In acknowledging the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Letter on the Regulation of Births, which was published on 25 July 1968, Benedict XVI described the document 'as a sign of contradiction' and 'a significant show of courage in reasserting the continuity of the Church's doctrine and tradition' (see Benedict XVI's address, page 7 in this issue).
At a time when the late 1960s cultural revolution was gaining momentum with its wide-ranging rejection of authority and the Church's teaching on sexual ethics, Humanae Vitae was an extraordinarily brave effort to hold back the tide of permissiveness which even today has not run its course.
While other churches, which had long upheld the continuous Christian teaching, based on natural law, that each sexual act must remain open to the transmission of life, succumbed to secularist pressures, the Catholic Church remains the major bulwark of Christian morality, with Humanae Vitae the symbol of this resolve.
No other document has been so bitterly debated, questioned and attacked from both inside and outside the Catholic Church. Indeed, it has become a litmus test separating those who accept the Church's authority to form the conscience of the faithful on moral issues from those who do not.
Yet, as Benedict notes, 'Forty years after its publication this teaching not only expresses its unchanged truth but also reveals the farsightedness with which the problem is treated'. He adds, 'What was true yesterday is true also today. The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change; on the contrary, precisely in the light of the new scientific discoveries, its teaching becomes more timely and elicits reflection on the intrinsic value it possesses.'
Popes Paul and Benedict conceded that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not easy. But, as Benedict reminds us, 'it conforms with the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted since the world's creation, with respect for nature and in conformity with its needs.'
It is time for more Catholics to rediscover the encyclical's profoundly beautiful message and break the embarrassed silence that is all too often the pattern in regard to the Church's moral teachings.
Michael Gilchrist, Editor of AD2000 (email address available on request).