Marking the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical upholding the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and family life, might seem to some like picking at an old wound that has never fully healed — evidenced by the outright rejection by so many Catholics, in principle and practice, of the Church’s vigorous assertion that artificial forms of birth control are not part of God’s plan for marriage.
The release of Humanae Vitae came in the midst of a perfect storm of social upheaval and the erosion of authority throughout society, not merely in the Church. But despite the abundant evidence that Paul VI’s warnings regarding the unhappy effects that would be wrought by the widespread acceptance of contraceptives have proved prophetic, the teaching remains challenging for some and simply ignored by many.
This anniversary presents an opportunity to rekindle our call to action — to help provide the support that couples today need to live in conformity with the fullness of the Church’s understanding of married life. This is no easy task, as anyone who has ever sat through a Catholic marriage preparation course knows. Even the best intentioned of teachers struggle to connect with couples whose understanding of the reasons behind the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality and procreation has been warped by the coarseness of modern culture.
So what can we do? The Church needs to find effective ways of communicating that the vision presented in Humanae Vitae is a way of life — a holistic approach to the vocation of marriage. Some steps were taken in this direction at the gatherings of the Synod of Bishops on the family a few years ago, and the most beautiful and moving sections of the document those gatherings produced — Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) — can be seen as a re-presentation of Humanae Vitae to a new generation.
Humanae Vitae‘s call to a way of life is not an abstract idea — it is being lived out by many young Catholics and, as such, is a source of encouragement for the Church as a whole. Many of those who embrace the teaching do so not just because “the Church says so,” but out of their experience of the challenges of married life in the world today. They have seen how our culture’s reduction of love to mere sexual activity has led to a degraded sense of marriage, the family and the self, and staring into that abyss has helped them appreciate all the more the simple beauty of what the Church proclaims.
Those who live out the Church’s understanding of married life in all its fullness are engaged in evangelization. Their actions — including the sacrifices that the Church’s teaching entails — speak even more loudly than words.
That is why Our Sunday Visitor has marked this milestone anniversary of Pope Paul’s encyclical with a look at the experience of real couples as they strive to be faithful. Their struggles and striving along the path to holiness lie at the heart of the Church’s mission. Such models of holiness and self-sacrifice will always be a source of renewal for the Church.
As we look to the next 50 years in the life of Humanae Vitae, let us continue to promote its vision of married love as a way of life that is challenging, yes, but filled with beauty and joy.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young