Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI slammed the door on Catholics’ use of modern contraceptives with the encyclical Humanae Vitae and its fateful words: “The Church…in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”1 Humanae Vitae marked a turning point for the Catholic church, as Pope Paul rejected the theologically sound findings of his own Papal Birth Control Commission in favor of a turn to rigid orthodoxy. Having missed the chance to craft a modern, compassionate sexual ethic based on the individual consciences of Catholics, the church found itself largely ignored on matters of sex by its own faithful, which left it grasping for other ways to enforce its teachings.
Pope Paul had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed.
It was also a historic moment for the rest of the world, as Humanae Vitae would come to dominate the hierarchy’s stance on public health challenges like the spread of HIV&AIDS and access to birth control globally. Beyond these impacts for millions of Catholics and non-Catholics, Humanae Vitae was also instrumental to the evolution of the “religious liberty” debate, as the Catholic bishops sought to control by public policy what they could not control by doctrine.
Understanding how the church came to reject contraception and make protecting a flawed encyclical a central part of its theology and public witness is essential to comprehending current policy debates, as well as to appreciating the lives of millions who continue to be impacted by the church’s most infamous encyclical.
1 Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968. http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/docoments/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html