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NOTE: The following letter was published in the July 26, 2018 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
Anniversaries are important opportunities to appreciate and celebrate what is good and beautiful. We often celebrate anniversaries of marriages, ordinations and even our parishes. This month we celebrate a significant anniversary of a beautiful teaching on God’s plan for married love and the transmission of human life. July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in English, Of Human Life. An “encyclical” is a teaching tool that allows for a pope, with his authority given to him as successor of St. Peter, to reaffirm or clarify a particular doctrine to guide and help Christians form our consciences.
At the time this encyclical was written, the birth control pill was becoming popular and there was growing concern about overpopulation. I was a child working on perfecting the art of walking with the help of my parents, so I do not recall the controversy that erupted. Likewise, I did not have much exposure to the teaching during my school years, but I did read and study this document during my advanced studies in theology while preparing for ordination.
In this encyclical, Blessed Paul VI draws from Scripture and the Church’s teachings to explain that married love is “total” and that spouses are meant to give themselves to each other unconditionally. The life giving and love giving dimensions of marriage need to be united, and not separated. When we separate them, something that God intended for us in marriage is lacking, and we and society are hurt by this. The Pope’s intention was to offer to the world a vision of love and marriage – the ideal as God intended it – from the beginning, something for us to strive for as we seek to walk the Christian life and live it to the full.
Humanae Vitae is often reduced to a “NO” to contraception, while the discussion about the beauty and goodness that is being proposed about married love is largely ignored. One of the misunderstandings of the encyclical was the mistaken notion that Catholic parents were to have as many children as possible. Humanae Vitae does not give that advice. Rather, it counsels: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (HV, 10)
Although the teaching has been widely criticized and even ignored over the years, when Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul in 2014, he noted that even in the face of “a secularized and hostile society,” Pope Paul “could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the Barque of Peter while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord. Indeed, there is much wisdom and love contained in this teaching if we have patience, and openness and ‘ears to hear.’”
Today we are blessed in our diocese to have a ministry dedicated to Natural Family Planning (NFP), a scientifically based natural fertility awareness method promoted in this Encyclical. This method of family planning promotes chastity and self-discipline, allowing the wife and husband to either achieve or avoid pregnancy in a manner that is consistent with their circumstances. I am grateful to Deacon Steve and Rosemary Kern, who for the past three decades have taught NFP through our Family Life Office. Along with other couples, they have helped young engaged and married couples to embrace this teaching on fertility and establish deeper bonds of unity and harmony while deepening their faith commitment. The Gianna Center at our own Saint Peter’s University Hospital also offers good information about natural fertility methods.
Studies in social science reveal that those couples who practice NFP have only a 3 percent divorce rate as compared to the nearly 50 percent divorce rate of the general American population. One of the reasons given for this remarkable statistic is that couples who cooperate in such an intimate way with one another tend to have better communication in other aspects of their lives. NFP also provides a regular way to keep central the needs and concerns of each other, while reminding them of the supernatural element of their marriage bond and how God works intimately in their life.
So, as we celebrate this historic milestone of Pope Paul VI’s loving teaching on Human Life, let us be grateful for the gift of marriage and married love that is witnessed so well by so many in our challenging times. This is also a time to remind ourselves of God’s perfect plan for that married love and to commit ourselves anew to keeping His path for us foremost in our minds and actions, recognizing that as humans we often fall short.
I encourage you to learn more about this teaching and see its enormous benefits for bringing greater harmony to married life. Consider attending the annual Critical Life Issues Conference on Oct. 20, 2018, which will feature reflections on Humanae Vitae and its relevance in the world today. To register visit: https://diometuchen.org/critical-life. Our Family Life Office also has much more information available.
Yes, anniversaries are important for us, as they are opportunities to give thanks, but also to renew our commitments. God bless you all and know of my love and prayers for you and your loved ones!
The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen