The encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in July 1968, is by far the most contested magisterial document ever. Focussed on the error of contraception and its attack against the sacredness of life, the prophetic nature of the document is evident when looking back from the vantage point of this 45th anniversary.
Its release was an attempt to stem the tide of the sexual revolution which was gaining momentum and entrenching itself in the emerging Rock & Roll and drug culture with their attendant immorality.
From this backward look it is evident that rejection of the encyclical lurched society into a condition of perhaps irretrievable morass. Humanae Vitae has been the most rejected and reviled document, both within and without the Catholic Church. As a result, in one biblical generation we see a society with a well-developed "Culture of Death".
Humanae Vitae was a document emanating directly from the mind and heart of God. It honours the labour, or perhaps even the nature, of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life.
The document stresses that marriage and sexuality call for a love which is total and where the "husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations."
In this situation the covenanted couple are called to offer themselves in their entirety and their essence as a gift to each other: "Whoever loves his marriage partner loves not only what he receives, but for the partner's self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself."
This is the "unitive meaning of marriage" and is a love which is faithful and exclusive until death. Hence, marital love is a creative love. It is never consumed or exhausted and continues in its impetus to create new life, fulfilling the words and command of God to be fruitful and multiply.
Therefore, by its very nature contraception is a deception and a blasphemy against life – and the Lord and Giver of Life Himself.
Humanae Vitae demonstrates that contraception is intrinsically evil because the basis of intrinsically evil acts is understood as actions which, in themselves, are opposed to the love of God. Their object is evil itself and as such cannot be ordered to God, thus violating the good of the human person created in imago Dei.
As examples of intrinsically evil acts, John Paul II cites (in Veritatis Splendor) abortion, contraception, homosexuality, direct sterilisation, IVF, euthanasia, and mental and physical torture. The evil nature of contraception is thus reaffirmed – as is the Church's teaching on the sacredness of life and the holiness and fruitfulness of the sexual life of a married couple.
We are also reminded that "it is never lawful, even for the gravest of reasons, to do an evil that a good may come from it".
In today's culture, where ethical behaviour appears to be perishing, it is possible to see that something has gone wrong – and even where the wrong began.
The rejection of Humanae Vitae by much of the Catholic population, together with the absence of strong teaching on this matter by priests and bishops, has indeed inflicted a deathly wound on society. It has left the people of God flailing and rudderless in a sea of immorality and violence, grabbing onto any flotsam for support.
This is the spiritual abandonment which has occurred to two generations, with a resulting portal opened for societal degradation and degeneration.
The Anglican Church first broke with 2000 years of tradition at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, approving contraception within marriage. Thirty-eight years later an encyclical ( Humanae Vitae) was necessary to try to stem the immoral and overtly sexualised culture which had developed.
It is of further significance that 45 years after the release of Humanae Vitae and its rejection, contraception is not only used by married couples seeking to space out family numbers, but is given to young pubescent girls who are assumed to become sexually active as soon as the hormones begin to work.
The disrespect of sexuality and the marital act has borne obvious fruit. Worldwide abortions are now at an estimated 40 million annually while innumerable embryos are destroyed through the IVF process or by experimentation. Marriage, that once societal strength, is now weakened with attempts now being made to reframe and subvert its very meaning.
Humanae Vitae is a divinely inspired gift to humanity from God who foresaw the disorder to come. Having provided for His children, however, the disobedient children proudly refused the gift. This is self-evident, as we live in a society whose ethos is disobedience and where notions of authority are anathema. Indeed, the story of Eden is being replayed.
Without ending on a note of despair, we need to remember it is never too late with God, because there is always the possibility of recovery. Just as Job's losses were restored, society can likewise be renewed and restored if it lives in accord with the teaching of Humanae Vitae.
Humanae Vitae, Donum Vitae, Casti Connubii, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae and Theology of the Body are all magnificent gifts from the Holy Spirit for our edification and understanding of God's plan for love and life.