My Place in the Sun, July 12: 50th Anniversary of ‘Humanae Vitae’

My place in the sunBishop Robert J. Cunningham

Many American historians consider 1968 as one of the most troublesome years for our country. There were a number of major events with long-ranging consequences including the Vietnam War, the rise of two prominent persons offering a vision of hope and unity for our country and their subsequent assassinations.

The early months of 1968 saw the build-up of American troops in Vietnam. The troop surge announced in March brought the number of American troops to 549,000. Throughout the country, the anti-war movement was peaking.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., announced plans for the Poor People’s Campaign on March 4 only to be assassinated a month later on April 4. Racial riots followed his assassination. Robert F. Kennedy announced his presidential campaign on March 16. On June 5, after winning the California primary, he was shot leaving the Ambassador Hotel and died the following day.

In 1968, our country was divided by a war many miles away and at home by conflicts, often violent, surrounding racial tensions.

In the midst of this national turmoil, our Church also experienced unrest with the publication of Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968. Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) is the encyclical written by Blessed Pope Paul VI to reaffirm the teaching of the Catholic Church on married love, responsible parenthood, and the continued rejection of unnatural forms of birth control and abortion. It affirmed traditional Church moral teachings on the sanctity of life and the procreative and unitive nature of conjugal relations.

As the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae approaches, I reviewed the encyclical. Allow me to share some thoughts from the encyclical.

Marriage and the family are founded in God’s love. “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love,’ the Father ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.’”

Marriage is an institution crafted by God. “Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.”

Humanae Vitae describes married love as selfless, total, lifelong, and fruitful. “It is a love which is total — that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything. . . . Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake. . . . Married love is also faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death. This is how husband and wife understood it on the day on which, fully aware of what they were doing, they freely vowed themselves to one another in marriage. . . .This love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”

For those who recall Humanae Vitae’s publication, we also recall the criticisms and dissent that it provoked. It is worth noting that Blessed Pope Paul VI offered consequences that would follow dissent from the Church’s teaching on marital love. Among those consequences he mentioned conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality; loss of respect by men for women to the point of considering a woman as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as a respected and beloved companion; the belief that a person has unlimited domain over the human body. Without belaboring the point, the increased divorce rate, rise in sexually transmitted diseases, sex trafficking, pornography, widespread use of sterilization, family planning programs in developing countries and cloning are evidence that the Holy Father correctly identified the long-term results of contraception.

Quoting from my recent pastoral letter on the role of the family, “Marriage and the modern family are indeed under attack. These time-honored and fundamental institutions are threatened today by a variety of policies and practices from successful attempts throughout the United States and beyond to redefine marriage, to sinful actions that do not uphold the sanctity and dignity of all human life — contraception, certain reproductive technologies, abortion, and euthanasia, to name a few” (Pastoral Letter, The Role of the Family in the Life of the Church of Syracuse and Beyond).

In our diocese, we are celebrating the Year of the Family. As I revisited Humanae Vitae, I thought about the many families I have had the joy of meeting as I travel throughout our diocese. How important families are to society and the Church!

During this Year of the Family, I encourage you to read Humanae Vitae. The encyclical deserves our attention. It offers beautiful teachings and insights on marriage and its divine purpose. The encyclical reminds us that marriage “is more than a simple choice to enter into a union. It is the response of two people to God’s call to enter into a lifelong, intimate partnership of life and love” (Pastoral Letter, The Role of the Family in the Life of the Church of Syracuse and Beyond).

God bless all families! Let us daily pray that they will accomplish their mission of evangelization as they build up the domestic church — the church of the home in which faith is able to grow and mature.

If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.