A while back a good friend, knowing my love for Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, sent me a clever image. While I don’t know the origin or the author, he or she was quite creative in capturing the sentiment of the fruit of a culture that has either ignored, or made hasty, incorrect judgments, about the Church’s beautiful teaching on life and love.
It is a picture of the Holy Father Paul VI, pen in hand, designed to look like one of those classic motivational posters bearing the caption: “HUMANAE VITAE NO. 17” and underneath in small print: “I TOLD YOU SO.”
So what does Humanae Vitae, n. 17 actually say that could elicit such a comment? Paragraph 17 of this great encyclical that was issued 45 years ago on July 25, 1968, is where Pope Paul VI prophetically describes what could happen if acceptance of contraception became commonplace.
He predicts four things: an increase in marital infidelity, a general lowering of moral standards, the objectification of women, and wide scale coercion of populations by public authorities.
Even one with little knowledge of the Church’s teachings, could surely agree that these woes are regrettably prevalent today. The results of this moral decay are manifest in countless broken hearts and deeply wounded souls.
It is interesting to observe some other historical “parallels” in relation to Humanae Vitae. For example, the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla shared a perceptive insight in a letter he wrote in 1968 to his friend the French theologian Fr. Henri de Lubac with whom he had worked during the Second Vatican Council in preparing the beautiful Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). In describing some of his current reflections, the future pontiff said this in relation to the mystery of the person: “It seems to me…the evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.”
This degradation and pulverization of the human person is exactly what happens with contraception. There are far-reaching and eternal consequences to this evil which has dominated our culture for decades.
Two other historic moments are worth noting, both of which occurred ten years later. In fact, ten years to the day after Humanae Vitae was issued, on July 25, 1978, the world’s first “test-tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in England. We can’t help but recall how Pope Paul VI anticipated the consequences of contraception as people begin to treat their bodies as though they were machines and children as commodities.
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Also in 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the 263rd successor to St. Peter. Pope John Paul II remained committed throughout his pontificate to defending the dignity of the human person against the “pulverization” of the times. So much so, that the first major teaching project of his pontificate was the series of 129 General Audience addresses taking place from 1979 to 1984, known as the “Theology of the Body.”
It becomes clear in so much of Blessed Pope John Paul’s writings that what is reductive is also destructive, and therefore incompatible with the dignity of the human person. This is definitely true of the demeaning effects of contraception – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II continued to reflect on Humanae Vitae’s depth during the last cycle of his Theology of the Body addresses where he talks about love and fruitfulness. Blessed John Paul II knew how greatly this teaching needed to be proclaimed, and in fact he knew that the very future of humanity depends on it. Living the truth about life and love is integral to the good of the family, to a flourishing society, and to the flourishing of the faith.
His address of July 25, 1984 is worth noting. Here he refers often to both Humanae Vitae and Gaudium et spes, further explicating and integrating what was said by Pope Paul VI and the Council Fathers, and addressing some of the fundamental misunderstandings perpetrated after Humane Vitae was issued:
Those who believe that the Council and the encyclical [HV] do not sufficiently take into account the difficulties of concrete life do not understand the pastoral concern that stood at the origin of these documents. Pastoral concern means seeking the true good of man, promoting the values impressed by God in the human person; that is, it signifies applying the “rule of understanding,” [cf., Gaudium et spes, 51] which aims at the ever clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love, in the certainty that the one and only true good of the human person consists in putting this divine plan into practice.
The contraceptive mentality has permeated our culture like a contagious disease. But despite its ill effects, there is a cure, which only be found in the Divine Physician. As Pope Pius XI pointed out in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii (On Christian Marriage), if we meditate on God’s plan for love and life, and shape all our ways of thinking and acting according to His plan, we will find the fulfillment of the deepest desires of our hearts.
Pope Paul VI entered his eternal reward in 1978, shortly after Humanae Vitae’s tenth anniversary. Interestingly, he died on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Perhaps this tells us something that gives us hope for today.
As Peter, James, and John witnessed the glory of Christ the Savior while in the company of the great prophets Moses and Elijah, we are reminded that the prophetic proclamations and call to live the glorious truth about life and love, spoken so eloquently by the Venerable Paul VI and his successor, Blessed John Paul II, can and must be lived if we want to rebuild a broken world.
Most assuredly, Pope Paul VI would not have actually uttered the words “I told you so.” He wouldn’t need to. The evidence speaks for itself. As dismal as the situation may seem, we must again renew our resolve to live the truth about human love in the Divine Plan and proclaim it to others in whatever ways we can, so that one day we might witness the restoration of a Culture of Life and a Civilization of Love.