The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) made headlines worldwide. Many talked about the encyclical when it was issued in 1968, but few actually read it. Why is it perhaps the most controversial document in modern Church history?
On Human Life combines Humanae Vitae with commentary by popular and respected Catholic authors Mary Eberstadt, James Hitchcock, and Jennifer Fulwiler in order to address this question and to shed light on the document's enduring wisdom.
Humanae Vitae is Pope Paul VI's explanation of why the Catholic Church rejects contraception. The pope referred to two aspects, or meanings, of human sexuality-the unitive and the procreative. He also warned of the consequences if contraception became widely practiced-consequences that have since come to pass: greater infidelity in marriage, confusion regarding the nature of human sexuality and its role in society, the objectification of women for sexual pleasure, compulsory government birth control policies, and the reduction of the human body to an instrument of human manipulation. The separation of sexuality from its dual purpose has also resulted in artificial reproduction technologies, including cloning, that threaten the dignity of the human person.
Although greeted by controversy and opposition, Humanae Vitae has continued to influence Catholic moral teaching. St. John Paul II's popular "theology of the body" drew deeply on the insights of Paul VI. Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have upheld the long-standing teaching, and a new generation of Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, is embracing the truths of the encyclical.
Pope Paul VI led the Catholic Church from 1963 until his death in 1978. The former Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he succeeded Pope John XXIII and oversaw the Second Vatican Council, bringing it to completion in 1965. In October, 2014, Pope Francis beatified Paul VI, the first step toward his recognition as a saint.
Mary Eberstadt, author of Adam and Eve after the Pill, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a consulting editor of Policy Review. Her writing has been published in First Things, the Weekly Standard, the Claremont Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review.
Jennifer Fulwiler, author of Something Other Than God, chronicles her experiences of faith and family life on her popular blog, ConversionDiary.com. Her articles have appeared in America, Our Sunday Visitor, and National Review Online.
James Hitchcock is a professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University. He received his master's and doctoral degrees at Princeton University. His books include The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Catholicism and Modernity, and History of the Catholic Church.