Troubling rumors have been swirling around Rome for months now about an alleged papal commission tasked with undertaking an “historical review” of Saint Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Despite initial denials about the existence of the commission, it appears that a Vatican official has just confirmed that there is, in fact, such a commission at work.
Of course, it’s not inherently troubling that the Vatican should study the encyclical, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication this June. Humanae Vitae, which reiterated Church teaching against artificial contraception, is both one of the most important, and also one of the most opposed, misunderstood, and least taught encyclicals in Church history.
The response to Humanae Vitae is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century Church, one which contributed mightily to ensuring the dominance of the Culture of Death. A Vatican-led study oriented towards strongly reaffirming Humanae Vitae and developing a strategy for how to better present its teaching to the faithful would be very welcome.
However, there are reasons to be concerned that this may not be the primary intent of the commission. It is no secret that ever since its publication, there has been an ongoing, concerted, and often successful campaign by many theologians and some high-level clergy and church officials to “reinterpret” Humanae Vitae.
This effort received its most dramatic backing in the “Winnipeg Statement,” the Canadian bishops’ official 1968 response to Humanae Vitae. In that statement the bishops conference gave an official wink and a nod to contraception, stating that if a couple “tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives [of Humanae Vitae], they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”
The Winnipeg Statement, the most authoritative statement of dissent in the Church against Humanae Vitae, has never been retracted. In light of the news in Rome, many pro-life leaders are naturally nervous about what sorts of findings this new, and surprisingly secretive papal commission might arrive at. Any statement even remotely resembling the Winnipeg Statement coming from the Vatican would be disastrous for souls, families, and efforts to build a Culture of Life.
St. John Paul II’s prophetic (and timely) message
For this reason, the timing couldn’t be better for the recent publication in English, for the first time, of a prophetic speech by St. John Paul II, defending Humanae Vitae from its many detractors. I urge you to read the speech, which was delivered to a conference on “responsible procreation,” in its entirety.
John Paul II had stern words for those, including some “in the Christian community,” who would oppose the teaching of Humanae Vitae. “[T]hose who place themselves in open contrast with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide spouses on a wrong path,” warned the pope. “What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians.”
In response to those who would argue that following Humanae Vitae in some cases is “unfeasible” for spouses, John Paul II called for greater efforts to support couples, and greater faith in the power of God’s grace. “The grace of Christ gives spouses the real capacity to fulfill the whole ‘truth,’ of their conjugal love,” he said. “As the Tradition of the Church has constantly taught, God does not command the impossible, but every commandment also entails a gift of grace which helps human freedom to fulfill it.”
The pope was sympathetic to the struggles of married couples, but also unwilling to extend to them a false compassion that was inconsistent with truth. Following the moral law can be challenging, he acknowledged. The solution is not for couples to give in to temptation or to listen to the myriad voices of the world, but rather to rise to the challenge, resorting to “constant prayer” and “frequent recourse to the sacraments and the exercise of conjugal chastity.”
“Today more than yesterday, man is again beginning to feel the need for truth and right reason in his daily experience,” the Holy Father concluded. “Always be ready to say, without ambiguity, the truth about the good and evil regarding man and the family.
In this speech the sainted pope was providing a template for authentically compassionate pastoral teaching: expressing understanding for the trials of Christians, but also standing firm in the truth, and challenging couples to holiness, rather than capitulation to the world.
Uganda’s sad experiment with contraception
Why is it that so many are so afraid of upholding the beauty of Church teaching? In these past five decades we have done little to nothing to assist young couples and families as they are assaulted by a sex-saturated, anti-marriage culture. Countless Catholics have never even heard Paul VI’s teaching about the dignity and meaning of conjugal love expressed to them with both clarity and compassion. Consequently, a large majority of Catholic couples openly reject that teaching in their conjugal relations. The practical consequences have been catastrophic.
I just experienced this in Uganda where contraception is being pushed mercilessly by powerful international NGO’s and foundations. Uganda was once a very, very rare success story in Africa in the fight against AIDS, experiencing a sharp reduction in AIDS rates throughout the 1990s. How did Uganda accomplish this extraordinary feat? By a public awareness campaign heavily stressing abstinence and faithful, monogamous relationships as the only reliable ways to avoid infection. Condoms were only presented as last resort.
This message prioritizing behavioral responsibility didn’t sit well with the sex-obsessed Western foundations and governments pouring their poisoned “aid” into the country. In response to pressure, Uganda gradually began putting a greater emphasis on sexual “freedom” and condom use for prevention. The result? The end of Uganda’s success in combating the disease, with Uganda joining the few countries seeing AIDS rates increase rather than decrease. What a tragedy!
And this is only one of the most obvious negative consequences of the decision to embrace contraception, rather than responsibility and virtue, as the answer to the complexities of human sexuality.
Contraception is not the answer
Every day the Church is being proved more right: Contraception is not an answer to poverty and economic difficulties in under developed countries; nor is it a solution to the frustrations that married couples naturally feel at times in their efforts to abide by the moral law and pursue responsible procreation.
While rejecting the truth may at times appear to offer a welcome solution to difficult or painful circumstances, experience shows the costs always outweigh the apparent benefits. Paul VI warned us of this in his encyclical. He predicted at least four significant negative consequences of embracing contraception, including: a) an increase in infidelity in marriage; b) “a general lowering of morality”; c) that men would increasingly treat women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment,” and; d) that governments would push coercive population control on their citizens.
Who can possibly deny that each of these consequences – and many more that even Paul VI may not have envisioned – has dramatically come true?
Where the Church should be acting as the vanguard, Her representatives too often have crumpled at the first sign of opposition, afraid of appearing not with the times or “uncompassionate.” Fortunately, however there are also courageous prelates who recognize the spiritual dangers of our contraceptive, sex-obsessed culture. One of these is Archbishop Samuel Aquila, the bishop of Denver, who recently released a pastoral letter urging priests to warn their flocks of the dangerous of contraception.
“While the 1968 reception of Humanae Vitae was mixed, the fulfillment of Saint Paul VI’s prophetic wisdom is undeniable and points to the truth of the teaching contained in Humanae Vitae,” said the bishop. “Furthermore, those communities of faith which have gone the way of the world in their teaching on human sexuality have not filled their churches but only emptied them. As Jesus made clear in the Gospel, apart from him and his life-giving teachings, we cannot bear fruit.”
The archbishop concluded, urging his priests,”[D]o not be afraid to proclaim the truth of God’s plan for human love with gentle clarity and charity.”
Let us pray for all bishops and pastors that they may be filled with similar zeal for the truth, and love for their flock. And let us pray for the members of the Vatican’s commission, that they may strongly reaffirm Church teaching, and help the Church chart a courageous path forward, finding new ways to reach the human heart with Christ’s life-giving message of salvation, including in the contested area of human sexuality.