Humanae Vitae: Trust the Truth
Following is the prepared text from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s talk to U.S. Diocesan Pro-Life, Marriage and Family Directors:
July 30, 2018
Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
True enough. We can point historically to a host of truths that have had precisely this impact — including the truth about the evil of contraception and its poisonous effects on marriage and society. Ironically, in Christianized cultures this truth was accepted as self-evident down through history until the early 1900s. But now? Now, we find ourselves in uncharted waters, a post-Christian society with a mixture of Judeo-Christian residue and deafening counter-narratives.
What do we do with a truth that was widely accepted as self-evident following the first evangelization, and did not see a catastrophic break until the 1900s? What do we do now when another vision has gripped vast sections of society, particularly those considered its most educated, its cultural leaders, and where this long-held truth now faces mockery and opposition? What do we do? We trust the truth.
What we cannot do is avoid the truth and hope to make disciples of Christ in its absence. The issue of contraception does not stand on the edge of Catholic life, but near its center. The marital embrace is the nexus of the love between the sexes: it is a fountain of love and life in the present, and a witness to hope for the future. We cannot conceive of a more fundamental reality in human life.
On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae. Within hours, a firestorm of criticism broke forth, especially in Academia and the media of the United States and Europe. Did this come as a total surprise to the Successor of Peter? It did not. In paragraph 18 of the encyclical, Paul VI stated that the Church had to be prepared to be counter-cultural because, like Jesus, the Church “is a sign of contradiction.” So it was and so it still is.
Ten years later, in October 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow in Poland traveled to Rome for the Papal Conclave that would elect him Pope. Although accustomed to traveling light, nonetheless he carried with him a manuscript he hoped to bring to completion during any free time he could find during the papal election. Then, he hoped to publish it shortly after the Conclave. That manuscript would eventually come to be known as “A Theology of the Body,” with the subtitle: “Man and Woman He created them.”
One of Karol Wojtyla’s primary goals in writing a Theology of the Body was to offer a defense of Humanae Vitae. He was convinced, however, that much more than a defense was needed. Why? Because while the teaching of Humanae Vitae is true, it was not persuasive to many people. Although it is, in certain sections, beautifully articulate and deeply prophetic, even where it was actually read, it was perceived to be a great “No” to what was popularly being touted in 1968 to be such positive progress in the sexual revolution’s early years. To many, Humanae Vitae came across as “true news” but not as “good news”, not as “beautiful news.” It exhibited Veritatis Claris, but not Veritatis Splendor — the clarity of truth but not its splendor.
If a teaching is only seen as “true” and not also as “good and beautiful,” then it is more difficult to teach with conviction. But St. John Paul II knew that, given a more personalistic presentation, the truth would be more easily received by the pastors and theologians in the Church, and in time, by the people of God. With that goal in mind, in AD 1978, the newly elected Successor of St. Peter, Pope John Paul II, decided to present his Theology of the Body to the whole world, but to do it over the course of nearly five years, making use of his Wednesday Audience Talks presented each week at the Vatican.
On this day that marks 50 years and six days since the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, I am happy to be with you who are leaders with me in defending and proclaiming the dignity of human life and lifting up God’s plan for marriage and family. Is it not providential that this meeting takes place shortly after the 50th anniversary of this deeply prophetic teaching? Pope Francis seems to think so. In Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father wrote, “We need to return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth.” Mindful that his own teaching on marriage and the family is built on the teaching of his predecessors, Pope Francis reiterated Humanae Vitae’s key teaching on the “intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life.” In paragraph #82 of Amoris Laetitia, he wrote, “The Church’s teaching is meant to help couples to experience in a complete, harmonious and conscious way their communion as husband and wife, together with their responsibility for creating life.”
Building on Pope Francis’ strong endorsement, I would like to highlight three key points from Humanae Vitae, which have profound implications for the Church in general and particularly for those like you and me who are called by Jesus to leadership at this time in the Church.
First: Love, most concretely seen through the love proper to marriage, is Free, Total, Faithful and Fruitful.
In #9 of Humanae Vitae, four short paragraphs capture the beauty of holy matrimony: its challenging reality and its necessary mission in the Church and society. As I read it now, listen for the radical particularity of the love proper to marriage, but also notice its connection to every other form of love.
“This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.
It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of self.
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. Though this fidelity of husband and wife sometimes presents difficulties, no one has the right to assert that it is impossible; it is, on the contrary, always honorable and meritorious. The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage, but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.
Finally, this love is fruitful. 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. “‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.’”
Love is free, total, faithful and fruitful. Like four pillars holding up a structure, these four qualities give stability to marriage and family, when each spouse embraces and lives them. The Church, like a wise architect, says to each couple, “Build your home generously and creatively around these four pillars. Add floors and rooms and things of beauty; but these four pillars, which you put in place at your wedding, must not be removed. They are the meaning of love. Within this structure, as St. Augustine said of the moral life, ‘Love, and do what you will.’ The complementarity of man and woman — of their bodies, souls, strengths and weaknesses, too — when solidified by a commitment to these four pillars of love, make a structure capable of weathering the storms of life. And not only this, it is a home capable of being a little city on a hill, a true domestic church, from which the light of Christ shines forth! This free, total, faithful and fruitful architectural wisdom is the great “Yes” which Humanae Vitae seeks to protect in every part of its teaching.
Second: Humanae Vitae has an Apostolic impact in that Paul VI called married couples to “Become Apostles to other married couples.”
He wanted them to realize that the fruit of marriage reaches far beyond the home. In #26, we read: “Among the fruits that ripen if the law of God be resolutely obeyed, the most precious is certainly this, that married couples themselves will often desire to communicate their own experience to others. Thus, it comes about that in the fullness of the lay vocation will be included a novel and outstanding form of the apostolate by which, like ministering to like, married couples themselves by the leadership they offer will become apostles to other married couples. And surely among all the forms of the Christian apostolate it is hard to think of one more opportune for the present time.”
When I first came to Phoenix, I prayed for more vocations to the priesthood. The Lord’s plans are always better than our own. He has sent some wonderful priests, but most of the workers for the vineyard He sent have been apostolic married couples, exceptional lay leaders. Through them, the Lord is caring for His vineyard in amazing ways. Please let me to share with you some evidence of their fruitful work.
For eight years now, God has blessed us with a marriage preparation process that integrates practical skills’ formation with key teaching from the Sacred Scriptures and the Theology of the Body, as well as a full course in Natural Family Planning.
Dozens of couples, passionately apostolic laypeople, teaching in English and/or Spanish, together with some members of the clergy and the medical community, are bringing about abundant fruit from their faithful witness and persuasive teaching of God’s Plan for marriage. To illustrate how most couples who have thus far completed our marriage prep program considered it “good news,” here are a few statistics: In Phoenix, like elsewhere in America, the clear majority of couples who come for marriage preparation are sexually active and cohabitating; i.e. they are following what our confused culture calls “common sense.” But we find, in the anonymous surveys we conduct, that 43% of the couples in this situation, after formation in God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage, decide to abstain from that day until they are married. Another 37% tell us they are unsure, but still discussing the matter. The false prophets of the sexual revolution would likely stare at these statistics with ashen shock! Only 14% of those who respond in surveys say that they reject the Church’s teaching, planning to continue their current habits. Additionally, 70% of our couples tell us they plan to use Natural Family Planning in their marriages. Others are unsure, but only 6% tell us they certainly plan on using contraception. So much for the cultural myth that Humanae Vitae is “a great No” to life! When it is taught by witnesses who love Jesus and who trust the truth, what happens? Those who hear the truth, even if at first resistant, come to trust it because they trust the witnesses.
But is the witness being given throughout the United States? There are currently just 12 dioceses according to the USCCB Natural Family Planning office requiring the full series of NFP classes. We can do better. I encourage each of you to do all you can to help others to trust the truth of Humanae Vitae, including the clergy and lay leaders in your own diocese. Assist them to put into place a robust presentation of God’s Plan for marriage, built on the witness of married couples who trust the truth. When the truth is presented by couples living it with joy born of sacrificial love, it is convincing. The clear and beautiful truth can be trusted.
The harvest of the lay apostolate is ripe, but the laborers are still too few. In a society shouting confused messages about sex, in a world that loves things and uses people, how great is our need for faithful witnesses to the truth about married love.
Third: Trust the True Prophets.
Pope Paul VI was, by nature, a shy man with a somewhat timid personality. He found it deeply difficult to stand up for tough truths and to bear the brunt of vitriol and angry protest. When an artist was commissioned to create a crucifix for the Chapel in the Papal Apartment, he made one without a crown of thorns. Pope Paul VI, after viewing the crucifix, asked, “Why is there no crown of thorns?” The artist replied: “Holy Father, at this time in history, you the Vicar of Christ are wearing that crown.” Artists often see more that the rest of us do. We should admire all the more Blessed Paul VI’s courage in the face of intense internal and external opposition. Without a doubt, the canonization of Paul VI, which will take place in a few weeks, should give courage to all of us who doubt our own adequacies. We must be grateful that Pope Paul VI, deep down, would have agreed with what G.K. Chesterton said around the time of his conversion, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” Allow me to recall in this vein the prophetic section # 17 of Humanae Vitae, In #17, Paul VI wrote:
“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions…”
Reading this prescient series of predictions, we are given courage to trust the truth. We see, too, that the Church was not alone. When we look below the surface of the widespread acceptance of contraception in the 20th century, we find other prophetic voices who spoke with courage alongside the Church. In one remarkable example, Malcolm Muggeridge, a 20th Century British intellectual and journalist who initially found himself deeply attracted to the concept of socialism and the Soviet experiment. That was, until he made an approved visit to Moscow and, despite the false pretty face placed on communism for the press, sensed the disturbing inhumanity of what was happening. His resulting novel, Picture Palace, he could not, however, get published. It was his first encounter with the Western media’s suppression of facts critical of the USSR, a situation reminiscent of our current media’s refusal to report accurately the destruction brought about by the Sexual Revolution. He visited the Soviet Union again, in an unapproved visit to the Ukraine, to investigate rumors of the intentional starvation of the Ukrainian people. His experiences there steeled him against the seduction of socialism and made him one of the few honest and uncompromising early critics of the communist experiment. He was a man committed to the truth in an era of lies. And once he joyfully converted to Christianity, and through St. Teresa of Calcutta saw the Catholic faith in action, he turned his attention to the issue of contraception. Late in his life, he said, “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception which finally made me decide to become a Catholic…As the Romans treated eating as an end in itself, making themselves sick in a vomitorium to enable them to return to the table and stuff themselves with more delicacies, so people now end up in a sort of sexual vomitorium. The Church’s stand is absolutely correct. It is to its eternal honor that it opposed contraception, even if the opposition failed. I think, historically, people will say that it was a very gallant effort to prevent a moral disaster.”
We are living in the midst of this moral disaster; and yet we do not lose hope because Jesus has won the definitive battle. The Church herself, even with weak servants like you and me, keeps the four pillars of love in place; and Truth, in the end, stands. If those of us in leadership will trust and witness to this truth, it can and will show its splendor.
St. John Paul II taught us prophetically, “The future of society and the Church passes by way of the family.” Inspired by soon-to-be canonized Paul VI and all the popes who have succeeded him, let us never hesitate to give a reason for our hope. With St. Paul, let us say: “I no longer live; Christ now lives in me.” The historical success or not of our faithful witness to Christ is not up to us. The fruit of our witness comes according to the Lord’s timing. In all you and I do on behalf of life, marriage and the family, may it be said of us, “They trusted the truth, courageously.”