful summer of 1968) to the enormous economic interests affected by the encyclical.
But Papa Montini never changed his stand on this crucial issue. A few weeks before his death, speaking to the College of Cardinals on June 23, 1978, he reiterated that "after reviewing the most serious conclusions from science," the decision he made in 1968 - consistent with Vatican-II which affirmed the principle of respect for natural law - was squarely for "a conscientious and ethically responsible parenthood".
In his subsequent homily for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which was explicitly presented as a balance sheet of his Pontificate, Papa Montini cited Populorum progressio and Humanae vitae as expressions of that defense of human life that he defined as an integral element of service to the truth of the faith.
Described mockingly by its critics as 'the encyclical against the pill', this papal document - in clear continuity with the Magisterium of Pius XI and above all of Pius XII, which were subsequently cited in this respect in Vatican-II's pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes - as well as consistent with the important conciliar statements on the concept of matrimony - was nonetheless submerged in controversy.
Today, in the face of the disquieting developments in genetic engineering, Humanae vitae appears lucid and prophetic in its statement that "if one does not wish to expose to man's arbitration the mission of generating life, then unbreachable limits must be recognized to the possibility of man's dominion over his own body and its functions - limits which are not licit for any man, as a private individual or as someone in authority, to breach."
The storm that raged against Paul VI's encyclical obscured its teaching on matrimony, which it described not as "an effect of chance nor the evolutionary product of unconscious natural forces" but instituted by God.
A sacrament for those who have been baptized, matrimony is, "above all", Humanae vitae affirms, "a love that is fully human, that is to say, sensitve and spiritual", as well as "a very special form of personal friendship in which the spouses share everything."
The preparation of the text was preceded by the work of a Pontifical Commission for the Study of Populations, Family and Natality, which, as is known, concluded with a consensus - far from unopposed, which is not as well-known - in favor of contraception as licit within the context of 'responsible parenthood'.
Paul VI, as he states in the encyclical, did not feel himself bound by this conclusion, and was criticized and assailed for that decision.
But one must not forget the other consensi that emerged. On September 6, 1968, Jean Guitton defined the encyclical as 'ferme mais non fermee'(firm but not closed), in that "while it speaks of the narrow path", it also shows that "it is the open way towards the future", and the Jesuit Cardinal theologian Jean Danielou underscored that the encycloical "makes us feel the sacred character of human love" and expresses "a protest against technocracy".
As an authentic sign of contradiction, not many recall Humanae vitae gladly. Certainly not for its demanding and countercurrent teaching. But even because it is not useful to play the recurrent game of pitting one Pope against another - perhaps useful for historians to underscore obvious differences - but which must be rejected when used exploitatively which is the case most often in the media.
Indeed, among Pope Paul VI's strongest supporters in this matter were Cardinal Karol Wojtyla - the Archbishop of Cracow who had an important role in the enlarged commission of inquiry, and who later innovated much about the issue in his Pontifical Magisterium on the body and sexuality; and theologian Joseph Ratzinger, whom Paul VI would make a cardinal nine years later.
Which goes to show the vital continuity of the Christian proposition evene= on the question of birth control, which as early as June 23, 1964, Paul VI had defined as 'an extremely serious issue' because "it touches the sentiments and interests nearest to the experience of being man and woman".