Humanae Vitae at 50


“Marriage ... is far from being the effect of chance or the result of 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.” Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968.

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of this papal encyclical. It remains one of the most controversial and most widely read encyclicals ever issued. As a Lutheran pastor, I don’t make a habit of reading papal documents, but this one deserves our attention and comment.

It was issued in the middle of one of the most turbulent times in our history. We were at the start of the Sexual Revolution. For the first time since Constantine (more than 1,600 years ago) an all-out assault on marriage broke out. This war on the most fundamental building block of society is still raging.

Under the slogan of “Free Love,” true love was attacked. The love that bound husband and wife in a permanent union to care for the children who were conceived by their love was replaced by an “anything goes” attitude enslaved to feelings and urges run amok.

The hot-button issue of the day was birth control. The Pill had come out in 1960, and Griswold v. Connecticut had recently been decided in favor of granting the right of married couples to use it. In this context, it was easy to dismiss Humanae Vitae as a weird “Catholic thing.”

Most Protestants did just that. Even Catholics, in alarming numbers, privately dismissed it as the bloviations of an out-of-touch pope. Secularists made fun of it and used it as one more reason to marginalize religion in the public square.

As a young man in 1987, my first knowledge that it even existed came when I stumbled onto an obscure song by Jerry Jeff Walker, written and recorded within a week of Humanae Vitae’s release. I’m not recommending it as fine art. But, in case you’re curious, the song was titled “The Ballad of the Hulk.”

Now, 50 years later, nobody is holding symposiums or writing thoughtful articles about the Jerry Jeff song. But people all over the world are rereading the pope’s words and pondering how they relate to the monumental changes we have seen over the past five decades.

That’s because Humanae Vitae was never just about “birth control.” It is about the very nature of human life. It is about the relationship between male and female. It is about marriage and family, children and the true nature of love. If you are interested in these things—and who isn’t?—you should at least familiarize yourself with this thoughtful encyclical.

In it you will find several predictions. For one, it foresaw increased “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Pope Paul VI wrote these words at a time when the divorce rate in America had been steady since the end of World War II. In little more than a decade it doubled. Meanwhile, the marriage rate has dropped more than 30 percent to all-time lows. In a culture pervaded by pornographic words and images, fewer children than ever live with their mother and father.

Another prediction was that men would “forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”

From pop lyrics that degrade women in the extreme to the college hook-up culture to the #MeToo phenomenon, I think this prediction was right on the money.

Third, the pope predicted that unscrupulous government authorities would be tempted to use the levers of power to impose birth control on the unwilling. We saw this prediction fulfilled immediately. Before the ink was dry on Humanae Vitae, the USAID agency was forcing foreign governments to implement birth control policies as a condition of receiving food and medicine.

Foreign governments hungry for American money but unbridled by Christian ethics did horrible things to their citizens as a result of this policy. The resulting pain and injustice inflicted on foreign women from India to Africa should make America blush.

Other governments, like China, implemented barbaric “one-child policies.” As time went on, even U.S. citizens felt the pressure. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published rules requiring even nuns to pay for birth control—a rule eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.

Finally, the encyclical foresaw that separating the begetting of children from marriage would lead to unlimited attempts to suppress and alter the human body. As predicted, today we are in the midst of a “transhumanist moment.” Through both science and law, our culture is driving a wedge between the human body and the human mind.

We are treating people as if they are nothing but a mind carried around in a meaningless body. With a worldview like that, what hinders us from inflicting the most terrible horrors on the body—ours or someone else’s?

How could Pope Paul VI so accurately predict the future? Was he some sort of prophet? I think not. If you believe the pope is a prophet, you had better believe every word that comes out of his mouth.

But if you simply think that he was right about human nature, you can easily see that his predictions were based on simple facts. At the heart of Humanae Vitae are two basic facts. First, marriage is about the total gift of yourself—body and soul—to the other. Second, that total self-giving is intrinsically related to children.

Not very long ago we all understood this. Over the past five decades, confusion and doubt have clouded our minds. But don’t take the pope’s word for it; you can observe these truths for yourself.

You can observe these principles at work in your own life and in the lives of your friends and family. You can observe these principles by looking at world history and noting which societies flourished and which societies floundered.

You can observe these principles through the lens of the social sciences. Hundreds of sound research studies have demonstrated the wisdom of Humanae Vitae. You can also observe these principles taught in the Christian Scriptures.

The pope’s predictions were not based on some secret prophecy. They were based on the simple truth that marriage and children belong together. There is only one relationship that can lead to the procreation of children. Because it can, and often does, God has placed a wall of protection around the married couple.

It is the responsibility of society—you and me—to honor and support that marriage. When we fail to do that, people are hurt. It is as simple as that. That wall of protection is for all three persons involved. The father, the mother and the child all have unique vulnerabilities in a family. The institution of marriage protects all three.

Humanae Vitae remains a remarkable document. It’s not what you think it is. Fifty years later, it still speaks the wisdom of the ages. Even a Lutheran can admit that.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at onlyhuman-jl.blogspot.com.

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