Fifty years after release, ‘Humanae Vitae’ praised as prophetic encyclical

WASHINGTON — Surrounding the 1968 release of "Humanae Vitae" ("Of Human Life") was the cultural context of the sexual revolution and a widespread fear about overpopulation following World War II, said Donald Critchlow, a professor of history at Arizona State University.

At the time, there were movements in support of eugenics, abortion rights, and sterilizations in an attempt to curb population growth, Critchlow told an audience at The Catholic University of America April 5.

Critchlow was one of several speakers at a 50th anniversary symposium on Blessed Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae" April 4-6 hosted by Catholic University. Keynotes and a number of workshop sessions examined the teaching and legacy of the document on the regulation of birth issued July 25, 1968.

The symposium was titled "Embracing God's Vision for Marriage, Love and Life," and brought together experts on a variety of topics related to the encyclical's teachings on human sexuality and family life.

In a session, Critchlow noted that prior to the drafting of "Humanae Vitae," a commission was appointed to give suggestions for the Catholic Church's response to new forms of contraception.

Blessed Paul rejected the commission's report recommending acceptance of the birth control pill and, in "Humanae Vitae", affirmed the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life and its opposition to artificial contraception. In the document, the pope warned of the harm that widespread use of contraception would cause in society, such as lowering of moral standards, marital infidelity, less respect for women, and the government's ability to use different methods to regulate life and death.

Critchlow said many priests and laypeople, particularly in the United States, dissented from this teaching.

In his homily for the symposium's closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception April 6, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington recalled the encyclical's release.

"It was immediately met with widespread dissent and vocal opposition," he said. "I was surprised to see such vehement rejection."

While historians note that "Humanae Vitae" "constitutes a high-water mark in silent lack of reception on the part of the faithful," Cardinal Wuerl said, "we take confidence in the reminder that a lack of reception of the teaching does not negate its truth."

Indeed, throughout the anniversary symposium, people continually praised the prophetic message of the document, which still "stands as a profound and affirmative" defense of traditional values and family life, said Critchlow.

"In the end, what 'Humanae Vitae' proved was to be prophetic in its warnings of the breakdown of family and the depersonalization of sexual acts we see today in America," Critchlow added.

Noting Pope Francis's call to be in touch with realities people are facing in their daily lives, Mary Eberstadt, an author and speaker on issues of American culture, spoke about how the sexual revolution and the teachings of "Humanae Vitae" fit into that reality.

"The promise for sex on demand without restraint may be the biggest temptation humanity has been faced with," she said.

In the face of that temptation, the teachings of the Church are difficult, "but to confuse hard (teachings) with wrong is an elementary error," said Eberstadt.

While many proponents of contraception support it as a way to reduce the number of abortions, Eberstadt said it is now "clear beyond a reasonable doubt that contraception also led to an increase in abortion," as rates of out-of-wedlock births exploded at the same time that people were increasingly using modern contraceptive methods.

The Catholic Church's teaching on marriage, abortion, human sexuality and contraception is rooted in the same respect for human dignity that guides its work for social justice and care for poor people, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in his keynote address opening the symposium April 4.

It is imperative that the Church make known why it upholds its teaching, as reiterated in "Humanae Vitae" so that Catholics and the world understand God's plan for humanity, said the archbishop.

Helen Alvare, a professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, spoke April 6 as part of a panel on "The Prophecies of 'Humanae Vitae.'"

Alvare addressed the historical roots of making birth control and abortion a constitutional right in the United States and what she described as a devastating decline of legal safeguards for women and children that has resulted.

She said, "(Society's message is) sexual expression without marriage is freedom."

NFP conference in St. Louis

A conference on Theology of the Body and Creighton Model NaPro Technology will take place Saturday, April 28, at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. The conference is sponsored by the Offices of Natural Family Planning and Consecrated Life.

The event will celebrate the sanctity of life through love, marriage and procreation. Presentations will focus on Creighton NaPro Technology-tracking and medical treatment of common conditions, Theology of the Body, SPICE (Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Communicative/Creative, and Emotional) aspects of sexuality, and Archbishop Robert Carlson's pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae.

Mass will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m., followed by a renewal of the Hippocratic Oath by health care professionals in attendance. This is one of several activities planned in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. For more information or to register, visit archstl.org/TOBNaPro or call (314) 792-7250. 

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