Human Life: A Relevant Retrospective

“The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator,” begins Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued forty-four years ago today.  The encyclical was immediately controversial for upholding the Church’s ancient teaching (dating back to the pre-Christian era) that the use of artificial contraceptives is intrinsically evil and can never be practiced responsibly even in marriage.  Since 1968, dissidents and heretics both inside and outside of the Church have attempted to write the encyclical out of history and if not for the work of Pope Blessed John Paul II, they may have succeeded.  In light of the recent drama surrounding the issue of contraception, I think it profitable to revisit the Holy Father’s most controversial work of his pontificate, “de propagatione humanae prolis recte ordinada.”

Giovanni Battista Montini was elected Supreme Pontiff Pope Paul VI in 1963 in the heat of the Second Vatican Council.  His predecessor Pope Blessed John XXIII has convened the self-proclaimed pastoral council to “open up the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air”.  Though the council defined no new dogmas, it did in its sixteen documents deal extensively with the Church’s relationship to the modern world.  It was an attempt to make Catholicism more attractive and welcoming to a culture on the brink of revolution.

In light of this cultural climate, many assumed Rome would alter its position on artificial birth control.  “Why not?” they asked.  The Anglican Communion had been the first major Christian community, in 1930, to permit the use of contraceptives in some cases.  Some cases quickly became all cases and most other Protestant denomination rapidly followed suit.  By the early 1960s, the Catholic Church was virtually the only Christian church to prohibit the practice.  Naturally everyone outside the Church assumed the teaching would change.  But when the sixteen documents of Vatican II said nothing substantial on the subject, many were confused.

The three years succeeding the close of the council and the release of the encyclical were spent in epic suspense on the part of both laity and clergy.  Many were told (by prideful theologians) that the Church’s teaching was open to interpretation and was likely to change.  Couples began practicing birth control, confident that soon the Church would give in and join the ranks of all the other twenty-thousand Protestant denominations around the world.  Imagine the couples’ shock (and the theologians’ embarrassment) when they read on 25 July 1968:

“We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, [. . .] even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulation the number of children.” (¶14)

The lay people were humiliated, and the spiritual directors who had lied to them looked stupid.  A few months after the encyclical’s release, the entire nation of Canadian bishops rejected the Pope’s (an by extrapolation two-thousand years of popes, fathers, and theologians) teaching in a notoriously dissident proclamation known as the Winnipeg Statement.

Pope Paul adds further fuel to the fire invoking not just the Church’s dogmatic authority, but an appeal to human dignity.

“Hence to use this divine gift [sexuality] while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man an woman.” (¶13)

This reiterates the ancient teaching of the early Church fathers – and incidentally of the ancient Jews (see Genesis 9) – that contraception is evil because it disorders sex from its natural end which is procreation (and nobody can dispute that fact without appearing completely innocent and unscientific).  Despite this unambiguous language, the encyclical has been quietly swept under the rug by modernists and heretics in the Church.  As a result, somewhere around 98% of Catholic couples use birth control.  Most out of ignorance.  Ah, but with the recent turn of events, it will be hard for anyone to claim ignorance on this issue.

Nearing the end of the letter, Pope Paul makes some general predictions concerning the future of society if couples embrace the contraceptive mentality.  At this point in history, these predictions ring eerily prophetic.  His first concern was for married couples.

“Consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.  Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings – and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation – need incentives to keep the moral law.” (¶17)

In 2012, when nearly half of all marriages fail, tearing apart families and causing strife between parents and their children, it’s hard not to see the wisdom in the Holy Father’s words.  Another concern for Paul VI was the objectification of women.

“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (¶17)

A man who has sex without having to face the consequences of his actions, soon begins to treat women as a parking place for sperm.  No longer are women other human beings worthy of love and respect.  They’ve been turned into a means to an end: an object of lust and pleasure, an occasion for Friday night banging.  One needs only visit the nearest high school to observe how men treat women in the age of The Pill (gives a whole new meaning to Gaga’s famous meat dress).

His third prediction is perhaps the most relevant of all.  It concerns the prerogative of the government to legislate on contraception.

“Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. [. . .] Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?  Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” (17)

And there it is.  There’s the kicker.  Don’t say we didn’t warn you.  When some right-wing polemicist gloats over being right about Barack Obama’s agenda, you tell ‘em the Catholic Church said it first.  At this point, Obama and his thugs merely ask that everyone pay for illicit means of birth control.  But that could change in an instant.  The Holy Father’s prediction came true horrifically in China, where women who conceive more than once are often forced to get abortions.  It was only a matter of time before birth control’s insidious, society-killing venom made its way to America.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

Was Pope Paul an oracle?  Maybe, maybe not.  I can’t say that one needed much insight to see where the culture was headed in the late 60s.  Perhaps the Holy Father simply had the courage to say what everyone in the Christian faithful already knew: that the age of Christendom was over, and that the next few decades would be a tough time for orthodox Christianity.  Then again, maybe Pope Paul really was speaking with the voice of God.  Ultimately it’s irrelevant.  His predictions have all come true.  Protestants and a-la-carte Catholics sold out to the idol of contraception and now they’re paying the price for it.  I can only chuckle with cynicism at the hypocrisy of Evangelical organizations which have gone into a frenzy over the Health and Human Services mandate, yet abandoned the ancient Christian teaching on birth control decades ago.  And let’s not even mention the numerous bishops and clergy who for years have lied to their flocks about this issue and now are suddenly rallying behind Cardinal Dolan’s fight against this unjust law.

Pope Paul VI was not without hope, however.  In the final paragraphs of the encyclical, he writes of the importance of self-discipline, and the significance of the Sacraments in achieving this goal.

“The discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility.” (¶21)

Self-discipline is a grace given through the Sacraments.  Most paramount: the Eucharist and Reconciliation / Confession.  The grace that flows from these supernatural manifestations of God’s love, these physical mysteries, is enough to conquer the whole world and all its tyrannies.  Catholics need only tap into these mysteries, and all else will come easily.  It is time for the Church, once again, to be counter-cultural.  As in the days of the Roman Empire, when Christians were the only ones to speak out against infanticide and gladiator circuses, the Church must now fight the growing curse of contraception.  As Pope Leo XII said so wisely, “[Catholics] are born for combat.”


Paul VI, Pope. Humanae Vitae. Vatican City: n.p., 1968. Print.

Smith, Janet. “Have Humanae Vitae’s Predictions Come True?” Have Humanae Vitae’s Predictions Come True? University of Dallas, n.d. Web. 25 July 2012. <;.

Read the Encyclical

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One Response to Human Life: A Relevant Retrospective

  1. greg Metzger says:

    Throwing around accusations of “lying”, “dissenters” and “prideful theologians” is not in keeping with the true history of this debate and not in keeping with the care you show in presenting Pope Paul’s teaching. Be careful in ascribing motives and judgments to entire groups of people who have been moved by a range of reasons and a variety of arguments.

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