July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), written by Blessed Pope Paul VI to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on the importance and holiness of marriage. The encyclical remains just as prophetic today as when it was first released — and perhaps even more so, considering the cultural changes that continue to erode the foundations of marriage.
“Humanae Vitae” is best known for its defense of the ancient teaching of the Church that the procreative dimension is an essential and inseparable element of the marital act. In this, the encyclical affirmed two essential and related dimensions of conjugal love — namely the unitive and procreative ends. Any attempts to remove one of these dimensions results in a diminishment of the other end and of the meaning of the marital act in general. This teaching, which ran counter to changes being made in virtually every other Christian denomination of the time, can rightly be regarded as the most controversial teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” While controversial, it has been extremely influential in subsequent development of Church teaching, from topics as diverse as sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, abortion and surrogacy, along with the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. It has also led to further reflection and deepening of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, as is witnessed in what is commonly called “Theology of the Body,” which is St. John Paul II’s catechesis on sexuality. The negative reaction to “Humanae Vitae” was predicted by Blessed Pope Paul himself, when he called the teaching “a sign of contradiction,” prophetically outlining the results of rejecting the Church’s age-old teaching: broken marriages, further demeaning and objectification of women and a trivialization of sex, to name a few.
What is unfortunate is that the almost exclusive attention given to this “negative” aspect of the encyclical has resulted in a failure to appreciate the “positive” element of the pope’s teaching. For example, the reflection on married love as being “free, total, faithful and fruitful” is beautifully embodied in the Rite of Marriage (in both the promises of the couple and their vows), and a worthy reflection on the ideal of married love that God calls all married couples to embody in their vocations. The same can be said of the pope’s reflection on the great dignity of marriage and the true holiness that constitutes this vocation. The encyclical, as a whole, can be described as a defense and celebration of the vocation of Christian marriage.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of this important encyclical, I humbly pray that you accept my challenge to consider reading this teaching in its entirety. While we may sometimes struggle with the content of Church’s teaching, the least we are asked to do is to be informed and at least be open to engage the Church and her teaching. Considering the challenges that we, as Christians, face in a world that has become more critical of Christianity, time is never wasted in reading what the Church teaches and why that teaching is so important for us as Catholics.