‘Humanae vitae’, i.e. dignity and honesty in sensuality
Fr. IRENEUSZ SKUBIŚ
The encyclical ‘Humanae vitae’ by Paul VI was promulgated 40 years ago, on 25 July 1968, and it still evokes controversy in many environments as it did when it was written. It was just after the Council, which made some people expect some changes in the Church’s attitude towards ethics, especially sexuality. It was the highly developed Western countries, where moral principles were considerably slackened, that expected the change. One must remember that those were the times of the so-called sexual revolution. Therefore, people waited for the Pope’s message. I remember those fairly turbulent and troubled times. But in his encyclical Paul VI, continuing and closing the sessions of Vatican Council II, knew the counciliar message well and stressed the invariability of the principles of Christian life concerning the dignity of human life and birth control. He noticed that human dignity was actually expressed in the sphere of man’s sexuality. Therefore, from the Church’s point of view abortion and contraception or any other ‘conveniences’, which reduced human beings to subjects and in fact they did not stop the unfavourable social phenomena, e.g. the breakdown of the family, marital infidelity (the statistics being on the increase), immoral behaviour, falling birth rates, etc. but even make them worse, could not be allowed. As it could be presupposed the Pope was accused of hampering development of humanity, withdrawing to the pre-conciliar period and thus destroying the work of John XXIII, instead of moving with the times. However, the encyclical showed the invariability of the principle of the Church that ‘could look further’, aiming at the physical and spiritual growth of people. This does not obviously mean that the Church does not understand human love, connected with sensuality, emotions, impatience. And the proper growth of man also means controlling biological needs and emotions, respecting biological laws and taking into account social and economic conditions. The encyclical opposed sterilisation, both permanent and temporary, for men and women and condemned all activities that prevented conception or led to such prevention. It stressed that marital intercourse is worthy and honest only when it is fully open to procreation. Paul VI stressed the inseparability of unity and parenthood in marital intercourse. The document again underlined that the Church could not have a different attitude towards this issue, regardless of the opinions and pressures of the world. Today we can only imagine what would have happened if the Church had considered those pressures and approved the use of contraception, sterilisation for women and men or abortion. Observing the corruption of morals in many circles one can be convinced that if the Church had supported it the moral tragedy would have been colossal as if some tsunami had been targeted at morality. Thanks to the attitude of the Church we can see that there is some limit of man’s activities, some retaining wall against such behaviours. And perhaps today we should be even more thankful to God for that inspiration of the Holy Spirit given to Paul VI that in spite of the enormous pressure he did not yield to the temptations of this world and did not throw away the commandments of the Decalogue, thus depriving man of his natural rights. We can even say that thanks to the firm position of the Church the attitude towards abortion is completely different today, is more proper morally, and surely well-thought-out in a wider perspective. Today it is common to speak about the conceived life, the dignity of human life from conception to natural death and human rights of the conceived children. This is a great achievement accomplished to a large extent by Paul VI considering the natural law, human dignity, especially woman’s dignity, i.e. values that are stable, important and noble. Therefore, let us thank God for the gift of the encyclical, which we needed so much and which shows that the idea of Christian morality is precious for man and is rooted in the divine plan of salvation, which presupposes man’s participation in building what is the best. It is an interesting detail that Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who was the Metropolitan of Krakow in those times, contributed greatly to the preparation of the encyclical. He used his experience in family ministry in Poland, especially in his archdiocese.