Humanae Vitae at 55

The anniversary of an important encyclical of the 20th century has gone unnoticed

Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical on human life (not “birth control”), Humanae vitae, marks its 55th anniversary Tuesday, July 25. Yes, you can be pardoned if you — like most people — didn’t notice.

Arguably one of the most important encyclicals of the 20th century, not just in terms of its impact but, more importantly, of its truth, Humanae vitae received bad press from its promulgation. One wonders why Paul allowed someone who clearly intended to “talk down” the encyclical to present it. Pope St. John Paul II happily talked up the encyclical — as soon as it was issued and many times during his pontificate.

The fundamental teaching of Humanae vitae needs to be made clear. The Church teaches that the sexual act has two significances, two meanings: it is procreative and it is unitive. It is immoral for human beings, on their own initiative, to “separate” those meanings, i.e., to destroy one of them. What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.

That sex is oriented to procreation and to unity is so fundamental that one wonders how, with the mass proliferation of “sex education” supposedly out in the world, that basic fact is so pervasively overlooked. Of course I know that “sex education” is often an ideological front for sex desiderata (and how to achieve them). Still, one hopes the truth occasionally appears. That the truth has become esoteric can be witnessed by how many people would find the idea sex is connected with life as “strange.”

The teaching of Humanae vitae is thus the cornerstone for how Catholics see sexual morality. While the immediate impetus for Pope Paul to issue the encyclical was development of “the Pill,” Humanae vitae was never just about anovulant contraceptives. It presented the Catholic understanding of sexual ethics, obviously something exceedingly important given the significance sex has in most people’s lives.

It was disappointing, on this anniversary, not to hear anything from the usually loquacious Vincenzo Paglia or the newly-minted DDF prefect, much less from the Pope who dedicated a whole year to his Amoris laetitia. But Humanae Vitae has suffered from silence since its issue in 1968; more people know caricatures of the encyclical than the encyclical itself. So, on this anniversary, do something really countercultural: read Humanae vitae itself [a link to it at the Vatican’s website is here].


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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