50 years ago this month, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae, or “Human Life.”
Humane Vitae discussed the beauty of both the spiritual and physical elements of love in marriage. Within the pages of the document, the pope reaffirmed what the Catholic Church teaches about birth control. He also emphasized that the Catholic Church calls couples to marriages that are free, total, faithful and fruitful. The encyclical contained a holistic approach to human relationships. This contrasted sharply with a world that was beginning to accept birth control as part of normal, daily life.
The world didn’t expect Humanae Vitae‘s messages about the sanctity of life, marriage, and family. Pope Paul VI prophetically spoke about the consequences involved with rejecting human dignity. Today, 50 years later, Pope Paul VI’s words still ring true. Here are seven times that Pope Paul VI predicted the future in Humanae Vitae:
1. The objectification of women
Pope Paul VI commented about the consequences of artificial contraception in Humane Vitae. “Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law,” he wrote. “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
In a 2009 study, Princeton psychologists found that, after viewing images of scantily clad women, people are more likely to use first-person action verbs (“I move,” “I grab,” “I control”) versus third person verbs (“she moves,” “she grabs,” “she controls”). Meanwhile, the men described fully clothed women in images with third-person verbs. Men in the study thought these women were in control of their situation and actions. Pornography dehumanizes and objectifies human beings, reducing them down to the pleasure that they can provide.
2. Abuse of power and the body
Towards the end of the document Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI discussed the role of the government and contraceptives. “Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law,” he wrote. “Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”
50 years later, contraceptives are still making headlines. In 2017, the Trump administration allowed conscientious objectors to opt out of Obamacare’s contraception and abortion-pill mandate. This decision overturned the Obamacare mandate that added female contraception to a list of preventive services. The Affordable Care Act provided these services without patient co-payments.
3. Unfaithfulness in marriage
“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control,” Pope Paul VI commented upon the release of the pill the world in the 1960s. “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
The pope’s words seem highly prophetic given the 2015 release of over 37 million users names and identities from the company Ashley Madison. The website specialized in providing environments for spousal infidelity.
4. Control of the body through sterilization
Pope Paul VI encouraged Catholics to be faithful to God’s design for the human body. “To experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator,” he wrote. “Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.”
Half a century later, sterilization and a disrespect for human dignity still plagues our lives. In 2014, botched sterilization surgeries caused the death of ten women in India. The women died after undergoing tubal ligation procedures. Doctors performed sterilization surgeries at a government-run “sterilization camp” in the village of Pendari in Bilaspur district. But the 2014 incident was not something new in India.
“More than four million sterilizations were performed in 2013-14, according to the government,” Jatindra Dash reported. “Between 2009 and 2012, the government paid compensation for 568 deaths resulting from sterilization.”
5. A disrespect for human life
Pope Paul VI promoted of the dignity and beauty of the human beings created in the image of God. His message didn’t sit well with a world tainted by sin.
“Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife,” the pontiff wrote. “If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.”
6. Marriage under attack
“It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching,” Pope Paul VI reflected. “There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a sign of contradiction. She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”
Today, we live in a world that has redefined marriage according to popular opinion. The United States Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans in all 50 states in the summer of 2015. “Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky wrote in 2015. “The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home.”
7. Relativism and the legal system
Finally, Pope Paul VI wrote on man’s desire to define his own morality. This subject is particularly relevant in today’s culture of relativism.
“But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.”