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#AskTheQuestion about ‘Humanae Vitae’

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We live in a time when so many causes compete for our attention. Sometimes the causes are weighty, but rarely do the campaigns ask that much of us. Seldom do they invite us to think, rarely do they invite us to ask fundamental questions about life itself.

This summer, Catholics throughout the world will be reminded that July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life, “Humanae Vitae.” Not every papal encyclical gets a 50-year retrospective. This is not because we pick and choose which encyclicals to follow and which to ignore. All papal teaching has authority. But when popes teach things so essential to the flourishing of all people, regardless of belief, we want to keep returning to this particular well of wisdom. And so we will. 

When “Humanae Vitae” was first promulgated July 25, 1968, it not only taught what the church has always and everywhere proclaimed, it was also a teaching ahead of its time. Contraceptive technology had been accepted by Protestant churches as early as 1930, and the world had become habituated to think that Christian teaching could adapt.

The church had always and everywhere taught that by divine design and will, sex was for marriage, and marriage was for children, and the bonds between sex, marriage and children must not be broken. With so many other Christians finding that contraception was compatible with married sex “open to life,” the whole world expected “Humanae Vitae” would be the equivalent of the Anglican bishops concession at Lambeth in 1930. No one was asking the fundamental questions. The world simply proceeded as though the pope would find a way to adapt. They already had their answers.

When I say that Blessed Pope Paul VI’s teaching was ahead of its time, I also mean that many theologians were shocked by it too. With the whole world, Catholic theologians were the ones who most pressed for adaptation and development. I am somewhat embarrassed that theologians took up the mantle of dissent against the pope. It hurt our credibility for a number of reasons.

One key reason it hurt our credibility is because Catholic theologians were sawing off the branch on which our knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith rests. Catholic theologians have the noble duty of sounding the depths of the deposit of faith, and arriving at an ever-deeper understanding of the coherence of those truths known by reason and revelation. Our task is not to develop the church’s teaching by way of dissent, but to ask questions in a disciplined way. 

Yet dissent doesn’t ask questions. Dissent presumes answers. It isn’t receptive to thinking or asking questions about the fundamental truths of nature. Dissent isn’t about truth, but power. This was, and is, a recipe for division and conflict that obscures the unity of the church, which comes to us from above.

In July, in the Diocese of Arlington, we want to reread, and rethink our way through “Humanae Vitae” not through the lens of dissent, but through the question. Every day on social media we want to open ourselves up to a conversation. We even have a hashtag: #AskTheQuestion. There is a certain vulnerability to opening yourself up to questions that are so fundamental as those pertaining to human life. But we think Catholics should take the opportunity of this anniversary not simply to quote from the document, but to really live with it for a while. We want Catholics to read and think about what Blessed Paul VI taught us because it’s essential to understanding what we ourselves believe, but also because what the popes teach should matter to our non-Catholic neighbors too. 

If you aren’t on social media, good for you. You can reread “Humanae Vitae,” and invite your friends to read it with you. It will fructify your summer reading list significantly. Think of it as a free seminar that can stimulate your thinking, and connect you with others on the basis of something other than politics. But if you are on social media, log onto Facebook or Twitter and follow @acatholicherald@arlingtonchurch, me @ccpecknold, and search the national hashtag #HV50 as well as our diocesan hashtag #AskTheQuestion to keep up on the conversation. Check in daily. And be courageous to actually think out loud, and ask questions that lead to understanding rather than division, which make for good discussion, not the rancor of dissent. If you do this, you’ll get the deeper understanding, and your neighbor might too. And if you do nothing else, make sure you chime-in for our special one-day concluding discussion of “Humanae Vitae” on the July 25 anniversary. We want as many Catholics participating in the dialogue as possible, and helping our neighbors join us in asking the right questions that lead to a better conversation about life, and life together. 

Find out more

Go to https://www.arlingtondiocese.org/hv50/ .

Pecknold, a parishioner at the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, is a theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018