The world is full of lonely souls who need a beacon in their darkness, an ointment for their wounds, and a means of grace for their bereft spirits. For many, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae has been all that and more. When I read it for the first time, while I was still a Protestant, I had to read it several times – for personal spiritual reasons and for studying. Each time I was moved to tears.
The encyclical is known for restating Church teaching against artificial contraception. But Humanae Vitae, whose 50th anniversary falls on July 25 this year, also helps us to answer the question: Who is man and what is his whole mission?
It was Humanae Vitae that succinctly described my dignity as a human being, that as a woman I was not a second-class citizen to man. The encyclical, which mentions early on “the dignity of woman and her place in society”, stresses the reciprocity and complementarity of man and woman. A woman must be revered: artificial contraception encourages a man to “disregard…her physical and emotional equilibrium” and “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”
Paul VI’s words told me that my body and mind, both together, were esteemed—that my reason and will are valuable. I learned that my entire being is a gift, and that “love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit.” And finally, the encyclical showed me the depth of the moral order and the necessity that it be respected even within marriage.
True, all Church teaching touches on the question of man and his mission in life. But during this historical period when people en masse have bought the world’s lie about love, marriage, and sexuality, Catholic doctrine on these matters has a special ability to draw us out of the darkness and towards God. I know I am not the only convert who has discovered in Humanae Vitae a means of grace, capable of pricking the conscience of the self-absorbed.
My tears on reading the encyclical were, I think, a sign of the unitive physical and spiritual response to truth. Our inner being always knows when we encounter it; it is part of our nature. As St. Paul explained:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power, and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse, for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
We know the truth when we see it; and the truth can bring us to conversion. When I was a physics student, I was fascinated by “phase transitions”: the process by which, say, water becomes ice. Phase transitions always have a critical point where there is a definitive change from one phase to another; they also have a coexistence curve – a two-phase region where the matter is in both forms. What has always intrigued me is what happens inside these kinds of systems at the most fundamental level.
Conversion requires a change, a turning, and in my phase transition to Catholicism, it was Humanae Vitae that took me from one state of darkness to a state of less darkness. As I moved through my own coexistence curve, a state where the different ideas about the nature of man and his relationship with God were sloshing around in my mind, a state where I was slowly beginning to grasp what the Church meant about grace not destroying nature but perfecting it and elevating it, I hit a critical point. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the day my soul became Catholic—the critical point that brought about a definitive change—was the day I found out that as a divorced and remarried woman, I could not receive communion. Sorrow and joy commingled, and I emerged from that state spiritually and I daresay physically, victorious.
Having been through that experience, I am dismayed when I see Catholics looking for an “opening”—a way to hide under a bushel the light of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. This teaching, which helped to change my life, is seen as burdensome and out-of-step with our contemporary age. Such thinking misses the point of conversion – a transition from thinking as the world thinks to thinking in accord with the mind of Christ. If there’s no phase transition, there’s no conversion. It’s as simple as that. There is no conversion to the Church if there is no phase transition in the mind and heart. In Ezekiel 36:26 God says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
How sad that some Catholics, even priests and theologians, want to close off this opportunity. Fr Maurizio Chiodi, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, wants to “re-read Humanae Vitae in light of Amoris Laetitia” and thinks that “an artificial method for the regulation of births could be recognised as an act of responsibility that is carried out, not in order to radically reject the gift of a child, but because in those situations responsibility calls the couple and the family to other forms of welcome and hospitality.” As E Christian Brugger recently observed, this is only part of a much broader assault on Church teaching.
As it was with the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried without annulment, these situational ethicists trying to do away with Humanae Vitae would take away one of the strongest evangelisation tools the Church has. The encyclical conveys truth in a dark world, compassion in merciless times, and solidarity in a culture of isolation.
Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.