By Danielle Van Haute

This July 25 marks the 50th year anniversary of Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), arguably the most widely contested encyclical in the church’s history. When the encyclical was promulgated, it was a time of change that included new possibilities and new concerns. Man was advancing in the areas of science and technology, the sexual revolution was in full swing, and contraception, in particular the birth control pill, offered the promise of solutions to problems ranging from women’s role in society, to economic disparity and the fears of population growth. It was prudent and necessary for the church to examine the question of how married couples could respond to this context in a way that was faithful to Christ’s teaching and upheld the dignity of the human person.

Many expected that when the church spoke on this issue, there would be a change in doctrine. Perhaps contraception could be incorporated into the lives of married couples for not only their betterment but also the betterment of the common good. Yet, to the surprise of many, Pope Paul VI unequivocally upheld what has been the constant teaching of the church, that contraception and direct sterilization are “absolutely excluded as lawful means to regulate birth.” (Humanae Vitae 14)

Nevertheless, we would misunderstand the encyclical if we took it simply to be a “no” to the question of contraception. Rather, this “no” is the logical consequence to the real heart of its teaching: a “yes” to the beauty and dignity of married love. For Pope Paul VI, the very nature of married love is to be an icon of God’s love, something St. John Paul II would later describe as the married couple imaging God’s Trinitarian self-giving. Simply put, married couples are called to give themselves to each other totally, faithfully, exclusively and fruitfully. This fruitfulness is most evident in the gift of children but also includes spiritual motherhood/fatherhood and is most definitely present in couples that are struggling with the cross of infertility or who are beyond childbearing age.

Pope Paul VI, in his wisdom and no doubt inspired by the Holy Spirit, foresaw that artificial contraception could easily lead to unintended results. Paragraph 17 of the document contains what have been aptly termed his “prophecies.” He writes that articifical contraceptive use could open wide the way for marital infidelity, cause a general lowering of moral standards, contribute to the reduction of women to mere objects, and pose a danger in the hands of public authorities, to the point where contraception might be imposed upon people. All of these have become fulfilled “prophecies” today.

For all the promises of the sexual revolution and the birth control pill, it seems that women have been the biggest losers. How is it that we, as a society, have come to embrace the idea that it is empowering for women to suppress their normal physiology and embrace sterility? The birth control pill has brought us to a point where women are receiving less comprehensive healthcare. Rather than cure the body of disease, the pill is routinely used to mask symptoms for any number of reproductive abnormalities. It seems that justice would demand for women to receive correct diagnosis and treatment of the root causes, thus restoring a woman to health.

To say that the Catholic Church is a true champion of women’s rights has earned me more than a few puzzled looks and angry responses. I understand that, especially in a culture where women have been taught to accept less than what they deserve. But, in this 50th Anniversary year, we have the chance to explore how Humanae Vitae not only remains faithful to the teaching of Christ but upholds the dignity of women as well.

For those who are unconvinced, I want to extend the chance to ask questions and engage in discussion. Visit MFLDioBR.org for more information, including information on the July 26 screening of the new film “Sexual Revolution: 50 Years Since Humanae Vitae,” upcoming NFP 101 class dates, free resources and more.

Van Haute is the associate director of Respect Life for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.