Humanae Vitae – A Critical Message for Our Times

Nobody likes to be deceived. Most people are justifiably hurt or angry when a grave injustice is done to them, and perhaps even moved to do something constructive about the situation, to make things right. When it comes to the issue of contraception however, our culture has been deceiving people for decades, yet we see very few people confronting the world’s lies, or trying to correct the injustice that is perpetrated by a seriously flawed understanding of the human person.

Blessed Pope Paul VI exhibited great courage and conviction when he wrote Humanae Vitae in 1968. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of this profound encyclical, we owe the Holy Father a great debt of gratitude and we should make every effort to come to know this teaching more deeply and to make this beautiful message On Human Life more widely known. Despite strong currents of opposition, Pope Paul stood firm and spoke the unchanging truth with clarity and wisdom. How tragic then, that so many people have turned a blind eye to this message of life, love, and freedom, rejecting it outright, often not even bothering to read it to see what it actually says.

There is a strange false perception many people have that the Church is always saying “no”, and that her teachings about sexuality are “outdated”. They could not be more wrong. The Church’s view of the human person, of marriage, and of human sexuality expresses the fullness of truth. Great goods are being protected by the Church’s teaching. This is a beautiful vision! and one that rightly values the human person created as male and female in the image and likeness of God. Why wouldn’t we say yes to that? Our Creator loves us infinitely and He wants what’s best for us. He offers us every grace necessary to fulfill our call to love. But how well do we take Him up on His offer? Marriage and the conjugal union are meant to image God’s love. Thus we say the body has a “nuptial meaning”. When people witness the truth and beauty of authentic love, how can they not be drawn to the Creator of that love? After all, deep down, true love is what every human heart seeks. True love does not deceive.

Pope Paul’s prophetic vision of what would happen if contraceptive use became widespread, which he articulates in Humanae Vitae, n. 17, have been proven true again and again. Many have seen firsthand, and been hurt by, the increase in infidelity, the objectification and loss of respect for women, the coercion of populations by government entities, and the view of our bodies as machines to be manipulated rather than as gifts to be cherished.

Despite Humanae Vitae’s warnings of the potential fallout, as well as its compelling presentation of the true, good, and beautiful vision of the Church’s teaching on life and love, few have paid heed. When you violate the natural law, things go awry. They have. How so? In what ways has society’s widespread acceptance of contraception deceived us? Many will find that some of the more familiar examples resonate with people’s experience – whether it be their own, or that of people they know. These would include the high divorce rate, an increase in sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, a dramatic drop in the number of marriages, a rise in the rate of out-of-wedlock births, and the destruction of innocent human life at the rate of 1.3 million abortions per year in the U.S. alone. At the root of these and other evils are broken relationships and wounded hearts.

One aspect of the ill effects of contraception that we don’t hear about as often as we should, is the scientific evidence of its harm. If the moral law weren’t enough (and it certainly should be sufficient to convince the skeptic, though we regrettably live in a world where there is a serious lack of proper formation of conscience), the facts of science tell a compelling story that should make the even the naysayers re-think their views about contraception.

First there are the side effects. We’ve all seen the endless run of television commercials that in the course of advertising drugs for a variety of conditions while showing healthy looking people supposedly enjoying life, at the same time offer the expanded disclaimer that goes something like, “the use of [XYZ drug] can cause [litany of conditions]…and even death…consult your doctor to see if this drug is right for you”. Yikes!

Just as you can read the side effects, contraindications and more in the fine print of any prescription drug’s pharmaceutical insert, or read about it in the Physician’s Desk Reference, so too are horrific effects found in hormonal contraceptives. These drugs too pose serious health risks including blood clots, high blood pressure, heart disease, increased cancer risk – particularly breast cancer, infertility, increased irritability, increased propensity to depression, weight gain, and reduced libido. Even the World Health Organization classifies them as Class 1 carcinogens. In an increasingly health-conscious society, women should think twice about what they are putting into their bodies.

And there’s more. Hormonal contraceptives can also act as abortifacients. People commonly assume that they just prevent ovulation, but that is only part of the story. The drugs are specifically designed to have multiple mechanisms of action, so depending on a variety of factors having to do with the woman’s cycle, the drugs may sometimes prevent ovulation but when that mechanism doesn’t kick in they can also cause the death of a newly conceived embryo when it can’t implant in the mother’s womb because the uterine lining has been chemically altered by the drugs, making it hostile to the new life. Many women are unwittingly, and probably unintentionally, losing their pre-born children. Scientists have demonstrated that this effect is more common than people might think. The landmark research of Doctors Chris Kahlenborn, Joseph Stanford, and Walter Larimore explains the post-fertilization effects of hormonal contraception in a very compelling way. It is worth reading their studies found at the website of The Polycarp Research Institute. Once again sound science supports Church teaching and confirms object truth.

In Fides et Ratio (On Faith and Reason) Saint John Paul II famously says, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” (n. 1) If we are to cultivate a society where life and love are valued, the truth we uncover through both faith and reason will be the catalyst for turning hearts and minds to God once again.

Many people have borne witness to the fact that their eyes have been opened and their consciences illuminated thanks to reading Humanae Vitae. It is truly a life-changing document and one that can transform the world. Let us make it our mission to proclaim its beauty and teach its truth.

Allison LeDoux is the director of the Respect Life Office and the Office of Marriage and Family for the Diocese of Worcester, MA. Mrs. LeDoux serves as coordinator for the New England region of Diocesan Pro-Life Directors and is a member of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference’s Pro-Life/Pro-Family and Health Care Subcommittees. She received her certification in Catholic Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 2007.Mrs. LeDoux and her husband, John, a permanent deacon, are the parents of eight children.
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