On July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI shocked the world.
The scuttlebutt had been that he would change the church’s teaching on the use of contraception. He didn’t. Using his papal authority, he released the document “Humanae Vitae,” clearly and concisely outlining the consistent teachings of our church.
It was met with joy and disappointment, acceptance and defiance. Most of those who rejected the encyclical admitted that they had not even read the document.
Nearly 50 years later, while many have disregarded the teaching, most still have not read the wisdom and compassion that Pope Paul VI conveyed. The call for Catholics to live by God’s loving design to cooperate with him in the “generation and rearing of new lives” (“Humanae Vitae,” no. 8) has been dismissed or discarded.
It is because the teaching has been so misunderstood or ignored that we are using this year of 2018 to help bring to light not only the beauty of this teaching, but a way to live it out with joy.
Learning about the natural moral law, what using contraception deprives a marriage of, or what responsible parenthood really means can add so much to a marriage, practicing our faith and viewing our children as the “supreme gift of marriage” (“Humanae Vitae,” no. 9). Our diocese’s men’s and women’s conferences this year will be focusing on this teaching.
Question of conscience
What has dominated the debate on “Humanae Vitae” is the issue of conscience. One of the foremost experts on “Humanae Vitae” is Janet Smith, Ph.D. She has said: “Much more than assessing whether contraception is good or bad, or analyzing how it harms relationships and society, theologians have largely focused on the so-called right to dissent, that is, the right and obligation to follow one’s own conscience in opposition to the church’s teaching.”
Our conscience has become supreme. We have placed our conscience above all else, feeling we are justified to do what we please, even if our conscience is not well-formed. This has never been a teaching of our church. “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1783).
But forming our conscience takes hard work. We have to read holy Scripture, learn the teachings of the church, pray about how we can conform our will to that of God’s, and sometimes put this into practice when we would rather do something different. It may seem easier to remain in darkness because the light of truth may reveal that our actions and thoughts — those that we felt were acceptable — really are not. So, we prefer to stay where we are and not upset the applecart.
A recent example of this is how 46 of our U.S. senators (including both from Minnesota) — all highly educated and dedicated men and women — voted against the ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. With today’s scientific knowledge that these babies feel pain and are only a heartbeat away from taking their first breath, how could anyone with any sort of conscience allow such a barbaric tragedy? It was easier for them to bury their heads in the sand and forget the humanity of the unborn than to face the reality of what they were doing.
A light that illuminates
Pope Francis, in an address to the Roman Rota on Jan. 29, said: “The conscience assumes a decisive role in the demanding choices that couples must face to welcome and build the conjugal union and hence the family according to God’s plan. A continuous experience of faith, hope and charity is all the more necessary so that young people may again decide, with a sure and serene conscience, that conjugal union open to the gift of children is great joy for God, for the church, for humanity. Faith is a light that illuminates not only the present but also the future: marriage and family are the future of the church and of society. It is, therefore, necessary to promote a state of permanent catechumenate so that the consciousness of the baptized is open to the light of the Spirit.”
May we strive to illuminate our conscience, learning to understand the things we struggle to comprehend, to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in ways we can more closely conform our will to that of God, and for the wisdom to pursue a life following God’s plan.
Chris Codden is director of the Office of Marriage and Family of the Diocese of St. Cloud. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.