Humanae Vitae at 40
80 Groups Spotlight Birth-Control Encyclical
BY GAIL BESSE
November 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 11/13/07 at 1:43 PM
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — As Humanae Vitae nears its 40th anniversary, Catholic leaders want to jump-start a rediscovery of this prophetic encyclical on the transmission of human life.
The Catholic Leadership Conference, meeting Oct. 26 in Charleston, reaffirmed support of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical in which he affirmed the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception.
Separately, leading Catholic theologian William May has suggested to Pope Benedict XVI that he issue a 2008 encyclical to commemorate Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). May is the Michael McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America.
The “Humanae Vitae at 40” statement by the leadership group, which represents 80 apostolates, said the anniversary “presents an extraordinary teaching moment for the universal Church and for a deeply troubled mankind.”
Pope Paul VI taught that for baptized persons, “marriage invests the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, inasmuch as it represents the union of Christ and of the Church.” Conjugal love images God’s love; it is “fully human (of the senses and of the spirit at the same time), total, faithful, and fecund.”
The Pope explained that God made the sexual act both unitive and procreative. If people try to break apart these inseparable aspects, then a degradation in respect for life follows. He warned that contraception would lead to infidelity, abortion, broken families, objectification of women and possibly even government regulation of births.
Although May initially dissented from Humanae Vitae when Paul VI issued it in July 1968, he soon changed his mind and has defended it ever since. In his August letter to Pope Benedict, May called the encyclical “truly a prophetic document.”
Presuming that the body can be separate from the being of a person “is at the heart of the culture of death, and the widespread practice of contraception is at the heart of it all,” May wrote.
Pope Paul VI drew his conclusions from the magisterial teaching authority of the Church, “a teaching founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation.”
The Catholic Leadership Conference’s statement outlines the encyclical’s controversial reception, its rejection by dissident theologians and its neglect by clergy. It concludes: “Too few bishops taught it, too few priests preached it, too few laity lived it.”
Now, apostolate leaders hope to encourage bishops to rectify this problem, according to conference organizer Deal Hudson, who reported on the meeting Oct. 29 in his InsideCatholic.com column.
The statement gives broad suggestions on how the Church can “win the war for souls” if its shepherds re-evangelize two generations of undercatechized Catholics. One suggestion is to integrate Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body ideas into diocesan and parish programs.
“Theology of the body wasn’t invented out of nothing,” Hudson said later. “John Paul drew this out of the Catholic tradition of the integration of mind and body.”
The conference statement urges the Church to “regain her voice through a ‘New Evangelization’ founded on the truth of human love.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, later said this goal can be reached “through the faithful witness of those who are living it.”
“I constantly meet young married couples who are thriving on the Church’s teaching,” he said. “They’re evangelizing by their example.”
With 11 children, Vincent and Detsy Sacksteder of Dayton, Ohio, are one example. Vincent is an editor at One More Soul, an apostolate that seeks to educate people on God’s plan for sexuality.
“My wife and I didn’t start out being really aware of Humanae Vitae,” he said, “but we did focus on being open to the Holy Spirit, and God gave us that grace to value our faith more and more. Then we found its teachings just made for a successful pattern of life: free, faithful, total and fruitful.”
On the other hand, Father Pavone said, lessons can also be learned from mistakes. Many women now grieve over babies whom abortifacient contraceptives robbed them of. He sees hope in the Church’s helping women heal through efforts like Project Rachel, and in its ecumenical work with Protestants who are discovering contraception is unbiblical.
Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly said after the conference, “We hope this consensus among leaders can provide some direction for the bishops and the rest of us. For example, the bishops recently launched a major campaign on marriage, which is wonderful, but there’s still a need to clear up misconceptions and distortions of Humanae Vitae caused by dissenters, which still continue at many of our Catholic colleges today.”
One vocal dissenter was former Catholic theologian Father Charles Curran, who orchestrated others to publicly repudiate Humanae Vitae.
Coming during the 1960s’ revolutionary culture, this challenge to papal authority spread. The Church’s teaching on human sexuality was muted and misunderstood.
Father Curran now teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Asked if his assessment of the encyclical has evolved these 40 years, he replied Nov. 7 that he still believes “there are sufficient reasons to justify dissent from Humanae Vitae’s conclusion condemning all artificial contraception for spouses. The vast majority of Catholics in practice have come to the same conclusion.”
Catholic Leadership Conference speaker Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., recently preached on Catholics’ responsibility to form their consciences guided by the teaching authority Jesus imparted to his Church.
In the Nov. 2 Catholic Sentinel, Bishop Vasa wrote, “Many Catholics have erroneously determined that the path they should follow is to disobey while trying to convince the Church that her teaching is erroneous. In choosing to disobey, they break faith with the Church.”
“In that disobedience tremendous harm has been brought,” he said, to many women, to marriage, family life and society.”
Gail Besse is based in Boston.
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