On Human Life
By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap
Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
1. Thirty years ago this week, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching on the regulation of births. It is certainly the most misunderstood papal intervention of this century. It was the spark which led to three decades of doubt and dissent among many Catholics, especially in the developed countries. With the passage of time, however, it has also proven prophetic. It teaches the truth.
My purpose in this pastoral letter, therefore, is simple. I believe the message of Humanae Vitae is not a burden but a joy. I believe this encyclical offers a key to deeper, richer marriages. And so what I seek from the family of our local Church is not just a respectful nod toward a document which critics dismiss as irrelevant, but an active and sustained effort to study Humanae Vitae; to teach it faithfully in our parishes; and to encourage our married couples to live it.
The world since 1968
2. Sooner or later, every pastor counsels someone struggling with an addiction. Usually the problem is alcohol or drugs. And usually the scenario is the same. The addict will acknowledge the problem but claim to be powerless against it. Or, alternately, the addict will deny having any problem at all, even if the addiction is destroying his or her health and wrecking job and family. No matter how much sense the pastor makes; no matter how true and persuasive his arguments; and no matter how life-threatening the situation, the addict simply cannot understand— or cannot act on—the counsel. The addiction, like a thick pane of glass, divides the addict from anything or anyone that might help.
3. One way to understand the history of Humanae Vitae is to examine the past three decades through this metaphor of addiction. I believe the developed world finds this encyclical so hard to accept not because of any defect in Paul VI’s reasoning, but because of the addictions and contradictions it has inflicted upon itself, exactly as the Holy Father warned.
4. In presenting his encyclical, Paul VI cautioned against four main problems (Humanae Vitae, 17) that would arise if Church teaching on the regulation of births was ignored. First, he warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to “conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” Exactly this has happened. Few would deny that the rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease, and out of wedlock births have all massively increased since the mid-1960s. Obviously, the birth control pill has not been the only factor in this unraveling. But it has played a major role. In fact, the cultural revolution since 1968, driven at least in part by transformed attitudes toward sex, would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable contraception. In this, Paul VI was right.