Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 25, 2008
'Humanae Vitae' gains traction
Encyclical's positive message strikes chord in sex-drenched culture
By DENNIS SADOWSKI
- CNS photo
Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, said every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Enovid - the pill - in May 1960 after tests on nearly 900 women through more than 10,000 fertility cycles showed no significant side effects.
Initially it was thought that Pope Paul might support the use of birth control, especially after nine of 16 episcopal members of a papal commission in 1968 had approved a draft document that endorsed the principle of freedom for parents to decide on the means of regulating births.
Hopes were buoyed in some circles after documents reflecting the commission's deliberations were leaked to the Catholic press.
Once the encyclical appeared, opposition rose throughout the Church. Clergy in Europe and the U.S. openly voiced their disagreement and thousands of lifelong Catholics left the church.
Most notably, 87 theologians from U.S. seminaries and Catholic universities responded with their own statement within days. They argued that because the encyclical was not an infallible teaching, married couples in good conscience could use artificial contraception and remain good Catholics.
Whether because of certitude or tradition, or both, the teaching in Humanae Vitae remains.
Pope Benedict XVI, addressing participants of a Church-sponsored conference marking the encyclical's anniversary in May at the Vatican, called the document a "gesture of courage."
The pope acknowledged that its teachings have been controversial and difficult for Catholics but he said the text expressed the true design of human procreation.
"What was true yesterday remains true also today," he said. "The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change; in fact, in light of new scientific discoveries, its teaching is becoming more current and is provoking reflection."
Fuelling today's efforts to uphold the encyclical is an emerging philosophy known as the "theology of the body."
Based on a series of 129 talks Pope John Paul II gave at Wednesday audiences during the first five years of his pontificate, the teachings shed light on the human body and the sexual relationship.
Supporters say the teachings open people to Christ's invitation to life-giving love.
Theresa Notare, assistant director of the natural family planning program in the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the U.S. bishops' conference, said theology of the body particularly is being embraced by younger priests.
"They see how empowering God's truth is and they want the best for their people," she said. "So on a one-on-one counselling basis, integrating sermons, doing education in their parishes, our younger priests are marvellous."
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix knows that clergy have shied away from addressing the issues raised in Humane Vitae and has been encouraging priests in his diocese to overcome their long-standing silence.
He has regularly addressed the encyclical in his column in The Catholic Sun, the Phoenix diocesan newspaper.
"I think most priests didn't speak out and they fell silent," the bishop said. "They lost confidence that it was good news and they wanted to give their people good news."
Olmsted sees the encyclical as being relevant to Catholics today, especially because of its prophetic qualities. Pope Paul, he said, foresaw many of today's social ills if artificial contraception became widely used.
"I think we're in a time in society where there's very little support for the truth about human life and about marriage," he said. "There's a lot of difficulties for people to hear these truths and to understand them."
He is hopeful, however, that Pope Benedict's 2006 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) will help laypeople reflect on what love means to them.
"If Jesus says you should love the Lord your God with your whole soul, your whole mind, with all your might, that's what Humanae Vitae asks of a married couple," he said.
Bill Boomer is head of a program run by the Cleveland Diocese that teaches couples about natural family planning methods.
Pope Paul's encyclical can help parents who are trying to provide their children with an alternative to the "hook-up" culture of recreational sex, he said.
"Humanae Vitae gives a beautiful vision of what God's design for married love is. It's to be both life giving and love giving," said Boomer. "That has always been the constant teaching of the Church. It even needs to be heard more today."
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