Of Human Life (in Latin, Humanae Vitae) is a clear and concise papal encyclical that is even more relevant today than when it was published just over fifty years ago in 1968. Highly useful in understanding today’s discussions on the sanctity of life, it addresses human beings’ role in creation in just twelve pages, and in clear and simple language (it can easily be found on the USCCB Website). As our Church, our world and our nation focus critical attention on the “Right to Life” and other life-related issues, we will be highlighting this key Church document of our times in this weekly bulletin corner as well as on the MyParish App. From now to Lent, each week’s installment will showcase one aspect of Humanae Vitae to help inform us, and to lead to follow-up discussion. For us as the laity, it’s not just a scholarly read, it’s a practical one!
Fifty years ago in response to questions concerning the transmission of human life Pope Paul VI issued “Of Human Life,” (in Latin, Humanae Vitae), to offer guidance on responsible parenthood to married couples and to speak authoritatively on “the nature of marriage, the correct use of conjugal rights, and the duties of spouses.”
Over the next few weeks, the Faith Formation Committee will be sharing selected excerpts from the document to help inform us and deepen our faith. This is the first Note.
Beyond just preserving the sanctity of new life, this document speaks to the sanctity of all life. For example, in remarkably clear, straightforward language, Paragraph 17 addresses concerns of how artificial methods of contraception leads to marital infidelity and an overall lowering of societal 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. 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.”
In light of current events the message of Humanae Vitae remains just as relevant today as when it was first written.
Continuing our look at Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). We see that it was written in the aftermath of many recent grim experiences: two world wars, several massive genocides, the Holocaust, and the new science of eugenics (selective breeding of human beings to enhance or diminish particular traits). Pope Paul VI invites us to examine both personal and public behaviors in relation to the common good (the moral law and God’s plan for mankind), because he realized that the misapplication of a number of industrial and scientific discoveries would result in wide-spread abuses of human rights and dignity.
For example, Paragraph 17 addresses concerns of how artificial methods of contraception open wide the path for secular governments to not only to allow, but to dictate, outcomes for individuals, families or even classes within a society:
“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. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”
China’s historic “one child policy” gives but one worrisome example of how the message of Humanae Vitae was and is highly relevant to us today.
“Of Human Life,” Humanae Vitae was composed in the late sixties to address social and scientific changes of the day, and to offer guidance as to where these changes could lead. The pope appealed to secular leaders, scientists, educators, as well as to the lay faithful, families, and all bishops and priests to come to a better understanding of the balance between mankind’s desire for self-determination and the reality of God’s infinite love, desires, and plan for each one of us. Humanae Vitae’s authors challenge us to examine the important role secular society has in promoting the public good and sound moral development.
We read in paragraph 22 about the need to focus on our long-term spiritual health in response to the various messages that are promoting ideas that are not helpful to our moral good:
“We take this opportunity to address … all those whose right and duty it is to provide for the common good of human society… to the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.
Everything therefore in the modern means of social communication which arouses men’s baser passions and encourages low moral standards, as well as every obscenity in the written word and every form of indecency on the stage and screen, should be condemned publicly and unanimously by all those who have at heart the advance of civilization and the safeguarding of the outstanding values of the human spirit. It is quite absurd to defend this kind of depravity in the name of art or culture or by pleading the liberty which may be allowed in this field by the public authorities.”
“Humanae Vitae” has much to tell us about today’s challenges indeed!