Youth Synod’s Missing Element: Discussion of Humanae Vitae
Even though its author Paul VI will be canonized Sunday, the encyclical’s message hasn’t shaped the synod’s deliberations.
VATICAN CITY — One subject so far missing from this month’s Youth Synod discussion has been the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, despite the document’s 50th anniversary this year, and Pope Francis’ canonizing the encyclical’s author, Blessed Paul VI, on Sunday.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, a member of the governing council of the Oct. 3-28 synod on “Faith, Young People, and Vocational Discernment,” told reporters Thursday “we haven’t talked about it, or at least I don’t think there have been any contributions.”
Published in 1968, Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition of contraception, approved natural family planning (NFP) methods in certain circumstances, and developed the Church’s teaching to stress two essential meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative, which are “inseparably connected” to each other.
Ever since its publication, dissenters inside and outside the Church have tried to soften its teaching to allow contraceptive use, while many others, especially in the pro-life movement, have long upheld Humanae Vitae as prophetic, especially in light of the breakdown of marriage and the family which they attribute to widespread use of birth control.
Although the theme of chastity has been widely discussed in the small language groups, contraception has hardly been mentioned, and possibly not more than once (a Nigerian bishop included it in his synod intervention earlier this week).
“It would seem you’ve been reading my thoughts,” said Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, telling the Register Oct. 13 it is “true that not much attention has been given to Humanae Vitae.” But the archbishop of Durban, South Africa, and a member of the synod’s information commission, said it would be the subject of his intervention next week.
Bishop Robert Barron, one of four synod fathers representing the U.S., noted the lack of discussion over the document at an Oct. 12 Vatican press briefing, saying he believed that given its “prophetic quality,” it “can and should be brought forward.” The auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, addressed the subject in response to a question from a journalist who compared the silence of the synod fathers to what many have observed has been decades of silence from bishops on the issue.
“When you read sections of Humanae Vitae today, they take on a whole new resonance and shed light in every direction,” he added. Paul VI “predicted quite accurately, in 1968, certain aspects in our society, within our moral life, and so I think it’s a moment to celebrate that.”
Cardinal Napier said “hopefully the canonisation of Blessed Paul VI will give a new impetus to the study of the true effects of contraception on marriage and the family.”
The Challenge of Sexuality
In Oct. 11 comments to the Register, Professor Janet Smith, Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, explained that sexuality is “one of the foremost challenges” youth face today in a “culture that thinks that sex is of no great import.”
“The culture advances a soulless kind of sex because it has adopted the view of sex that is fostered by contracepted sex — sex without responsibility,” Smith said.
In today’s society, it “doesn't matter with whom you engage in sex as long as it is more or less consensual,” Smith continued. It has just become “a highly pleasurable activity that involves no commitment, no special feelings or relationship and certainly does not need to be confined to a marriage open to children. The use of pornography is rampant and more accessible than any other kind of ‘entertainment.’”
But she added that young people are “recognizing more and more that such sex is not satisfying and leaves them feeling empty, used, and degraded” and can also lead to “incurable sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and many other miseries.” Smith added that the Church “understands why our culture is so messed up about sex” because it knows the sexual act has “deep meanings, meanings that demand responsibility — and those meanings are intertwined. The sexual act is not meant to be faceless, soulless, exploitative or degrading.”
Rather, Smith said, it is meant to be “grand, something that engages the whole self — a self that is able to make a complete gift of itself to another, to affirm another as a great gift, and is able jointly to be the source of new life for another immortal soul. It is both a love-making and baby-making act and those who treat it otherwise desecrate one of God’s most precious gifts.”
This is the message of Humanae Vitae, she said, adding that its teaching was enriched by Pope St. John Paul II’s two “brilliant expositions” of it: Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body.
Discussions at the synod have been “about the instability of mothers and fathers, how these kids want to be connected to a deeper idea of Church,” observed Robert Royal, director of the Faith and Reason Institute, who is in Rome analyzing the synod debates for The Catholic Thing. But what, he asked, has “wrecked the family, the relations between men and women, and the transmission of life more than contraception? And yet they don’t want to talk about it and we know why: They don’t want the pushback they get. You only have to look at the reaction the Pope received when he spoke out strongly against abortion this week.”
Yet, Archbishop Forte, elected one of 12 members of the synod’s final document drafting committee, didn’t rule out that the subject would be discussed. During the Oct. 11 synod press briefing, he told reporters that in view of the encyclical’s 50th anniversary, and the “value of responsible procreation for all, this is something that should be the subject of a dedicated space.”
He said he believed something might be discussed during the remaining days of the synod “but at the moment this is not at the center.” What counts, he continued, “is what’s within that message: being responsible when procreating. This is the message that remains, is an important message, and exalts the dignity of the human person.”
Bishop Barron said that in addition to marriage and family life being discussed in the small groups, he believed that “as we move through the instrumentum laboris (working document), perhaps we’ll hear it more and more. I’ve not heard it that strongly on the floor but we’re doing [this] sort of work on the ground as we move through the document.”
But for theologian Pia de Solenni, chancellor of the Diocese of Orange and adviser to Bishop Kevin Vann, even if the synod fathers were to take up the topic of contraception, “it’s not enough to talk about Humanae Vitae,” she said.“We are missing a fundamental human anthropology which was once presupposed.”
Pope Paul VI, she said, wrote Humanae Vitae in the context of a human anthropology that “has been forgotten and/or unexperienced.” To address the problems within our culture today, including the sexual abuse crisis within the Church, “we need to propose a radically Christian anthropology.” Such a context is needed for understanding Humanae Vitae, “Otherwise, it makes no sense.”
Despite the challenge of communicating the message of Humanae Vitae to a post-Christian culture, the synod fathers are nevertheless obligated to teach it, Janet Smith believes. “If the bishops at the synod do not use their teaching office to introduce youth to the splendor of the truth about human sexuality,” she said, “they will be depriving young people of one of the greatest gifts of wisdom that the Church possesses.”
Edward Pentin is the Register Rome’s correspondent.