50 years after Humanae Vitae

Reading Time: 22 minutes

Pope Paul, Prophet and Martyr

Looking back at the witness of Paul VI, we rightly call him a prophet. During the years immediately after Humanae Vitae, to many of us he seemed to be a martyr.  His letter on the transmission of human life was his finest hour and he suffered for it. Yet, as the Scriptures reveal, prophets are called to suffer when they proclaim God’s truth and point to the future.  What we can see today is that, not only his proclamation of truth, but his observations and predictions in the encyclical were accurate in light of social trends and events in people’s lives over the past fifty years.

Pope Paul VI is pictured next to Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three Fatima visionaries, during a visit to the Marian shrine in Fatima, Portugal, in 1967. Pope Paul, who led the Catholic Church from 1963-1978, was canonised on 14 October 2018. Photo: CNS, courtesy Diocese of Brescia

Paul VI said that contraception harmed women (Humanae Vitae 17). In 1968 people laughed at him. Was not the pill the liberation of women? Fifty years later various feminists agree with him, perceiving the way women are exploited once robbed of their fertility. Men can easily exploit them as sexual objects. The health issues are also clearer today. But I believe we need to do more to get accurate information out on that issue. There is still widespread ignorance and “low dose” versions of the pill are being promoted as safe to use.

Paul VI argued that artificial birth control can be used by governments to impose population control. The Delegation of the Holy See had to lead the international struggle against population control at the UN Conferences in the 1990’s. I was a Member of the Delegation at the Population Conference in Cairo (1994), at the Social Summit in Copenhagen (1995) and the Conference on Women in Beijing (1995).  Saint John Paul II was our inspiring and encouraging leader in that struggle, but we always relied on the teaching of Blessed Paul VI in  Humanae Vitae.

A couple kiss at a Catholic church submerged in floodwaters in the Philippines in 2012. Humanae Vitae has gradually won more and more supporters for its reasoning and insights into who man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God and the path to holiness in spousal love. Photo: CNS, Ramoncito Campo, handout via Reuters

Paul VI was also criticised for linking abortion to contraception and sterilisation. Of course moral distinctions can be made between taking life and impeding life.  But recent decades have revealed how these three “ugly sisters” are inseparable components of the Culture of Death, linked closely to one another in a mysterious but evident way, particularly through an anti-life mentality. And now we have seen that mentality triumph in secularised Ireland.

His teaching that the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of the marriage act must never be separated has also been vindicated by the manipulation of nascent human life in recent decades – In Vitro Fertilisation, surrogacy, embryo experimentation and the cloning of embryos. Creating human-animal hybrids was even approved by Westminster, the “Mother of Parliaments”, which first legalised abortion in 1967.

Surrogate mothers rest inside a temporary home for surrogates, provided by Akanksha IVF centre, in Anand town, about 70 kilometres south of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. St Pope Paul VI foresaw how the separation of human life from human love led to practices such as In Vitro Fertilisation, surrogacy, embryo experimentation and the cloning of embryos in which large numbers of human beings are disposed of in a purely utilitarian manner to achieve the children people demand or desire. Human love and human persons are made merely transactional rather than transcendent by this mentality.

Paul VI argued that that love, not just life, is disrupted by anti-natal practices. People who actually read his encyclical find his rich doctrine of married love. But the creative development of that personalist dimension of his teaching had to wait for another Pope.