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  • Mary Shivanandan

Humanae Vitae - Path to Healing



Fifty years ago this year St Paul VI issued his ground-breaking encyclical, Humanae vitae (On Human Life). It was received with widespread consternation both within and outside the Church. Only a few years before the hormonal contraceptive Pill had been “perfected” and had ushered in the sexual revolution. Gone were any restraints on sexual expression both within and outside marriage. It has led to the situation we find ourselves in today, with not just the legitimacy but the desirability of homosexual acts, the endorsement of transgenderism and other assaults on the Christian family such as widespread divorce and single parenthood.


What is curious is that, while many within the Church decry these assaults on the family, few call for the virtue of chastity including marital chastity as the path to healing and wholeness. It is acceptable to abstain from tobacco and alcohol but anyone who advises abstention from any kind of sexual pleasure is regarded as backward, even bigoted. As Kurt Back, author of Family Planning and Population Control: The Challenges of a Successful Movement (Boston: Twayne, 1989) says, even the language changed—and necessarily so. “Yesterday’s sexual delinquent is today’s sexually active teenager.” (156) Before the development of supposedly safe contraception it was recognized that sex led to pregnancy. It is for this reason that the radical feminists pushed for the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which enshrined abortion as a right in the Constitution (in violation of the fundamental right to life) when the contraceptive device fails.


What is the Church’s response? To offer natural family planning—or as some prefer to call it, fertility awareness-based methods. By monitoring the woman’s cycle the couple can know when conjugal intercourse will lead to pregnancy. If the couple follows the rules the effectiveness rate is 99 percent. The catch? The couple needs to abstain from sexual intercourse. No matter that loving chastity at such a time can benefit the couple’s relationship, especially their communication. No matter that conceiving a child becomes a joint responsibility, not just the woman’s alone. No matter the discipline helps mature the couple, especially the husband, to make a “sincere gift of self” as St. John Paul II would say. All these benefits are achieved through marital chastity, which takes self-sacrifice, something our culture rarely teaches. It has also been shown that following the natural methods, endorsed by Humanae vitae, can lead to a new appreciation of the Church and her wisdom with a return to faith practice.


July is also the month we celebrate our Independence Day, the founding of American democracy, which is considered a beacon of freedom to the world. But one might ask, which definition of freedom, for excellence or for license? Our democracy depends on the virtue and self-discipline of every citizen. Surely, given the weak human beings we are, such self-discipline sometimes fails. It is an advance that the dignity of the girl or woman with an unwed pregnancy is now better respected, as is that of the homosexually oriented. Yet exalting their behavior and denying the discipline of the virtue of chastity is not helpful.


In conclusion let us celebrate this 50th anniversary of the encyclical, which sheds a shining light on marital chastity along with the gift of children, marriage and family as a true path to the happiness of the couple, family and society.


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