1968 was a year of incredible upheaval in the United States. I was a sophomore in high school and even the students at the seminary had a protest against the Vietnam War. The placid, but very disciplined, life of school and university institutions was changed because of the upheaval of student protests in 1967/68.
In the midst of this upheaval, a worldwide “sexual revolution” began, largely driven by the emerging availability of chemical contraceptives such as the birth control pill. To many at the time, the pill was to be the gift that would keep on giving. It would allow people to be “truly free” when it came to sexual activity, no longer concerned about unplanned pregnancies. While marketed for families, but especially to women, as a means to plan for and sufficiently space their children, the pill opened the door to the belief that one could have sex without consequences. Terms like “free love” began to be used to support sexual activity with anyone without consequences. Many of my generation, the baby boomers, bought into these sentiments, at least for a time in their lives.
Reading the signs of the times, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the document “On Human Life” (Humanae Vitae) to respond to the issues being raised by the sexual revolution, specifically the use of artificial contraception. This document arose out of consultation with theologians, scientists and married couples and reflected on the beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church on the definition of marriage as a covenant of love, fidelity and fruitfulness. In the document, the pope stated that the use of artificial contraception was immoral.
Upon its release, the pope was ridiculed by the intellectual class in and outside the church. There was widespread rejection and lots of passive “winking and nodding” about the church as being “behind the times.” Avoiding the issue in marriage preparation classes, preaching and counseling became common practice. Some priests and bishops were outspoken in their dissension and more than a few left the priesthood altogether because of Humanae Vitae. To this day, surveys show that many Catholic families have ignored this prophetic and life-giving teaching.
Pope Paul understood that his teaching would not be popular, but he embraced the role of the prophet, who seeks to change the course of history by projecting future outcomes of present trends and decisions. While he sympathized with families in their desire to limit and space their children, he believed that the use of contraception made sexual activity an end in itself, rather than a means to bond a husband and wife and bring children into the world.
Pope Paul predicted that instead of bringing greater freedom, the use of artificial birth control would lead to devastating consequences. Specifically, he warned that widespread acceptance of contraception would lead to an increase in marital infidelity and that partners would begin to view each other as objects to be used to satisfy their sexual desires.
Fifty years later, it is hard to argue with Pope Paul’s predictions. We have witnessed an increase in marital infidelity, divorce, casual sex and abortion. With the rise of a contraceptive culture, children today are sometimes seen as burdens, rather than gifts from God; burdens that can be easily disposed of when their arrival inconveniences us, an example of the “throwaway culture” Pope Francis has critiqued.
So, as we celebrate the anniversary of this important document, I invite all of us, especially young people, to prayerfully take another look at this beautiful teaching on life, marriage and the gift of our sexuality. Doing so might lead you to approach your relationships differently or recognize some mistakes you’ve made in the past. If so, I invite you to approach the throne of God’s mercy. Jesus waits for you with outstretched arms. I am a sinner, too, and I need God’s mercy frequently.
As the church, we want to be of help to you and your family. We want to walk with you. We have many different ways of assisting you to live this beautiful and life-giving teaching.
We know this is difficult, but there are countless people who are embracing Pope Paul’s wisdom despite its difficulty. By witnessing to the truth and beauty of sacrificial love, they act as missionary disciples, committed to sharing the love of God they have experienced with the world.
Finally, let us be comforted by the words of Jesus, who in calling us to follow him, reminds us that his “yoke is easy and burden light.” Jesus will never ask more of us than we can handle. May his gentle guidance lead us all to eternal life!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.