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If You Haven’t Read Humanae Vitae, What Are You Waiting For?

Why should a bunch of celibate old men decide what married people can and cannot do in the privacy of their own bedroom?

It's a fair question. In fact, it seems so fair that most Catholics don't even bother to ask it anymore. Even before the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was promulgated 50 years ago this July, Catholics had begun to decide that the Church had nothing to teach them about sexuality. Today, many Catholics don't even know what their Church teaches; and if they do, they consider it so oppressive, arbitrary and restrictive that no one could possibly take it seriously.

Here's what Catholics may not realize: Celibate old men don't decide what married people can and cannot do in the privacy of their bedrooms. One celibate old man, Pope Paul VI, even says so right in Humanae Vitae.

He says that neither he nor any Church authority are able to declare artificial contraception acceptable for family planning. “Since the Church did not make ... these laws, she cannot change them,” he says. “She can only be their guardian and interpreter; thus it would never be right for her to declare as morally permissible that which is truly not so.”

The Church has no authority to change what it has always taught about sexuality. And furthermore, it would not want to, because, as Paul VI says:

“[W]hat is immoral is by its very nature always opposed to the true good of human beings.”

But ... he was a celibate old man. What could he possibly know about the true good of human beings in marriage?

Well, have you read Humanae Vitae?

If you haven’t, you may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you'd write if you've never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.

But Humanae Vitae is not like that.

Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things:

First, it asks us to be realistic, and to acknowledge that we don’t have complete control over any aspect our own lives, including our sexuality. If we think we do, we’re fooling ourselves.

Second, it exhorts us to remember who we are, and to be hopeful, in light of the thrilling possibilities that can come about when we assert our free will to become fully human – that is, to come more fully into communion with the divine.

In other words, all these “rules” the Church is famous for are not about squashing men and women and real human love at all. Instead, they are a call to unclench ourselves, to become free, to allow ourselves a share in God's greatness.

Many a modern Catholic rejects the laws of the Church without ever wondering why they are there. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI tells us why: because God wants us to be happy, and he wants us to be fully human.

He reminds us that no one has the right to take over control of our bodies and our sexuality. No one, including the government, including society and including a selfish or abusive spouse.

But he also reminds us not to give over control of our sexuality to the tyranny of our own weakness. Tenderly and compassionately, Paul VI acknowledges what a tall order the Church proposes when it calls us to remember we are made for self-giving, self-mastery and a sustained effort of life-giving love. Over and over, he acknowledges that it's not easy. The word “difficult” appears half a dozen times or more. But, oh, the possibilities when we try!

In its very opening sentences, Humanae Vitae says that “God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important mission of transmitting human life. In fulfilling this mission spouses freely and consciously render a service to God, the Creator.”

Did you hear that? We render a service to God. This is what we're missing out on, if we decide that the Church has no business in our bedrooms. That's what we're saying “no” to, if we decide that a celibate old man can have nothing to teach us about love.

At times, Paul VI appears in awe of the magnificent potential in human marriage; at other times, he is almost audibly gathering courage to say again that, no matter how enticing and reasonable contraception may sound, it will not truly bring us happiness.

There is an indisputably prophetic passage predicting what will happen to women if the pressure to use contraception becomes widespread. The current age of porn has proven him correct.

But most of Humanae Vitae is neither condemnation nor warning. Most of it is about us, and about love. It's is a reminder of who we are, who we can be, what marriage is meant to be, what love is meant to be.

This short, plain-spoken encyclical is one of the most stirring and moving descriptions of married love I've ever read. I've been married for over 20 years; and yes, this celibate man has something to teach me about love. Humanae Vitae makes me grateful for what I have, and it makes me want to better live up to what is possible. To reconcile myself, as Pope St. John Paul II exhorted, to my “natural greatness.” Not bad at all, for an old, celibate man.

So if you haven't read Humanae Vitae, what are you waiting for? It's aged well in 50 years. It's not long. The language is formal, but not impenetrable. Set aside half an hour, pour yourself a glass of wine, open your heart to the Holy Spirit, and read.