50 Years Later: Unwrapping Humanae Vitae

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Sr. Brittany Harrison, FMA

A gift for teens and teachers alike

This year, the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, an encyclical often wrapped more in controversy than celebration. Some see it as a prophetic document; others view it as evidence of the Church being “out of touch” with modern science and lifestyles. It marks a time when the Church prophetically responded to social pressure, but not without social ire. To some, Humanae Vitae brought relief, and to others, frustration. Not only was it a clear condemnation of artificial birth control as a practice, but it also signaled trouble for future generations if its teachings were left unheeded, as seen by some of the destructive patterns in relationships today and a reduced respect for women’s dignity as evidenced in our “#MeToo” culture. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae became the basis for St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and it is being rediscovered as a source of insight into the moral confusion our culture is experiencing.

Some background

Following the recommendations of a commission started by his predecessor, St. John XXIII, Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968 as the Church’s response to the growing sexual liberation movement within society. The committee that studied the scientific, psychological, social, and theological implications of artificial birth control was comprised not only of priests and religious, but also of multiple married couples, doctors, scientists, and community leaders.

At that time, rumors from Rome were that the Church was going to rubber-stamp the use of artificial birth control. Yet when the encyclical was finally released, many Catholics were upset by its contents. In a TV miniseries I watched as a teenager, I recall someone sobbing when the radio announced that Pope Paul VI’s pronouncement banned the use of artificial birth control. To my teenaged mind at the time, I equated Humanae Vitae with the oppression of women. It would take my eventual conversion to Catholicism and a serious study of the document to reverse my opinion.

Learning and teaching Humanae Vitae

By society’s norms today, the bodies of teens and adults are promoted to be always sexually available, with no strings — such as an inconvenient pregnancy — attached. Seen from that perspective, the Church’s teaching against the use of artificial birth control, coupled with the true dignity of human persons, is actually empowering and liberating.

In my years of working with teenagers, I have been often surprised by young people’s receptivity to the Church’s moral teaching regarding sexual ethics. Witnessing a culture saturated with the fog of moral relativism, many teens are beginning to question if a lack of moral teaching is perhaps more a source of bondage than freedom (whereas sometimes their parents struggle more to accept the Church’s guidance than their teens do).

My own journey with Humanae Vitae began as I prepared to face a classroom full of high-school girls, having been tasked to present a moral-theology unit about sexual ethics and the Church’s teaching. Would my students find the words of their celibate religious teacher to be a nice ideal but totally unrealistic, with no meaning for their lives? As I contemplated my students’ faces during a study period, some engrossed in their homework, others daydreaming, and some listening to music as they scribbled in notebooks, I wondered how they would receive the Church’s moral teaching about human sexuality … when it is often portrayed in the culture as a huge “No” to fun, instead of the joyful and life-affirming “Yes!” that it really is.

I recalled the scene from the movie Sister Act, where one of the sisters is teaching Sex Ed to a group of unruly students. One asks her how she, a nun, could have anything to teach them about sex. Picking an apple off the corner of her desk, the sister smiles and replies, “You don’t have to bite the apple to know it’s sweet!”

I wanted to teach my students that the Church’s guidelines about sexual behavior are given to us because sex is good, valuable, and sacred, not because we are against fun, see the human body as dirty and bad, or want students to have a boring college experience. As I tell them, sex is like fire — within the proper boundaries and used in the right way, it provides warmth and security, allowing people to do all kinds of creative and helpful things they would not be able to do without it, but if the fire doesn’t have boundaries and is allowed to go unchecked, it can be destructive, hurtful, and damaging. The Church’s teachings help us to keep the fire — our sexual energy and desires — properly directed.

Theology of the Body

Any good catechist or religion teacher does a lot of personal study to prepare for their classes. In my studies, I discovered, much to my edification, that Humanae Vitae had been the inspiration for and foundation of St. John Paul II’s epic teaching on the Theology of the Body (TOB). His intention throughout his 129 Wednesday audience talks (1979-1984) that address this subject was to build upon the conversation Paul VI began about the meaning of the human body and sexuality. St. John Paul II’s indepth exploration of Humanae Vitae links it to what he called a “theology of human love” in God’s plan
of salvation.

Although Humanae Vitae is a serious document, it is not a dry read. To begin reading Humanae Vitae is to find oneself thrown into a theological Star Wars epic. When I first I read it, I could almost see the words scroll up the screen on a starry black background while the voice of James Earl Jones boomed:

The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships. (Humanae Vitae, 1)

Throughout the document, like a Jedi knight, Paul VI battles misconceptions about the meaning and purpose of marriage and fertility with clarity and reason. He fends off the culture’s reduction of women to sexual objects, and men as merely casual participants in raising children. He paints an image of man and woman in a married covenant that both reflects God’s love and models the relationship between Christ and the Church — one of intimacy, respect, love, joy, and fruitfulness. His descriptions of married life are what today’s teenager would call “#goals.” And he waxes poetic in some places.

In explaining the Church’s disapproval of artificial birth control, Paul VI rightly saw that once we divorce the potential to create life from the unitive dimension of the sexual act, we also sever it from the divine dignity God wrote into the sexual embrace. St. John Paul II would later expand upon these concepts, coining such terms as “the language of the body” to express how the male and female bodies “speak” about God to one another. Using a sublime analogy, he described how Trinitarian love may be revealed in the sexual act between a husband and a wife — and the fruit of their love — in a child.

Once we understand that our human bodies reveal God, we understand that nothing — neither fertility nor sexual differences — are arbitrary or something to be casually suppressed within the human person without offending our very dignity and purpose.

In his essay, “Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae,” Dr. Thomas D. Williams explains:

The human person offers us a special window on God, into his nature. It is often asserted that many biblical references for God are anthropomorphic, that is, they attribute to God features of the human condition. Yet the deeper reality is not that God is anthropomorphic, but that we are theomorphic. The human person is God-shaped.
We reveal God in a way that the rest of creation does not. Therefore, the human body is a theology textbook. It tells us more about God than the rest of creation. (For more, see Thomas Williams, PhD, “Theology of the Body and Humanae Vitae,” Alpha Omega, Sept.-Dec., 2008, 365-386.)

On the first day of a class about Humanae Vitae and TOB, imagine looking at your students, who are eager (well, at least ready!) to receive their textbooks, and saying to them, “There is no textbook for this class. You are the textbook. Your body is the textbook, and we will examine everything it reveals to us about God, the meaning of your life, and your ultimate purpose.” How do you think the teenagers would react? Intrigued, right? Perhaps a bit doubtful, but nonetheless interested to see how you would help them to learn the language of, and read the theology written into, their bodies.

Beginning with the lived experience of a student is the best way to connect theology and what might at first seem to be abstract to their daily lives.

Rational, intelligent, prophetic, and countercultural

As adults, we often approach sexual morality as a stressful topic, afraid that we will spark debates, anger, and protests among our students. But when correctly presented, young people come to see how Church teaching, including Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body, form a vital part of the rational, intelligent, prophetic, and countercultural moral teachings the Church has preserved for more than 2,000 years. Indeed, some students may not like a teaching, but they can never say it is inconsistent with the rest of theology. Nor can they claim that it’s unfair when viewed on a wider moral scale.

Once we teach our young people to see within their bodies the very image of God, and as a way divine truth is communicated, God may no longer seem so distant nor religious faith so irrelevant. Rather than being oppressive, Humanae Vitae leads the revolution of the theology of love and relationships that has lent richness to the teaching of the Theology of the Body. While it is difficult for today’s young people to shake free from the shackles of the “do whatever feels good” imperative, once they do, they become evangelists for a renewed commitment to the joy of sexual integrity.

In a world where people are increasingly treated and used as things, the Church reminds us that we have a divine dignity written into our very nature. For God created the world and everything in it, the angels and the stars, all of which he declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31), but only human beings are allowed the dignity of being not only good, but also a reflection of God’s “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:27). Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body remind us of that. This year’s 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae affords us an opportunity to return to — or embrace for the first time — these teachings, allowing them to transform our lives, and become a richness we can share with people — young and old — who are hungry and ready for the truth.


Sr. Brittany Harrison, FMA, or “Sister B,” as she is known to young people and on Twitter (@sisterb24), is a Salesian sister of St. John Bosco and the Campus Minister and Chair of the Theology Department at Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon,
New Jersey. She is a regular contributor on Relevant Radio, and enjoys using social
media to evangelize and give people a glimpse into the lives of women religious.

This article originally appeared in Catechist magazine, October 2018.


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