DENVER (CNS) — “Humanae Vitae” was controversial when it was promulgated in 1968 and it remains misunderstood by many today.
For the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on married love, the regulation of births and responsible parenthood, Denver resident Terry Polakovic, co-founder of the Catholic women’s study group Endow, explored it and seven other papal documents spanning the last 138 years to uncover what the Catholic Church says about human life and love.
The result is an engaging and enlightening book, “Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design,” published by Our Sunday Visitor.
“Someone once told me that you can know all of history and what’s going on in the culture by following church documents because the church is always interacting with the world,” Polakovic told the Denver Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Denver.
Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s “Arcanum Divinae” (“On Christian Marriage,” 1880), Polakovic then breaks open Pope Pius XI’s “Casti Connubii” (“Of Chaste Wedlock,” 1930); Blessed Paul’s “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), St. John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio” (“On the Christian Family,” 1981), “Mulieris Dignitatem” (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” 1988) and “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995), then on to Pope Benedict XVI’s “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love,” 2005), and Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love,” 2016).
The historical span of the texts starts just after the Industrial Revolution and the spread of Marxism and socialism. It moves on to post-World War I and Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, which is today’s Planned Parenthood, and the Lambeth Conference where the Anglican Church approved the use of contraception. Then it arrives at the turbulent 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, which gave birth to “Humanae Vitae.”
Vatican II was formally opened in October 1962 under the pontificate of St. John XXIII and closed in December 1965, during the papacy of Blessed Paul.
Before Blessed Paul was elected to lead the church, his predecessor had appointed a small committee to study the issue of the regulation of birth. Blessed Paul expanded the commission, which included several married couples.
“(Blessed Paul) was trying to do everything he could to help married couples. His main issue (for this commission to study) was whether the birth control pill was contraceptive (and therefore intrinsically evil),” Polakovic said. “The commission’s majority report said it was, but the church should still approve it. The minority report also came back that it was and the church should not break with tradition.”
It took Blessed Paul two years and much prayer to write “Humanae Vitae,” in which he upheld the church’s constant teaching that it is inherently wrong to use contraception to prevent new human life.
“He suffered at the foot of the cross terribly after ‘Humanae Vitae’ (for not liberalizing church teaching on contraception). I’m sure this is what got him to heaven,” Polakovic said about the late pontiff who is set to be canonized Oct. 14 in Rome.
After “Humanae Vitae,” Polakovic’s book moves on to the 1980s and ’90s with summaries of three documents of St. John Paul before going on to two 21st-century texts by his successors.
“Life and Love” also includes biographies of the popes who wrote these documents and depicts the challenges of the times.”
“Each document was written with so much love — yet they were written by completely different men with different backgrounds and different styles,” Polakovic said. “I could really feel their love for the church. And they were not afraid to express the church’s teaching. I could have just written about the popes, they are so interesting.”
Polakovic’s quick take on each of the six pontiffs she writes about:
Leo XIII: “I don’t know why he’s not a saint — he’s incredible. In unpacking ‘Arcanum Divinae,’ I felt it could have been written today.”
Pius XI: “He had been a seminary professor, then a librarian for 30 years, and then a diplomat. Then, in four years, he’s elevated to papal nuncio, archbishop, cardinal and pope!”
Blessed Paul: “He wanted to be a missionary. He did travel (to six continents, more than his predecessors) but Vatican II was his particular journey.”
St. John Paul: “(He) is the great teacher of our time. His writings make everything good so beautiful and contrast it to the evil in such an incredible way.”
Benedict XVI: “His document ‘Deus Caritas Est’ turned his whole pontificate around. People saw him differently after that, not as “God’s Rottweiler,” a nickname the media and others gave the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pope Francis: “He is living the vision (of future darkness and evil) that Pope Leo XIII saw coming. He wants everyone (who’s left the church) back. He realizes it’s going to take time, it has to be pastoral, and it has to be one-on-one encounters.”
So why has “Humanae Vitae” remained so misunderstood 50 years after it was written?
“The medicine, if you will, for some, it’s very bitter and they didn’t want to take it. They couldn’t hear (the truth),” Polakovic said. “Still some people can’t hear it, yet everything Pope Paul VI said (about contraception’s effects: lowering of morality, loss of respect for women, misuse of contraception by public authorities, disregard of limits to man’s dominion over his body) came true!
“The truth is hard, but not too hard” to follow, she added. “God gives you grace.”
King writes for the Denver Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Denver.
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