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'Humanae Vitae' praised as prophetic encyclical

WASHINGTON — The sexual revolution and a widespread fear about overpopulation following World War II surrounding the 1968 release of "Humanae Vitae"("Of Human Life"), said Donald Critchlow, a professor of history at Arizona State University in Tempe.


At the time, there were movements in support of eugenics, abortion rights, and sterilizations in an attempt to curb population growth, Critchlow told an audience at The Catholic University of America in Washington.humanae chaput2

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivers the keynote speech April 4 to open the symposium at The Catholic University of America marking the 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae.' RUI BARROS | COURTESY CATHOLIC U. VIA CNS

Those who thought voluntary family planning was not enough proposed other, more coercive ideas, such as requiring couples to get a license to have a child or requiring sterilization for couples with more than five children, he added.

Critchlow was one of several speakers at a 50th anniversary symposium on Blessed Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae" April 4-6 hosted by Catholic University. Keynotes and a number of workshop sessions examined the teaching and legacy of the document on the regulation of birth issued July 25, 1968.

The symposium was titled "Embracing God's Vision for Marriage, Love and Life," and brought together experts on a variety of topics related to the encyclical's teachings on human sexuality and family life.

In a session exploring the historical context of the times when the encyclical was released, Critchlow noted that prior to the drafting of "Humanae Vitae," a commission was appointed to give suggestions for the Catholic Church's response to new forms of contraception.

The majority of the people on the commission recommended that the use of the birth control pill should be accepted and church teaching on the subject should be changed.

Blessed Paul rejected the commission's report and in "Humanae Vitae" affirmed the church's teaching on the sanctity of human life and its opposition to artificial contraception. In the document, the pope warned of the harm that widespread use of contraception would cause in society, such as lowering of moral standards, marital infidelity, less respect for women, and the government's ability to use different methods to regulate life and death.

Critchlow said many priests and laypeople, particularly in the United States, dissented from this teaching.  Students and faculty went on strike at Catholic University after the board of trustees denied the tenure of a professor, Father Charles E. Curran, who publicly disagreed with the encyclical's teaching. Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle disciplined 39 priests in the Archdiocese of Washington for their dissent from the document. Thousands of scientists wrote a petition published in The New York Timesthat criticized the encyclical.

In his homily for the symposium's closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington recalled that he had been given his first assignment as a priest just a year before the encyclical's release.

"It was immediately met with widespread dissent and vocal opposition," he said. "I was surprised to see such vehement rejection."

Cardinal Wuerl also recalled the quick action on the part of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in writing a pastoral letter to support and explain the encyclical after it had been issued. The NCCB had as its president then-Pittsburgh Bishop John J. Wright, for whom the future Cardinal Wuerl was serving as priest-secretary.

During that time, Cardinal Wuerl said he learned about the importance of the teaching role of the pope as the successor of Peter.

"We accept and follow the teaching of the Roman pontiff because it is true," said Cardinal Wuerl. "We know it is true because of the authority with which he teaches it."

While historians note that "Humanae Vitae" "constitutes a high-water mark in silent lack of reception on the part of the faithful," Cardinal Wuerl said, "we take confidence in the reminder that a lack of reception of the teaching does not negate its truth."

Marking the end of the conference, Cardinal Wuerl recognized that a large part of the anniversary celebration for "Humanae Vitae" is "a call to the continued accompaniment of those to whom we go out, announce, engage and walk with as we try to help them grasp and appropriate the teaching of this encyclical."

"We, evangelizing disciples of the Lord Jesus, bring so much to the appreciation of the value of life and the integrity of its transmission," said Cardinal Wuerl.

Sankowski is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018