Since Pope (soon to be Saint) Paul VI published Humanae Vitae fifty years ago this week, that encyclical has often been called a “prophetic” document, and the author himself a “prophet.” But much like “iconic,” the words “prophetic” and “prophet” have been overused, even misused. In what sense was Humanae Vitae prophetic?
Who were the prophets? In the Bible, the prophets were often confrontational. They dressed down to draw attention to themselves: Jeremiah buried his underwear, dug it up, and put it on again (Jer 13:1-11); John the Baptist let his hair grow, and Ezekiel shaved his head (Ezek 5:1); John wore camel skins, and Isaiah wandered around naked and barefoot for three years (Mt 3:4, Isa 20).
Their eating habits also left something to be desired: Ezekiel ate books (Ezek 3:3) or bread cooked on a fire fueled by human waste (Ezek 4:12); Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:1-5); Daniel eschewed all rich food (Dan 1); and John was into the paleo diet (Mt 3:4). Their activities were unpredictable: Jeremiah smashed pottery and pretended to be a dumb animal, wearing a cattle yoke (Jer 19, 27, 28); he remained celibate, whereas Hosea married a notorious prostitute (Jer 16, Hos 1:2); and Ezekiel lay on his side for more than a year, went into trances, and talked to mountains or dead bones (Ezek 3:24; 4:4-6; 6:2; 8:1-3; 35-37).
The biblical prophets were not afraid to be counter-cultural. They wandered about speaking for God and telling people off. “Woe,” “return,” and “repair” were their most common words. No wonder these men were unpopular. In due course, they were proven right and their wisdom heeded. But in the meantime, they were vilified for speaking inconvenient truths.
To say that Paul VI was prophetic for teaching what he did about birth control back in 1968 is to say that he was doing on behalf of God something that was confrontational, counter-cultural, and unlikely to be received gratefully, at least at the time.
Humanae Vitae is for many Catholics the only papal document they can name. That’s because it was so personal and so controversial. Its publication caused a furor. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had said, “All you need is love”—which often meant sex. More sex, without the risk of children, was said to draw married couples more closely together. For unmarried people, now presumed to be sexually active, birth control was judged essential. More sex all around promised an end to isolation, infidelity, sexism, even war (“Make love, not war”).
But when Paul VI offered his difficult teaching against contraception and abortion, he suggested (like the prophets of old) that to break with God’s plan and the natural order of things would do more harm than good, even from a secular point of view. Paul predicted that the sexual and contraceptive revolution would lead to more infidelity than marital stability, to lower moral standards rather than greater virtue, to a hyper-sexualized culture with all its attendant challenges (especially for the young), and to the exploitation of women rather than their equality. There would also be negative effects on demography, culture, and politics. Governments and international agencies would interfere by means of population policies—and more recently, with gender ideology and “reproductive rights.”
“Woe,” said Paul VI. Half a century later, things are, if anything, worse than he feared. We have a copulation explosion and a population implosion. Divorce rates have escalated. The sacred cow of “reproductive health” is beyond public critique. Many children grow up without knowing the love of a mother and father committed to each other and to them. When there are natural or human disasters, U.N. agencies often drop condoms before offering food or other relief. Coercive or subtle population programs are common around the world and have wrought terrible demographic effects.
This generation is more confused about relationships, sex, and fertility, and less able to sustain marriages and families, than any in recorded history. Contraception is not the only reason for all this, but it has proved a powerful driver in the revolution of behavior—and misbehavior. It has not been the boon for women, families, or the broader community that was promised. The prophet Paul VI was right.
The prophets of old made predictions about the future, but they were always calling people back: back to God, back to his revealed plan for humanity, back to the law written on our hearts. And so Paul VI called us back to profound truths we already knew deep down, about the total gift of man and woman to each other in marriage, about the earthly and supernatural vocation of spouses, and about the connection willed by God between love-making and life-making. Married love must be free, permanent, exclusive, and open to life.
“Return,” said Paul VI. Not to some imagined golden age or retrograde way of thinking, but to God, to the Gospel, to our own best natures. Recover your sense that sex says marital love, that marital love says marriage, that marriage says family. Half a century later, we might say, “Bravo.” Yet as Pope Paul himself recognized, in saying such things the Church is, “no less than her divine Founder, destined to be a sign of contradiction.”
It’s not that the Church is looking to make enemies. No pastor wants to say from the pulpit things that his hearers find hurtful or that might drive them away. But the Church calls people to return, as Paul says, because of “the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.” And since the Church did not make God’s laws, “she can only be their guardian and interpreter, never their arbiter or reviser. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.” The prophet Paul VI was right.
That the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act are inseparable and must not be deliberately broken is something many did not want to hear in 1968 and do not want to hear in 2018. This reluctance presents the Church with a challenge to present its wisdom about such matters more clearly and persuasively, and so to form people’s consciences well. Instead of merely saying No, we must be beside people, showing them a better way. Theology of the Body, natural family planning, chastity education—all these have helped, but so far have touched only a small proportion of people.
Living the teaching of Humanae Vitae, like living so much other Church teaching, is both hard and easy. Hard, because it requires self-discipline when our culture says, “Do whatever feels good to you.” Hard, because it appeals to our higher nature against our baser passions. Hard, because it requires constant effort, and getting up when we fall, returning to God with contrite hearts.
“Repair,” said Paul VI. He knew, with a loving pastor’s heart, that this teaching would be hard. Yet Christ’s yoke is easy. He never asks anything of us without first giving us the wherewithal—both nature and grace. Many couples have found that living the wisdom of Humanae Vitae improved their self-understanding, self-mastery, and self-gift. Many have found that it improved their communication, mutuality, and love. But the Church is there for all who struggle and fall on that path, to accompany them and bring them home. It offers us a vision of the good life that enriches marriage—bringing serenity from struggle, virtue out of vice, holiness after repair. The prophet Paul VI was right.
To say “woe,” “return,” and “repair” is to speak an inconvenient truth. But Paul VI’s teaching was not about popularity, but about people. It was not about self-righteousness, but about right living. It was not about being holier than thou, but about godliness: “In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges people not to betray their personal responsibilities by putting all their faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife … [and is] loyal to the example and teaching of the divine Savior.”
Anthony Fisher, OP is archbishop of Sydney.
Photo by Lothar Walleh. Licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped from original.