Humanae Vitae, 50 years later… One of the lasting effects of “the late and not so great 1968” was a seething dislike for authority. I don’t think I go a day without hearing someone say things such as, “who are you to tell me” or “who says I can’t do such or such”. And then there is my favorite, “who is the Church to tell me what to do”!
This anti-authority position has had crippling effects on the various institutions that serve our society: government, school, corporations and religions. (Though I admit there have been positive elements such as better accountability). Hence, we began to pick and chose what church teachings we would follow or like or consider weighty. Unfortunately, this led to the out of hand rejection of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. That is more than unfortunate in that the teaching far from being the finger shaking of some old man in Rome, with a bad attitude toward human physical intimacy, is actually a challenge to us all to understand and practice the demands of authentic love. Not only that but it reminds us that our failures to love as we are designed, have some serious social especially demographic not to mention moral consequences. Adopting the attitude of the “privacy of the bedroom” cuts us off from the rest of the human family of which we are connected.
So our first challenge in order to effectively comprehend Humanae Vitae is to get rid of the notion that the only thing the encyclical did was to say no to contraception. This will enable us to see that its teaching is quite vast and encompasses not only the fertile married couple, but the unfertile, the “post-fertile” couple, the single person and the celibate all in their own position to be transformed by love. Next, we have to see the difference between authoritarian and authoritative. The first imposes its will and the latter speaks truth from a position of wisdom and experience. When trying to discern which is which ask yourself first, “Is this person/institution acting in my or others best interest?”, “Do they speak from a foundation built on reason and the range of human experience?”, “Have they earned the trust of the large society?” and “Is what they are saying keeping with their mission or area of expertise?”.
If we ask ourselves: “Is the teaching of Humane Vitae authoritative?” the answer is yes of course. The Church acts in our best interests because it is first concerned with our salvation, our ultimate ends. Secondly the Church is concerned for our happiness here and now, in that it springs from our moral side. The Church is certainly speaking from experience and an understanding of human nature. It also has consistently proposed that one of its roles is to interpret the natural law with the aid of divine revelation especially as new situations or moral questions arise. Does the Church have expertise in this area? It does in that one of its primary teaching aims is to apply the teaching of Jesus on married life (Mark 10). But to make sure this teaching took into consideration all the relevant data and modern developments Paul VI consulted with a wide body of experts including married couples.
The question then comes down to “Is the Church trying to tell us what to do?” What the Church is trying to do is to instruct us on what is good and to warn us about what is harmful both now and for our salvation. In this case Humane Vitae puts forward a coherent teaching on the nature of marriage as well as the proper use of conjugal rights and the duties of husbands and wives that follow from such rights. In looking at the moral solutions that have been proposed in modern times the encyclical gives us a reasoned basis to reject them and a lot of foresight as to what would come if we accepted them.
Once we get over our antipathy towards authority especially the tyranny of self-will and see the need for it we can give ourselves and our world a solid foundation for moral living whose by-product is happiness, here and hereafter.
Love, Fr. John B.