ST. PAUL, Minn. — On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae. It was met with widespread dissent from Catholic priests, religious, academics and laity.
Forty years later, faced with a host of social ills often seen as consequences of the rejection of the Church’s teachings, many scholars view Humanae Vitae as prophetic. They’ve been gathering for various international conferences to discuss the document during this anniversary year.
A group of 14 scholars recently gathered at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minn., for a private academic conference and public forum on “Humanae Vitae, the Person and the Thought of John Paul II.” Some see the scholarly attention as a rebirth of sorts.
“There is a renaissance in appreciation of the Church,” said Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “John Paul II’s insights can make the Church’s teachings on the human person and sexuality more palatable and exciting for people. He really advanced us in that.
“There’s hardly a seminary 10 years ago that would have held a conference on this topic,” said Smith, who spoke at the St. Paul conference. “It’s a sign that something’s happening … a sign of the renewal.”
“Pope Paul VI gave us these gifts,” said Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, rector of the Saint Paul Seminary. “Humanae Vitae, in particular, was a gift of life and love.”
The St. Paul conference is one among many. Since last year there have been conferences on the topic in Austria, at Ave Maria University, and in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. Similar conferences addressing the encyclical are taking place in California in August and at Sacred Heart Seminary in September.
The conferences all accept Humanae Vitae’s teaching as a given.
“We’re exiting quickly from a time when the orthodox theologians were spending their time and energies refuting proportionalism. Veritatis Splendor made it clear that proportionalism wasn’t coherent with Church teaching,” explained Smith. “Now we’re digging deep into the corpus of Pope John Paul II’s work.”
The St. Paul conference differed from the others in its approach. It explored the connection between Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s work, particularly the Theology of the Body. Conference participants spent much time discussing the influence of Max Scheler’s phenomenology versus St. Thomas Aquinas’ influence on John Paul II’s work.
“This conference went deeper into the philosophical anthropology of Pope John Paul II,” said Debra Savage, adjunct professor of theology and philosophy at the St. Paul Seminary, who, along with the seminary’s academic dean, Christopher Thompson, organized the conference. “His personalism and emphasis on lived experience are hermeneutical principles for understanding him.”
“It’s been a fruitful conversation,” said Steven Long, associate professor of theology at Ave Maria University. “It’s been more centered on the way to place Karol Wojtyla’s use of Max Scheler than I would have expected, but there has been great consensus that the phenomenological treatment is a secondary, augmentive approach compared to the metaphysical and anthropological.”
Beyond the Classroom
Academics aren’t the only ones taking notice of the anniversary.
Human Life International (HLI) president Father Thomas Euteneuer, is calling on priests to sign a “pledge of assent” in support of Humanae Vitae to mark the anniversary.
“In the face of a whole generation of silence and dissent to this most critical of all papal encyclicals, HLI is endeavoring to form a new generation of assent, both from the ranks of the existing clergy and among those who are studying for Holy Orders,” said Father Euteneuer. “It is our desire and purpose to tell the world that we will not be silent about this encyclical or its teaching. Nor will we stand by idly when Pope Paul VI’s predictions of cultural and spiritual degradation are manifesting themselves around us in broken marriages, devastated families and pernicious immorality.”
And, beginning on July 25, the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will sponsor a three-day convocation, “Life, Justice and Family: Partners in the New Evangelization.” The gathering, to be held in Cherry Hill, N.J., will feature presentations on the environment, bioethics, science and religion, human rights and family life.
While most of the St. Paul conference took place behind closed doors, the academic publications and discussions do have an impact outside the classroom. The laity are increasingly being exposed to the ideas under discussion, sometimes without realizing it.
“One of the most remarkable points that have come from the conference is the idea that, although it might seem that common notions, like nature, would have much less poignancy than the advertence to lived experience, it has much greater sway than might be expected, precisely in cases where people don’t have the experience of the good,” said Long. “In fact, one’s friends or intimates may be persuading them in the other direction. There’s an awareness that one’s humanity asks for something more, something nobler ... . If you think of where people are coming from in terms of modernity, the end that draws us out of ourselves and toward a fulfillment in grace and virtue is frequently glimpsed from afar at the start. Very often people’s experiences are the problem, and they are realizing that they are the problem. This is all embedded in the Theology of the Body.”
“John Paul II isn’t much taught because there isn’t much secondary material to help you understand it better. Any time scholars understand things better, it will take time to trickle down to the common realm,” said Smith. “The scholars are just getting it. At some point it will penetrate through to the universities and seminaries. People will publish. They’ll understand Karol Wojtyla better and present it better.”
Theology of the Body
The clearest way the laity are embracing Humanae Vitae is by way of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, oftentimes outside an academic setting, as demonstrated by the popularity of Theology of the Body speakers such as Christopher West, Katrina Zeno, Jason Evert and others.
“One sign of hope is the JPII generation,” said Peter Colosi, who most recently taught philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria campus. “Quite a few of them are embracing the Church’s moral teaching. They have an awareness of it because of John Paul II and the Theology of the Body.”
Many of the scholars see the Theology of the Body as a defense of Humanae Vitae.
“All of the modern problems are rooted in a misunderstanding of the human person,” said Colosi. “That’s what John Paul II was trying to correct.”
“TOB is a potent defense of Humanae Vitae,” said Michael Waldstein, Max Seckler professor of theology at Ave Maria University. “Pope John Paul II says explicitly that it is a rereading of Humanae Vitae. It provides the theoretical foundations for Humanae Vitae and points out the practical, ethical, religious wellsprings out of which Humanae Vitae can be lived.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.