The Spirit of Humanae Vitae
February 2008By Frederick W. Marks
Frederick W. Marks has taught history at Purdue and St. John's Universities and is the author of six books, including A Catholic Handbook for Engaged and Newly Married Couples (available in English and Spanish from Emmaus Road Publishing Co.).
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which, in condemning artificial birth control, along with abortion and sterilization, drew down a tidal wave of criticism. Since Christ's founding of His Church on the Rock of Peter, there have been similar instances in which a pontiff set himself against strong and determined opposition within his fold. During the fourth century, for example, when Arianism was in its prime, all the dioceses in the East and most in the West denied the full divinity of Christ. Rome was in the minority. But Rome prevailed.
Paul VI was not quite so beset. Still, he faced formidable dissent in the Western, industrialized world. A papal commission appointed by his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, had voted 60-4 to endorse contraception, and so, in order to prepare the faithful for the ferocity of the protest that was sure to come with the rejection of the commission's report, Paul appealed no less than three times to his Petrine teaching authority in Humanae Vitae. It is "indisputable," he declares in section four, "that Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the apostles His divine authority...constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law." Two sections later, he continues, "Because certain criteria of solutions" emerged from the above-mentioned papal commission "which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church...we now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ, to give our reply to these grave questions" (#6). Finally, in the concluding section, he asserts that "the successor of Peter is, together with his brothers in the episcopate, the depositary and interpreter" of Church teaching (#31).
Such papal formulations of Marian dogma as the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950) are well known and widely accepted. But what makes Paul VI's declaration in 1968 so outstanding and distinctive is the fact that it addresses practical, down-to-earth issues. And because the issues are highly controversial, the encyclical, to this day, encounters much resistance. Some have gone so far as to question whether it fulfills the requirements for infallibility set forth by Vatican Councils I and II, but the answer is clearly yes.1 Not only was Pope Paul vested with the infallibility of the "ordinary Magisterium," inasmuch as he simply confirmed what the Church had taught constantly and universally for thousands of years, he was also vested with personal (pontifical) infallibility by virtue of the fact that he addressed the entire Church definitively as a successor of Peter on a matter of faith and morals. If Humanae Vitae is not infallible, then no papal pronouncement on morals ever has been or ever will be, and Christ's momentous words to Peter, as found in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18-19), ring hollow.
The tone throughout the encyclical is magisterial and hortatory, with emphasis from the start on the concept of marital duty. In the very first section, procreation is presented as the "gravest duty" of matrimony, with the word "duty" occurring twice in quick succession. Somewhat later, in the conclusion to the critical tenth section, Paul enjoins spouses to "conform their activity to the creative intention of God," urging them to plan on raising a "numerous family" (famiglia numerosa in the original Italian). Such generosity is held up as the Christian ideal for a variety of reasons. Children, first of all, are to be regarded as the "supreme gift" of marriage (#9). Secondly, human life is "sacred" (#13). Thirdly, God is "the author of human life" (#25). Fourthly -- and this is a corollary to the third reason -- procreation involves intimate "collaboration" with God (#1 and 8). The Lord is not going to lend a hand to any scheme that is ill advised or detrimental to the long-term best interest of His children. He may permit such a scheme to go forward -- His children remain divinely free at all times -- but collaborate He will not.
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