In July of 1968, I was a carefree nine-year-old enjoying summer vacation, still playing with dolls and pretending that I was the mother of ten children. I don’t remember watching news or hearing anyone talk about Humanae Vitae.
But I do recall my parents and their friends that summer having these sorts of conversations: “What does the pope expect we should do? Have 15 kids? Or not have sex? No way. We’re using birth control.” I didn’t think much about it except that in my naïve mindset, I didn’t know what sex or birth control were, but I remember thinking, shouldn’t moms and dads want to have lots of children?
In 1968 and with many of the faithful expecting and hoping that the Church would “change” its teaching on artificial contraception, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) which confirmed and proclaimed the 2000-year consistent teaching of the Church that artificial methods of contraception were immoral.
Within two days, dissident theologians led by Father Charles Curran issued this statement: “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage,” thereby, leaving it up to individual Catholic couples’ “conscience” to decide. The problem was there was no indication from dissidents as to how couples should form their consciences (nor, in my opinion, did the dissidents care). Two months after HV, the “Winnipeg Statement” was issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stating that “those who cannot accept the teaching should not be considered shut off from the Catholic Church, and that individuals can in good conscience use contraception as long as they have made an honest attempt to accept the difficult directives of the encyclical.”
While many of the faithful were only focusing on their own personal situations, Pope Paul VI was warning the faithful that going against natural law and the 2000-year teaching of the Church would bring a “general lowering of moral standards.” (HV 17) Welcome to the world in which we live.
Fifty years later, I’m more mature. I understand that there are many good and serious reasons to postpone or prevent pregnancy. In fact, I’ve lived through serious situations that necessitated avoiding pregnancy. But I also believe that there are so many good reasons NOT to dissent from Church teaching on this issue.
Blessed Pope Paul VI affirmed the Church’s teachings but he also gave an alternative and moral option: Natural Family Planning, which in the ’60s was becoming more and more effective.
Blessed Pope Paul VI said (HV 17) that we needed to “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, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”
I remember as a teenager in the late ’70s when I heard of a young man and woman moving in together. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t shocked. In fact, in the ten years or so since I had heard the conversations between my parents and their friends, three things had become normalized: cohabitation, premarital sex, and contraception. In my formative years, I was taught by society that if everyone agrees something is okay, then it’s okay. Thus, I regarded a man and woman moving in together as simply an option rather than a moral choice.
Blessed Pope Paul VI went on to include another, very important, consequence for accepting contraception.
One “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.” (HV 17)
Well, we need only look to the recent scandals that have come to light in Hollywood and in other areas where men in power have been preying on young women. Why do large numbers of Christians and Catholics believe it’s completely acceptable to read the Fifty Shades books and to see the movies (and many defending their actions)? It is precisely because women themselves don’t reverence their own bodies. If they are contracepting (statistically, most Christians and Catholics use contraception openly), if they aren’t reverencing their own bodies, why should they expect their spouses to do so?
The sad effect in all of this is that the widespread dissent to Humanae Vitae and our society’s rejection of objective truth sent me in the wrong direction to the point that, when I began dating my husband in 1979, I was pro-choice, pro-premarital sex, and pro-contraception. I thank God every day that he gently led me back to the faith of my youth and to the truths of these beautiful teachings on sex and marriage.
Blessed Pope Paul VI was, indeed, a prophet. One need only look at the state of our world 50 years later to see that there is a general lowering of morals. Paul VI knew that the “Birth control commission” set up by his predecessor, Saint John XXIII, recommended that the Church “change” her stance on artificial contraception. However, guided by the Holy Spirit, he wrote Humanae Vitae. He probably suspected that his encyclical reiterating and confirming the Church’s 2000-year teaching on natural law would not be met with cheers and applause. We do need incentives to keep the moral law; otherwise, there are consequences.
I, for one, am grateful that Blessed Pope Paul VI embraced his mission to confirm and spread the truth. Now, we can clearly see his prophecies have come true — the morals of our world have changed greatly since 1968.
I’m 50 years older, but 50 years wiser. And very thankful to the Church for reaffirming the truth amidst pressures.
Copyright 2018 Ellen Gable Hrkach