This month, the Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. For those who don’t know, an encyclical is the highest teaching document from a pope. Written by Pope Paul VI in 1968, he beautifully explained the serious role and responsibility that all married couples have in the transmission of life as collaborators with God the Creator.
When released, Humanae Vitae quickly became controversial since it reaffirmed the teaching that artificial contraception, such as birth control and sterilization, were not in conformity with the teachings of Christ. It was prophetic in explaining that such uses of artificial contraception will lead to an erosion of the sanctity of life and dignity of marriage.
But equally important, Humanae Vitae reasserted the truth that the conjugal action of a husband and wife is a holy gift entrusted to them by God. This holiness is from the total gift of self that a husband gives to his wife and vice versa. As God gives himself completely in love for us, so husband and wife, reflecting the image and likeness of God, are called to do the same. For Humanae Vitae states, “whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.” Marital love, and specifically conjugal love, then is ultimately an expression of both “giving” and “receiving”.
The total gift of self strengthens a marriage through enhanced communication. When a couple is willing to hold themselves back from each other through barriers, chemicals, or medical procedures to prevent the complete gift of self in the conjugal act, the same couple is more willing to hold themselves back in other aspects of marriage. This undoubtedly weakens communication. Yet, when every aspect of marriage, including the marital act, is a complete gift of self, communication continues to grow for nothing is present to hinder it.
The complete gift of self also conditions the person to choose to be sacrificial. Like Christ on the cross, giving himself totally in sacrifice for his bride, the Church, so too husband and wife grow in that same Spirit of Christ to sacrifice when it is required for the good of the other. Such a loving sacrifice may call spouses to even abstain for a time being from the conjugal act, but even this sacrifice shows great love and commitment of the spouses.
This July, I invite everyone to read or reread the encyclical Humanae Vitae. It is only a few pages long and can be found on the internet at http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.
Now I know that I write to a vast audience. There are those who have been living a sacrificial marriage, giving completely of yourselves for decades; to you I thank you for your witness to the sanctity of marriage. I know there are those who are just at the beginning of such a marriage as you have only been together for a few years or less; to you I pray you strive for this high ideal of giving yourself completely to each other like Christ taught and lived in order to be a new generation of witnesses. Finally to those who have not lived or experienced such a marriage but seek the mercy of God and hunger for this deeper ideal of marriage; to you I want to help you experience God’s mercy and his grace to deepen your marriage according to his divine plan.
In the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Fr. Andrew Heiman