On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, on the Church’s doctrine on marriage, openness to life, contraception and responsible parenting, topics that continue to be much discussed within and outside the Church.
To get to know better the theological foundations of this document, its historical context and its implications, ZENIT interviewed the Dean of the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (PUSC) in Rome, Angel Rodriguez Luno.
ZENIT: The encyclical Humanae Vitae was published almost fifty years ago. What did the publication of this document mean at that time?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: Paul VI published Humanae Vitae two months after the events of May ’68, which among other things unleashed the sexual revolution. There was strong pressure on the part of some of the media and experts were divulging pessimistic and alarmist demographic predictions, which reality later refuted. Some ecclesial environments were suffering from a certain disorientation, caused by abusive interpretations of the Council, and some of those who took part in the preparatory studies of the encyclical published reports that were not definitive. In this context, and after long reflection, Paul VI reaffirmed the Christian vision of sexuality, in which the Creator has united two dimensions of meaning and value, which the encyclical calls “unitive meaning” and “procreative meaning.” This connection cannot be disarticulated without both dimensions suffering, and not just the one that a person desires to be excluded.
ZENIT: Was it revolutionary from the theological point of view? On what points?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: It depends on what is understood by “revolutionary.” Essentially, Paul VI proposed again the anthropological and moral view that Pius XI had considered, in his encyclical on marriage, as “Christian doctrine taught since the beginning and never modified.” In this connection, Humanae Vitae doesn’t represent a revolution. The courage with which Paul VI opposed some cultural stereotypes that were already widespread was revolutionary, which came as though imposed, and continue to be, harmful for the life of married people and for the general moral culture. Although the encyclical refers directly to marriage, what was at stake was the global view of sexuality.
ZENIT: To understand the historical context: what led Pope Paul VI to write this encyclical? To what was it necessary that it give an answer?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: I think that the delicacy of the problem and the complexity of the context led Paul VI, while the council was still ongoing, to occupy himself personally in the study and resolution of this question. In the light of the moral tradition of the Church, no one could doubt that contraception is an intrinsically disordered conduct. An idea existed, in the collective imagination, that contraception consisted in manipulating in some way the realization of the conjugal relation. As the contraceptive pill (that as such virtually doesn’t exist today, because the majority of contraceptive medicines also have other effects, in addition to contraception) doesn’t modify the conjugal relation, some wondered if its use should always be considered as a sin of contraception. Therefore, the question was not if contraception is or is not a sin, but rather if the conjugal use of the contraceptive pill is or is not contraception. This made it necessary to specify better the essence of contraception, to which Paul VI referred to when he wrote: Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.
To give an illustration: if it were discovered that to eat an orange immediately before the conjugal act closed it to the transmission of life, one who ate an orange, proposing as an end or a means to make procreation impossible, would commit the sin of contraception. I use this unreal hypotheses to have it understood where contraception exists, which does not depend on the fact that the contraceptive medication is an artificial product.
ZENIT: Do you think that formation during the time of engagement is lacking in deeper reflection on some aspects of Humanae Vitae?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: It seems to me, in fact, that in the formation of engaged couples Humanae Vitae must be studied in depth and completely. However, this would take us far. I will limit myself to one thing, which my experience confirms constantly. When Paul VI’s encyclical was being prepared, some said that Christian sexual morality ended by harming the love between man and woman and the stability of the marriage. Experience says that today, in a culture in which the recourse to contraception and pre-marital relations is widespread, the failures of couples are ever more numerous, as are also the phenomenons of violence and infidelity. No doubt other causes can concur with these phenomenons. However, it continues to surprise me that many couples, which have had quite a long period of engagement, sometimes excessively concentrated on the sexual aspects, after getting married discover that they didn’t know one another well. They should have talked more and come together less, because the latter is not always communication and knowledge. On the contrary, the majority of times it impedes detecting and correcting one’s egoism and that of the other party.
ZENIT: Many of the subjects addressed in this document continue to be a strong focus of social debate: abortion, artificial insemination … With the passing of time, is the “opposition” to the theological foundations of the Church in regard to these subjects greater?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: Our culture has followed the evolution we all know.
To point out the causes of this direction of the social change would require a very interesting reflection, but too long for this interview. There is no doubt that for some, also for some Catholic faithful, it is difficult to understand some aspects of Christian morality. Perhaps more commitment is necessary to explain it better and more effort to understand it better. However, it is very significant for me that the majority of the practicing faithful consider very positive their effort to live Christian morality, although on some occasions they commit errors.
ZENIT: Can some changes be expected during the Synod of Bishops, on the questions posed in this encyclical?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: The Pastors wish to address the most urgent practical problems for the family given the doctrine of the Church. More than once, Pope Francis has said that he considers himself first of all a son of the Church. Therefore, the essential nucleus of Humanae Vitae, which as I said is a teaching proposed since the beginning and has never been modified, is the light from which the pastoral problems will be addressed in the Synod — very concrete pastoral questions, which refer to the Christian wisdom, mercy and prudence with which all situations will be addressed, in the course of the Synod, that have to do with persons and which, with the help of God, will be able to find adequate answers for our time.
ZENIT: Why has this been one of the most discussed magisterial texts in the last decades?
Professor Rodriguez Luno: There is no doubt that it is a difficult point, in which we are all weak if we do not lean on the grace that God offers us. On the other hand, the opposition of the prevailing culture is strong, though not new. As Pierre Grelot explained in a wonderful book, there was already a clash between the teachings of Genesis on marriage and the religious thought of Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan. These pagan religions canonized human sexuality through the two known ways of myths and rites. In myths, the divinity appears as a whole of gods and goddesses, w
hich go in pairs, and in their histories constitute the archetypes of the different aspects of the man-woman relationship: fruitfulness, love-passion, marriage. Present, under different names, are the figures of god-father, goddess-mother, goddess-lover, etc. In a word, the polytheist concept makes possible the dissociation between the essential aspects of sexuality: fecundity, love, marriage. Each aspect is canonized separately. There is no integration in an institution such as marriage, exclusive condition of love and fecundity that is morally good. The rites (fecundity, sacred prostitutions such as the worship of the goddess lover, sexual relations between deities of fecundity, etc.) also carry out the same dissociation in the plane of actions, through which men unite to the divinity and participate in their capacity to love or to be fecund. The dissociation of the different dimensions of human sexuality follows paganism and neo-paganism as the shadow to the body illuminated by the sun. In my judgment, this is the ultimate explanation of the present difficulties, which are profound but not insurmountable. I see with hope that among young people that practice their Christian faith these questions are understood quite a lot better than among those of my generation.