Humanae Vitae is 55 years old this week. Written by St. Pope Paul VI in 1968, this encyclical on responsible parenthood caused great upheaval in the Church in its day. And arguably, that tension between what science and technology make possible and what faith tells us God has inscribed in the natural world has never been settled. It remains a problem each person is called to address in life’s decisions and choices. Say “Humanae Vitae” today and people have different reactions. Many perhaps would have a “File Not Found” message in their eyes. Others somewhat familiar with the document may think of contraception. Some have concluded it was an overreach of faith into the world of science, with values no longer relevant to the modern age. By the way, this view is not new, and in the early paragraphs of the encyclical Pope Paul addresses the objections clearly. I always think he chose to release it on July 25 because that is the feast of St. James, the first of the apostles to be martyred. Paul knew well this would not be a welcome message to all.
But Humanae Vitae is in fact about the remarkable gift of human life (what the title means in Latin) that is entrusted by God, the Lord and Giver of Life, to human collaboration. Its theme is responsible parenthood, and the dignity of being a mother and father, called to be cocreators of each child’s life –a life that will endure eternally. While the language may sound a bit stilted in 21st century discourse, Humanae Vitae speaks clearly to so many of the issues that continue to stress our social life.
Reading the encyclical, we find perspective on the gift of creation and the goodness of nature. We understand the infinite value of every human life, as the divine image is transmitted from generation to generation through human life and love. This value of life illuminates the response of faith not only to abortion and contraception, but to war, immigration, poverty, homelessness, respect for those who differ from us, and our everyday interactions. Its vision of the fundamental goodness of human sexuality that allows us to share in the creative love of God gives context to the debates around gender, over-the-counter contraceptive pills, chemical abortifacients that come in the mail, the reduction of the human body to a marketing tool, and many others.
Humanae Vitae does not provide a checklist answer to every question. Rather, it creates a positive vision of God’s love active in human freedom. It sketches a portrait of our potential and our greatness, while at the same time acknowledging our human frailty and imperfection. Borrowing language from another document about human life, 1987’s Donum Vitae on artificial reproductive technologies, Humanae Vitae may conclude “no” about the morality of being deliberately closed to the gift of life, but only because of the greater “yes” of that gift in itself. We are only here to debate about these questions because others have given us life and nurtured us to today.
Thank you to all parents – including my own – who accept this call with generous goodness and God’s grace. Through years of ministry and my own family experience, I have come to know some dim picture of the courage, patience, trust, and at times anguish you live. But know that in all of it, you are creating the future, day by day, in love.