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Humanae Vitae, 50 years later. We are still confronted with the nodal point

When the encyclical was first released, it was received unfavourably by the public opinion at large. Criticism and disapproving remarks also came from inside the Church. Fifty years since its publication, we are still confronted with what can be described as its nodal point; what Saint John II and Benedict XVI often defined as “prophetic.” We find it at n.9 of the encyclical, in which Pope Paul VI highlights the features and the typical requirements of conjugal love

“In love there is infinitely more than love. We would say that in human love there is divine love. And that is why the link between love and fecundity is deep, hidden and substantial. All authentic love between a man and a woman, when it is not egoistic love, tends toward creation of another being, issuing from that love. To love can mean ‘to love oneself’ and often love is just the juxtaposition of two solitudes. But when one has passed beyond that stage of egoism, when one has truly understood that love is shared joy, a mutual gift, then one comes to what is truly love. If it is true that love is what I tell you it is, one can understand that it cannot be separated from its fruit.” This quotation from Paul VI is not found in his official Magisterium but in a private conversation with a friend. In fact,  it is contained in the Dialogues with Paul VI, by Jean Guitton, one of the most representative 20th-century Catholic thinkers, a close friend of Giovanni Battista Montini.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae was not published until July 29 1968. The confidences of Paul VI date back to the summer of 1966, when he brought with him to Castel Gandolfo the 800-page dossier collected in the Commission formed by John XXIII and extended in its members by Paul VI. Moreover, in the above-mentioned quotation we find the foundations of the Encyclical rooted in the Gospel, consisting in the “inseparable bond” between the two meanings of conjugal love, that is both unitive and procreative. In a language that appears to recall the transcription by Jean Guitton, Benedict XVI identified the nucleus of the encyclical with the following words: “Indeed, having received the gift of love, husband and wife are called in turn to give themselves to each other without reserve. Only in this way are the acts proper and exclusive to spouses truly acts of love which, while they unite them in one flesh, build a genuine personal communion. Therefore, the logic of the totality of the gift intrinsically configures conjugal love and, thanks to the sacramental outpouring of the Holy Spirit, becomes the means to achieve authentic conjugal charity in their own life. Since, in fact, every form of love endeavours to spread the fullness on which it lives, conjugal love has its own special way of communicating itself: the generation of children. Thus it not only resembles but also shares in the love of God who wants to communicate himself by calling the human person to life. Excluding this dimension of communication through an action that aims to prevent procreation means denying the intimate truth of spousal love, with which the divine gift is communicated” (Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s Enclyclical Humanae Vitae, October 2 2008)

When the encyclical was first released, it was received unfavourably by the public opinion at large. Criticism and disapproving remarks also came from inside the Church.

Paul VI had always been aware of the difficulties linked to the encyclical’s reception, just as he was aware of his ineluctable responsibility to proclaim Christian doctrine. Presented in the simple language he chose to adopt in general audiences, during the general audience of July 31 1968 in Castel Gandolfo the Pope briefly outlined the stages that built up to the definition of the encyclical, described as “the positive presentation of conjugal morality concerning its mission of love and fecundity ‘in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation’” (n. 7). He equally mentioned the fact that to him it was a great responsibility, a feeling, he confided, that “has caused Us much spiritual suffering. Never before have We felt so heavily, as in this situation, the burden of Our office… How often have We felt almost overwhelmed by this mass of documentation! How many times, humanly speaking, have We felt the inadequacy of Our poor person to cope with the formidable apostolic obligation of having to make a pronouncement on this matter! How many times have We trembled before the alternatives of an easy condescension to current opinions, or of a decision that modern society would find difficult to accept, or that might be arbitrarily too burdensome for married life!”.

In spite of everything, Paul VI was confident that his document, “for its own intrinsic merit and for its humane truth”, would be well-received despite the diversity of opinions and despite the inherent difficulty encountered by whoever was to undertake this previously-paved path. In reality, it did not happen.

In 1968 the utopian “sexual liberation” concept reached its peak – its preliminary condition being the use of artificial contraceptives, deemed to grant women the same degree of “non-liability” given to men. That was the year when there was great talk of a “demographic time-bomb” threat, the so-called baby-boom. The prospects seem catastrophic, in a few years our planet will have too many mouths to feed with not enough food … (even today there are those who claim that the first cause of poverty is population growth!). The solution can only be “control”, or rather, put in a softer language, so-called birth “planning.”

In an article published on “La Rivista del Clero Italiano” to mark the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical’s publication, Maurizio Chiodi thus described the radical transformations occurred since then in the realm of the human experience of marriage and sexuality: “The emphasis placed on the ‘nuclear’ family model, the privatization of marriage, the clear separation between private and public spheres, the emotional reduction of the spousal bond with the loss of its definitiveness, the changes in the meaning given to the presence of children in the family, the fall of the sex taboo, the eroticisation of culture, the transformation of sexuality into a privileged and almost exclusive experience of emotion and pleasure, the ‘neutral’ interpretation of sexuality, considered indifferently homo or heterosexual” (2008/7-8, 518-519).

Against this backdrop the encyclical of Paul VI was inevitably seen as anachronistic. Dismissed as inadmissible in Western societies, it was largely welcomed in Third World Countries, notably in Latin America.

As noted, here the document was described as a “the Church’s courageous, free dissociation from the anti-natalist ideology of wealthy Western Countries, which they experienced at the time with forced sterilization imposed by international bodies” (Lucetta Scaraffia). Paul VI was well-aware of the “revolutionary” trait of Christian morals. In his speech at the United Nations on October 4, 1965, he said: “Even where the matter of the great problem of birth rates is concerned, that respect for life ought to find its loftiest profession and its most reasonable defense. Your task is so to act that there will be enough bread at the table of mankind and not to support an artificial birth control that would be irrational, with the aim of reducing the number of those sharing in the banquet of life.” Approximately three years later, he reiterated in Humanae vitae that the demographic problem can be solved “by enacting laws which will assist families and by educating the people wisely so that the moral law and the freedom of the citizens are both safeguarded.” (n. 23).

 Fifty years since its publication, we are still confronted with what can be described as its nodal point; what Saint John II and Benedict XVI often defined as “prophetic.” We find it at n.9 of the encyclical, in which Pope Paul VI highlights the features and the typical requirements of conjugal love.

Its four points deserve being reproduced in full: “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 fulfilment. It is a love which is totalthat 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 himself. 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 […].Finally, 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.”

(*)bishop of Albano, Secretary of the Council of Cardinals (C9)

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