Faith Formation

‘Humanae Vitae’ 50 years later: celebration is July 22

Cedar Rapids parish to host event with Dr. Janet E. Smith

By Matt Selby

Special to The Witness

DUBUQUE — July 25 of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”). The pope’s reiteration of the church’s opposition to contraception came in the midst of the sexual revolution and shortly after the advent of the hormonal birth control pill. When released, “Humanae Vitae” was criticized and rejected by many (both outside and within the church). The message is no less controversial today and yet no less important for our world to hear. In fact, had the world (and the Christian faithful, in particular) heeded the words of Pope Paul VI 50 years ago, the state of marriage, family life and sexual ethics might not be in such disarray today.

While I encourage you to read (or re-read) the entire encyclical (it’s quite short), I am going to focus here on paragraph 17 in which Pope Paul VI expressed what some have called a “prophetic message” regarding the negative consequences that would result from the widespread use of contraceptives. He indicated four “consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control”: 1) contraception would “open wide the way for marital infidelity”;  2) it would result in “a general lowering of moral standards”; 3) “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires”; and 4) it would result in public authorities taking “the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife” (i.e. governments would coerce people into using contraception and intervene in citizens’ sexual relationships).

Unfortunately, all of these predictions have come true in the last 50 years. Marital infidelity and divorce rates have skyrocketed. Moral standards, especially re­garding sexual morality, have been lowered in our society to the point of being nearly non-existent. It is commonplace for women to be objectified and disrespected by men, whether in the workplace (just think of the #MeToo movement), through forms of media (pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry) or in other manners (for instance, domestic violence, rape, prostitution and sex trafficking are much more prevalent today). Additionally, in the last 50 years, governments have legalized abortion, promoted and distributed contraceptives, enacted one-child and two-child policies, and forced sterilizations (to name just a few examples). The widespread acceptance of contraception was one domino to fall that then knocked down many other dominos of sexual morality issues, leaving a mess behind. Once the sexual act was divorced from procreation and reduced to a recreational activity for pleasure, it did not take long for an “anything goes” mentality regarding sexuality to be embraced.

While many baulked at the pope’s message 50 years ago, time has lent credence to the timeless truth and wisdom expressed in the encyclical “Humanae ­Vitae.” Its teachings are still challenging to embrace and live today, but the message conveyed is one our world still desperately needs to hear. The message of “Humanae Vitae” is not merely a “no” to contraception but a profound “yes” to the truth, beauty and goodness of God’s design for marriage and sexual intimacy. A widespread rejection of that message has brought about many negative consequences in the last 50 years, just as the pope said. Just think of what good could come in the next 50 years (and beyond) if that message would be embraced. I encourage you to take this occasion of the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” to revisit its teachings. Let us heed the challenge of Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”): “The teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae … ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life…” (222).

All are invited to join in commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” by attending the archdiocesan cele­­bration event that will include a dinner and keynote talk by internationally renowned speaker Dr. Janet E. Smith on Sunday, July 22 from 5-7:30 p.m. at St. Pius X Church in Cedar Rapids. For more information about “Humanae Vitae” and the celebration event, visit

Selby is family life director for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.



Pope Paul VI is pictured in this -undated photo. Pope Paul, who served as pope from 1963-1978, was declared blessed by Pope Francis. He is most remembered for his 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” which affirmed the church’s teaching against artificial contraception. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)