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July 29 Humane Vitae - Prophetic or Overreach?

Today in 1968 a press conference launched the controversial papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. It would be the last of Paul VI's 7 encyclicals and he was dismayed by the hostile reaction. However some now see it as prophetic whereas others lament the damage it has done to the Church's teaching authority.


There had been a long-standing general Christian prohibition on contraception and abortion, going back to Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria and Saint Augustine who condemned the practices. However there was a gradually loosening of the prohibition and in 1930 the Anglican Communion allowed for contraception in limited circumstances after the Lambeth Conference. Protestants generally followed and contraception was allowed and so in Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Casti connubii in 1930, reaffirming the Catholic Church's belief in various traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality, including the prohibition of artificial birth control even within marriage. With the appearance of the first oral contraceptives in 1960, there was growing pressure from within the Catholic church to reconsider the Church positions. In 1963 Pope John XXIII established a commission of six European non-theologians to study questions of birth control and population and as Vatican Council II was concluding, Pope Paul VI enlarged it to fifty-eight members, including married couples, laywomen, theologians and bishops.

The last document issued by the council (Gaudium et spes) contained a section titled "Fostering the Nobility of Marriage" but the determination of licit and illicit forms of regulating birth was reserved to the Pope Paul VI. After the council the commission held its fifth and final meeting and submitted a report approved by a majority of 64 members to Paul VI. It proposed he approve of artificial contraception without distinction of the various means. A minority of four members opposed this report and issued a parallel report to the Pope. After two more years of study and consultation, today the pope issued Humanae Vitae, which removed any doubt that the Church views hormonal anti-ovulants as contraceptive. He explained why he did not accept the opinion of the majority report of the commission

The encyclical itself states that to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact,". Stating the principle of double effect the church does not ban medical treatments that result in temporary infertility provided such impediment is not directly intended. It also encourages the practice of spacing births, using natural cycles. Using the idea of natural law, the Church cannot be its arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter and wanted to preserve intact the whole moral law of marriage. Acknowledging the difficulties of this in the developing world it also

Dissent was immediate and widespread. The Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens urged the church to avoid another Galileo affair and many prominent theologians said that Pope’s decision to against the advice of his council had frustrated the principle of collegiality (common governance ) referred to by the Council. The Pope was troubled by the encyclical's reception in the West. Acknowledging the controversy, Paul VI in a letter to the Congress of German Catholics (30 August 1968), stated: "May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of God’s will." In March 1969, he had a meeting with one of the main critics of Humanae vitae, Cardinal Leo Suenens. Paul heard him out and said merely, "Yes, pray for me; because of my weaknesses, the Church is badly governed." (according to Peter Hebblethwaite) However in a Homily three years later, on the feast of Peter and Paul, referring to arguments within the church he famously said that from some crevice the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God. There is doubt, uncertainty, problems, restlessness, dissatisfaction, confrontation. We no longer trust the Church; It was believed that after the Council there would come a sunny day for the history of the Church. Instead, a day of clouds, of storms, of darkness, of research, of uncertainty has come. We preach ecumenism and detach ourselves more and more from others. We try to dig deeps instead of filling them. He was to reaffirm Humanae vitae weeks before his death in 1978 in an address to the College of Cardinals.

An ancient tradition in the church states that the truth of a doctrine is known by the universality of its reception or acceptance in the church. It has been argued that Humane Vitae has never passed the condition of "reception" to become church doctrine. Polls show that most Catholics use artificial means of contraception, and very few use natural family planning, However developments in fertility awareness since the 1960s have given rise to natural family planning organizations such as the Billings Ovulation Method, and the Creighton Model Fertility Care System. Subsequent Popes have reaffirmed Humanae Vitae. John Paul II, had been invited as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła to the commission, but Polish government authorities would not permit him to travel to Rome. Wojtyła had already defended the church's position from a philosophical standpoint in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility. His biographer, George Weigel, attributes much of the poor reception of the encyclical to the omission of many of Wojtyła's arguments.

After he became pope after the short lived John Paul 1, Wotyla as John Paul II developed his thinking with a series of lectures, entitled Theology of the Body, in which he talked about an original unity between man and women, purity of heart (on the Sermon on the Mount), marriage and celibacy and reflections on Humanae vitae, focusing largely on responsible parenthood and marital chastity. In 1981, in , Familiaris consortio he restated the Church's opposition to artificial birth control stated previously in Humanae vitae and again in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor. However he also clarifies the use of conscience in arriving at moral decisions, including in the use of contraception, a point that is often overlooked from the original encyclical Humanae Vitae. Pope Benedict admitted that the encyclical was so controversial, yet so crucial for humanity's future. Humanae vitae became "a sign of contradiction but also of continuity of the Church's doctrine and tradition... What was true yesterday is true also today." Warning that if only the body is satisfied love becomes a commodity.

In Manila, Pope Francis said to a meeting with families. I think of Blessed Paul VI. At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his Encyclical he was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of the destruction of the family through the privation of children Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming. an interview given to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, expressed his opinion and praise for Humanae Vitae: "Everything depends on how Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, in the end, urged confessors to be very merciful and pay attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, he had the courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.

Prophecy is often rejected, maybe this is what is behind the encyclicals problem with reception. So how can we assess Pope Francis claim that Humanae Vitae is prophetic?Very few Christians have read Humanae Vitae and the Pope made rather general "prophecies" about what would happen if the Church's teaching on contraception were ignored. Firstly that the widespread use of contraception would "lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." Sexual morality has certainly changed in an incredible way. Secondly the Pope also observed that the widespread acceptance of contraception would place a "dangerous weapon... in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.". The forced abortion program in China shows the stark extreme toward which governments will take population programs. They are trying to reverse this with now a three child programme but there is also growing evidence that many parts of the world face not overpopulation, but underpopulation and aging populations. However in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul made some positive predictions as well. Section 21, he remarked: ....the discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. This was developed by John Paul II in his theology of the body.

However it is often thought that if John Paul II had died earlier, another influential Jesuit Cardinal Martini would have become Pope. Italian journalists noting the difference between the red robes of a cardinal and the white robes of a pope loved to speculate whether “Martini rosso” would become one day “Martini bianco”. Even with Parkinson’s disease he still received a number of votes at the first ballot in the 2005 papal conclave. Towards the end of his life he had moved to Jerusalem, and in 2008 a book was published called Night Conversations with Cardinal Martini: The Relevance of the Church for Tomorrow. He argued that encyclical cut the Church off from many of the people who, he contends, most need the Church's "advice" about human sexuality. By ignoring the advice of the commission of experts and wrongly made a "highly personal" decision on the matter of contraception, referring critically to the "solitary nature of this decision" In conversations with another Jesuit he said "I knew Paul VI well. With the encyclical, he wanted to express consideration for human life. He explained his intention to some of his friends by using a comparison: although one must not lie, sometimes it is not possible to do otherwise; it may be necessary to conceal the truth, or it may be unavoidable to tell a lie. It is up to the moralists to explain where sin begins, especially in the cases in which there is a higher duty than the transmission of life. Martini claimed that Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, “with a sense of solitary duty, and motivated by a profound personal conviction”, in a form of voluntary isolation. For some prophetic in a time when sexual morality has changed at an unprecedented rate, for others a tragic mistake that has distanced many from the Church, Humanae Vitae has become the most modern controversial of modern times


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