Almost 500 British priests have signed a statement reaffirming the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and her opposition to artificial contraception in certain circumstances — a doctrine Blessed Paul VI underlined in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The priests, who have issued the statement to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the encyclical’s promulgation, state that the Church’s perennial teaching on human sexuality should be at the forefront of rebuilding a culture of life, and stress that such teaching is invaluable for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

“After half a century, we can see how truly prophetic Pope Paul’s encyclical was,” the organizers write in a letter sent last month to other priests inviting them to put their name to the initiative, called Humanae Vitae 50. “We witness daily the crisis in family life and marriage,” they add, and note that 50 years after it was written, Humanae Vitae has “proved itself more relevant than ever.” 

“The teaching on the inseparability of the procreative and unitive ends of marriage needs to be proclaimed again with confidence,” they stress, adding: “With this in mind, we have put our names to the enclosed letter.” 

The statement highlights how the encyclical affirmed the “purity and beauty of the spousal act, always open to procreation and always unitive.” 

It also points out how the encyclical predicted that if contraception became widespread, it would lead to a loss of a “proper understanding of marriage the family, the dignity of the child and of women, and even a proper appreciation of our bodies and the gift of male and female.” 

The priests therefore wish to “reaffirm” the “noble vision” of procreative love taught by the Church, and that a “proper ‘human ecology’” is essential for the future of all people. “We propose anew the message of Humanae Vitae,” the clergy state, “not only in fidelity to the Gospel, but as a key to the healing and true development of our society.”


Lay Initiative

Humanae Vitae 50 originated from British lay faithful who had encouraged the country’s clergy to proclaim the message contained in the statement. 

“Many priests have responded,” a signatory told the Register June 14, adding that although it is a British initiative, it is possible that other local churches worldwide “will do the same.” 

“It is encouraging that so many have responded,” he said, while others have noted that it strongly contrasts with the reaction of clergy at the time. “In 1968, very few priests spoke out confidently regarding this teaching and many dissented,” the clergy note in a press release to coincide with the initiative. 

They quote an anonymous priest signatory who observed how difficult it is today “to get 100 priests (the size of an average diocese) to do anything together,” and so to obtain almost 500 “is very significant indeed.” 

A lay organizer of the Humanae Vitae 50 said that like so many lay faithful, the priests have “realized the devastation caused by neglecting the moral truths contained in the encyclical,” and noted the “widespread use of contraception” which has “led to a breakdown in families, in general sexual morals, in respect for human life and for the dignity of women.” 

The organizers note that the initiative follows reports that the Vatican is leaning towards watering down the teaching of Humanae Vitae and seeking to accommodate the Church to modern trends.

In the last year, dissenters of the encyclical have been appointed members of the Pontifical Academy of Life and have spoken openly about softening the Church’s teaching on artificial contraceptive use. A Vatican commission, secretively organized last year, has been making an historical-critical study of the document with unprecedented access to the Vatican archives. 

The commission’s coordinator, Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, said last month that “there is no need to update” the document but that there is a need to go “beyond the polarization.” 

Humanae Vitae turns 50 on July 25.