When Humanae Vitae first appeared fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI’s bombshell encyclical saying no to the pill, its fiercest critics dismissed it as irrelevant and badly out of touch. Mockingly, some wags at the time even suggested it should be set to the music of The Beatles’ 1967 classic “Fool on the Hill,” especially the riff about “his head in a cloud … nobody wants to hear him.”
Yet a half-century later, supporters say that whatever else the encyclical is today, “irrelevant” isn’t really it.
Italian Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo, for instance, said that Humanae Vitae actually was adept at reading the signs of the times when it appeared.
“At the time in which Humanae Vitae was published, the process of decolonization in many parts of the world was coming to an end,” he said.
“Birth control policies supported by many international agencies, such as distribution of condoms and legalization of abortion, were a worrying sign of willingness of many people to intervene and influence many new countries, especially in the developing world.”
“In this sense,” Marengo said, “those policies can be read as a form of ideological colonization.” (That phrase is especially associated with Pope Francis, who’s denounced “ideological colonization” on multiple occasions, meaning Western nations and NGOs exerting pressure on poorer societies to adopt a liberal sexual ethic as a condition of humanitarian aid.)
Last year, Francis set up a commission to look into how the encyclical came to be. Marengo, who teaches theological anthropology at Rome’s St. John Paul II Institute, was tapped to head it. He recently published a book, The Birth of an Encyclical: Humanae Vitae in the Light of the Vatican Archives, which is currently available only in Italian.
In the late 1960s, Marengo said, “there was a will to impose on those new nations an anti-birth mentality that was progressively spreading in the rich West.” He spoke to Crux via email.
Indian physician Pascoal Carvalho, a long-time member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, told Crux that while the Catholic Church has never supported birth control, people often overlooked Pope Paul’s openness to “responsible parenthood.”
During one of his in-flight plane conferences in 2015 Pope Francis echoed his predecessor, saying that each person should seek with their pastor “how to do responsible parenthood,” famously adding: “Some think that — excuse the phrase — in order to be good Catholics we have to breed like rabbits. No.”
According to Carvalho, the ideological agenda that drives some international agencies is as strong today as it was decades ago.
“It is well known that some foreign aid to countries of the developing world was linked with promoting contraception and abortion, all part of a reproductive health program for women,” he said. Today, he said, in part because of Humanae Vitae, there’s greater awareness of such agendas and more options available.
To realize the encyclical’s broader vision today, Carvalho believes the Church should be proactive in promoting life at all stages – assisting those who find it hard to give birth to children already conceived, supporting broader benefits to families struggling to bring up children, and providing education and other facilities for all to grow into healthy and contributing citizens.
Marengo concedes that today in the lives of families “inside and outside the Church, the arguments and the indications of Humanae Vitae are seen as distant or are just not known at all.”
In terms of why that is, Marengo said most reaction to the encyclical at the time was dominated by the polarization between those in favor of and those against the pill.
As a consequence, he said, it’s been “more difficult to imagine paths which, enhancing all the teachings of the encyclical, accompany couples to grasp the positive and proactive dimension of what Humanae Vitae says about human love and the value to be pursued of responsible parenthood.”
American theologian Pia de Solenni, Chancellor of the Diocese of Orange and Theological Advisor to Bishop Kevin Vann, is also among those convinced Humanae Vitae continues to be “terribly” relevant.
“The document is about real love. Recent allegations of sex abuse involving Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick and other Church leaders show exactly what happens when we don’t live chastity according to our state in life,” De Solenni told Crux, referring to mounting reports of sexual misconduct and abuse by McCarrick, including with a minor.
The allegations against McCarrick and others, she continued, “are a pretty good indication of what happens when the teaching is ignored.”
“We mock love and use people,” she added, aligning this with Francis’s concept of a throw-away culture.
“Without contraception, there’s no need for abortion,” she said. “Abortion exists because we have bought into a contraceptive mentality which sees unborn human life as an object that is a burden and shouldn’t exist.”
Jeanne Marie Hathway, a student of theology and philosophy at The Catholic University of America, also sees a lesson for the feminist movement in a papal document which, at the time, was widely seen as a repudiation of women’s rights.
“Ultimately, contraception and abortion are band-aid measures a society adopts so it doesn’t have to make serious improvements in its treatment of women,” she argued. “The Church rejects both, advocating for a culture shift that sees all issues through the lens of human dignity.”
Hathway told Crux that fertility awareness-based methods of family planning offer women a different way of being in their bodies – one, she said, which calls men to recognize and respect the intricacy of life.
“The idea that abortion or contraception (or both) are necessary for human flourishing— more specifically, female flourishing— comes from the fractured worldview that life is a balancing act between things we want and things that happen to us Hathway said: “Sex is ‘something we want,’ and children are ‘something that happen to us.’”
“Here, the Church is a powerful voice for a deeper reality: life is not so tidy,” she said. “This is especially true in the sexual realm, where two lives pour together in a way that makes them three and also one.”
Spaniard Father Francisco José Ramiro García, a moral theologian who teaches bioethics, argued that Humanae Vitae also has ecumenical relevance because it brings together what used to be the common teaching of basically all the Christian churches.
The fact that isn’t always clearly seen, he suggested, has been influenced by inside-the-Church reaction at the time.
“The fact that some bishops opposed the encyclical had a very negative impact [in its implementation],” Ramiro told Crux, referring to roughly seven bishops’ conferences around the world that released pastoral letters after Humanae Vitae appeared which, in more or less direct fashion, implied that its authority wasn’t binding.
One such conference was in Canada, where the bishops released a letter known as the “Winnipeg Statement,” widely seen then as a show of defiance. Yet earlier this year the Canadians released an updated document, called “The Joy of Married Love,” which takes a far more positive tack.
“Although many have misunderstood this encyclical by reducing its message to a ‘no’ on contraception, we reaffirm that the message of Humanae Vitae should be seen as an emphatic ‘yes!’ to the fullness of life promised to us by Jesus Christ,” the Canadians say.
According to Montreal’s Archbishop Christian Lépine, the change of attitude by the bishops of Canada is partially due to the passing of time.
“When it was released, the focus was mostly on contraception,” he told Crux by phone. “But with time, you can widen the picture and see all the other aspects and the foundations of Humanae Vitae, as well as the consequences that contraception has had in people’s lives.”
Noting that “1968 was another time,” Lépine is convinced that, although much still needs to be done to re-frame the encyclical and its teaching in a more positive light, “the foundation is there,” with Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body to back it up.
“More and more people see in this theology of the body a vocation to love and to the other, the mutual gift they are to each other, as well as to the communion of the couple and the fruitfulness of love,” he said.
(The “theology of the body” was the subject of 129 public audiences given by the Polish pope during the first years of his pontificate, as he addressed the thousands who gathered in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square for his weekly Wednesday talks.)
A 2016 poll by the Pew Research Forum study found only 13 percent of American Catholics who go to Mass every week think contraception is morally wrong. For Hathway, the problem isn’t so much that rank-and-file Catholics reject the Church’s teaching, but they don’t understand it in the first place.
“We reduce Church teachings to a sentence or two: ‘Contraception is bad, so you can’t use it,’” she told Crux. “Our society tells us that contraception is a necessary small piece of connecting the bigger pieces in life— career and romantic relationship, freedom and adventure, fulfillment and stability.”
Yet for her, such a vision is an “exhausting way to live,” missing the reality that these broken parts belong to a whole. The encyclical is a “blueprint,” she said, of that whole: “Human beings are created for relationship with God. The family is the school of relationship, and the root of the family is the friendship between a man and a woman.”
“Paul VI recognized contraception as part of the fracture, not the glue, of human life,” Hathway said.