When the Encyclical was published on 25th July 1968, it caused an impressive -some would say possibly catastrophic- stir among Catholics throughout the world, which Cardinal Heenan, the then Archbishop of Westminster, described as “the greatest shock since the Reformation”. Today, it is also seen as prophetic. A cartoon circulating in the media this week, gives some food for thought!
The Encyclical aimed at reiterating the Church’s teaching in modern-day language and facing up to the recent developments especially in the area of artificial and medical contraceptives. The overwhelming conclusion of those consulted was that the Pope should slacken the traditional prohibitions. Despite this, Paul VI felt compelled by virtue of the Petrine ministry which he had received directly from Christ as successor of St. Peter, to enunciate with clarity “the mind of Christ” on this matter.
There can be no doubt that since the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 60’s, there has been a seismic change in what society previously considered wrong, to becoming very much the universally accepted fashion. Lamentably, those who disparage Humanae Vitae often have not read the actual document themselves and conclude that if everyone is doing it, it cannot therefore be wrong. However, as the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said:
“Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote.
Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong.
Right is right even if nobody is right”.
In a nutshell, that was the dilemma facing Pope Paul VI.
The final text of the Encyclical shows an awareness that what was being taught would not be easy to accept within that burgeoning permissive social environment of the day. At the same time, it was not blind or deaf to the need for compassion and an awareness of weaknesses and sins in people’s lives. The tone of the Encyclical’s language showed that Paul VI had kept in mind many of the objections that had been raised in the stage of gathering opinions from around the world as he prepared to write the encyclical. Given the nature of an encyclical, understandably the Pope could not argue each and every one of those objections in detail. Instead, he focused on the perennial moral principles at stake. He readily acknowledged the difficult cultural and social conditions in which many married couples live and showed a realistic recognition of the impact of weakness and sin. The Pope was speaking not only to Catholics, but to all Christian consciences that strive daily to take seriously the gift of Grace and the call to conversion. This is what ultimately concerns the moral teaching of the Church: the salvation of all.
The choice of language therefore places at the centre a fundamental element of the moral life of every Christian: even if human freedom always adheres imperfectly to the salvation offered in the Gospel, the Church must always propose it with fidelity and completeness. She cannot fall into the temptation of the sort of popular ethical relativisms that can easily drive a mistaken sense of social progress, which drifts us ever further away from God’s perspective of what is good, authentic, true development for all.
The Encyclical’s pastoral concern is also very significant. Three fundamental elements are highlighted:
- an indispensable, constant need to have recourse to the support of divine Grace in the daily struggles we face in our moral life and human action;
- the call not to isolate the practice of regulating births from the broader context of a married life embraced in all its constitutive dimensions;
- Christ’s Gospel call to a “mastery of oneself” and of “conjugal chastity” which no true disciple of Christ can ignore.