Archbishop Chaput’s Column: The Importance of Humanae Vitae

A bishop attends a lot of worthy public events and fundraisers. It’s part of the job. And supporting good people doing good things is always a source of satisfaction and hope.  But once in a while, an event comes along with an unexpected pleasure. 

The June 17 luncheon on behalf of our Philadelphia Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary was just that kind of event.  It drew an enthusiastic crowd – honoring Bishop John McIntyre’s 25th anniversary as a priest was part of the focus —  and among the many attendees were two long-time friends: Martha and Bill Beckman.

The Beckmans have three children.  A daughter will  marry this fall, and twin sons are both studying for the priesthood.  As members of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, they’ve devoted much of their lives to Church service.  That’s included direct missionary work as a couple and as a family.  Bill served on my staff during my ministry as archbishop in Denver.  He helped me with a number of key projects, including a pastoral letter I released in 1998 on the 30th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life.”).

Which brings me to the point of this column.  Next month, July, marks another anniversary of Humanae Vitae.  Few recent Catholic documents have been as reviled, but also as perceptive, important and accurate in its warnings, as Paul VI’s great encyclical.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI both firmly reiterated Humanae Vitae in their teaching.  It remains a powerful counter-witness to the widespread sexual dysfunction of our age.  As other Christian communities, and even many Catholics, have collapsed in their defense of sexual integrity, Humanae Vitae has remained a testimony to the truth.

Bill recently sent me his thoughts on Humanae Vitae as a husband, father and man of faith.  First published last year in the Archdiocese of Omaha’s The Catholic Voice, they warrant sharing (slightly adjusted for 2017) here.  He writes:

July 25, 2017, will mark forty-nine years since the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth.”  The eighth and last encyclical letter of Blessed Pope Paul VI was easily the most controversial Church document since the Reformation and its core teaching the most rejected.  It remains so today.

Pope Paul reiterated what had always been the teaching of the Church, namely, that married couples must be open to life in every act of marital intercourse and that any act or omission intended to prevent conception is morally wrong.  This is because the marital act bears within it by nature the capacity for the couple’s intimate union and the procreation of new human life.  These twin aspects ought never to be willfully separated if the gift of marital love is to be respected and lived responsibly.

The pope presented this teaching in a tone which was at once compassionate and realistic toward couples facing difficulties, and pessimistic about the long-term consequences of deliberately separating the unitive and procreative truths of marriage.  His predictions that moral standards would decline, infidelity and illegitimacy would increase, women would be reduced to objects for pleasure and that governments would grow more coercive in the goals of population control all have proven true.  Other damaging consequences can be shown as well.

But it mattered little.  HV was countered by a perfect storm.  The Anglican Church had permitted contraception more than thirty years earlier, and the decade of the 1960s was marked by selfish individualism crowned by the invention of the birth control pill, the “free love” movement and liberalized divorce laws.  Maybe most damaging was the fact that the papal commission studying the issue had voted to permit birth control.  The commission report was leaked and became a rallying point for those opposed to the pope’s clear teaching.

Those opponents included not a small number of influential clergy and academics who publicly dissented by signing protest ads in major newspapers, and the dissenters soon included a substantial majority of ordinary Catholics.  The Church was divided and seriously wounded over a matter of utmost importance – the truth and meaning of marriage and the sanctity of life. 

Today the rift and wounds remain, and only the Holy Spirit can bring healing and wholeness.  In the face of almost 50 years of selfishness and disobedience, I pray that the Church will zealously teach the truth and beauty of this encyclical, urge repentance for the manifest sins against the sanctity of marriage and life, and call the faithful to complete openness to the innumerable blessings which flow from the Lord and Giver of Life.

The best response I can make, or anyone can make, is:  Amen.

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