Respect for All Human Life
October 2014 RESPECT LIFE letter from the Pastor
to the Parish Family of
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Marathon
1. During the month of October the Catholic Church gives special consideration to the beauty of all human life. In that light, I want to reflect with you some of the profound truths which Pope Paul VI offered to the Church forty-six years ago when he published his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae. It is good for us to be knowledgeable about this encyclical, especially with the upcoming beatification of Pope Paul VI. It is also timely because from October 5-19 Pope Francis has called for a general assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Synod will treat the topic “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Various topics will surely be discussed, among them divorce, contraception, same-sex unions, abortion and the rights of parents to be the primary educators of their children. A preliminary paper for the Synod was published this past summer in which Humanae Vitae was positively cited for its reiteration of the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception as a means to regulate birth. Nevertheless, the working paper states that many Catholics do not know the positive aspects of Humanae Vitae. Because of the beatification of Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops and because many of the positive aspects of Humanae Vitae are yet to be discovered, I want to write about some of the contents of the encyclical.
2. I will begin by saying that people who believe in God should also logically believe that God desires from us a healthy respect for all human life. When reflecting upon the beauty of human life, we must also consider from where human life comes and what generates human life. Christians believe that God is the Source of all life. Therefore, human life is a precious gift from Almighty God. Human life is generated through procreation whereby a man and woman, united intimately through the marriage act, allow for the gift of human life to take start and to grow. It is Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who uncovers for us the astounding beauty of human life and who, through His Church, teaches us about life here in preparation for the life hereafter and provides for us the Christian perspective of human life and human sexuality.
3. By way of contrast, much of the secular culture considers genital sexual activity to be a form of recreation rather than procreation. Sex outside of marriage is now commonplace. Same-sex encounters, only a few years ago thought of as an abnormal form of behavior, have since been elevated to a status similar to marriage between a man and a woman. Similarly, popular psychology today speaks about how many feel unsatisfied with their sex lives and promotes the idea that one might look for sexual excitement and gratification outside of one’s marriage.
4. Forty-six years ago, Pope Paul VI penned an encyclical, a letter to the universal Church. It was entitled Humanae Vitae (i.e., “Of Human Life”) and pertained to the Church’s teaching with regard to the regulation of birth and the dignity of all human life. Unfortunately, many hear about the encyclical and immediately roll their eyes with disdain, thinking that its sole purpose was to ban the use of artificial contraceptives. The encyclical is actually a profound reflection that addresses a number of areas, among them, the transmission of human life, responsible parenthood, the respect that should be given to the marital act and faithfulness to God’s design for human sexual behavior. Since the encyclical pertains to the regulation of birth, the encyclical addresses licit and illicit ways of regulating birth. Listed among the illicit means Pope Paul VI cites a directly willed and procured abortion, direct sterilization, and the use of artificial contraceptives to prevent conception. (cf. Humanae Vitae, para. 14)
5. On the other hand, there are licit means by which births can be regulated. Pope Paul VI indicated that when reasons exist whereby the couple would want to space births, the Church teaches that the various natural methods are acceptable. Listed among the natural methods endorsed by the Catholic Church is Natural Family Planning. In our diocese we are blessed because Bishop Callahan as well as the Office of Marriage and Family Life offer strong support for young couples who are preparing for Matrimony to complete the Natural Family Planning course, available online through the diocesan website.
6. You can well imagine the kind of response that Humanae Vitae received from the secular culture. The Catholic Church, specifically Pope Paul VI, was considered irrelevant and unresponsive to the needs and desires of many people. Such a response would be understandable, especially since the secular culture treats genital sexuality as a recreational past time. However, when Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical, the backlash and fierce criticism also came from members of the Catholic Church. In the United States a group of about six hundred theologians signed a statement saying that the Church should step away from making this kind of decision and that it should be left up to the married couples themselves as to whether artificial contraception is a proper consideration for their marriage. Many priests worldwide resigned from active ministry because they could not support the encyclical even though Pope Paul VI requested that priests not cause dissension but that they would “expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity.” (para. 28) There was even a Jesuit-owned magazine published in the United States that brazenly called for the resignation of Pope Paul VI in light of his encyclical, suggesting that he was out of touch with modern life.
7. In this letter I hope to point out some of the significant thoughts in Pope Paul VI’s aforementioned encyclical. Some think that this encyclical was a tragic moment in Church history; others praise it as a prophetic masterpiece. Pope Paul VI, a man whom I admired very much during his fifteen year service to the Church as our Holy Father, wrote the encyclical not to be prophetic but rather to clarify the teaching of the Church with regard to human sexuality and the regulation of birth. Pope Benedict XVI issued one of his own encyclicals in 2009 entitled Caritas in Veritate in which he highly praised Pope Paul VI’s insights and leadership for the Church. Pope Benedict XVI wrote the following with the conclusion being a direct quote from Saint John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae:
The encyclical Humanae Vitae emphasizes both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexuality, thereby locating at the foundation of society the married couple, man and woman, who accept one another mutually, in distinction and in complementarity; a couple, therefore, that is open to life. This is not a question of purely individual morality: Humanae Vitae indicates the strong links between life ethics and social ethics. . . . The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.”
8. Before writing about some of the theological and spiritual aspects of the encyclical, I would like to clarify one practical point. Awhile back a young woman who was preparing for marriage mentioned to me that her doctor advised her to use the contraceptive pill for a medical condition that she has. She questioned whether or not she was doing wrong by following her doctor’s advice. Initially I told her that she could ask her doctor if there might be a medication other than the contraceptive pill which could be used for her condition. Further, she might also consider seeking a second opinion. Nevertheless, despite the options which I suggested to her, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI answers this practical question. He writes: “. . . the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom – provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (para. 15) Therefore, Pope Paul VI was addressing the Church’s teaching on the use of artificial contraceptives when not used for the prevention of conceiving human life. For example, some women suffer from endometriosis and there may be doctors who will suggest the use of the pill in order to assist their condition. Is the use of the pill morally justifiable or not in this situation? The encyclical indicates that if the use of a contraceptive drug is necessary to treat a physical condition and if the user has no desire for the possible side effect which would prevent conception, then it would be justifiable to use contraceptive medicine. As I say, this is a practical issue which the encyclical addresses. Nevertheless, the use of oral contraceptives in treating other conditions can have serious side effects because using oral contraceptives has the potential to disturb the normal cycles of the woman and thus can lead to difficulty in conceiving a child.
9. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the secular culture promotes the use of artificial contraceptives and makes very little mention of risks that may be involved with contraceptives. Some reports that I have read will cite science and medicine as an ally of various contraceptives. For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that contraceptives are essential health care for women. As I indicated in the preceding paragraph, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI states that if the user of the contraceptive has no desire for the prevention of conception but rather as a therapeutic means to cure diseases of the organism, then the use of contraceptives can be licit. Oral contraceptives (known as birth control pills) are steroidal hormones. All steroids, oral contraceptives included, have medicinal purposes. Nevertheless, there are risks with their use. Although advocates of artificial contraceptives rarely speak of the pill’s harmful effects, it does not mean that harmful effects do not exist. Articles in scientific journals indicate otherwise. For example, in 2005 the World Health Organization classified birth control pills, along with tobacco and asbestos, among the highest risk category of carcinogens. A study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which indicated that women with a family history of breast cancer may have up to eleven times higher risk of breast cancer if they have taken oral contraceptives. Another recent study published by the National Cancer Institute states that oral contraceptive users run a significant increase of the risk of breast, cervical and liver cancers. So, according to the National Cancer Institute, while oral contraceptives reduce the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers, the elevated risk of breast and liver cancers are present. Another study, published in 2009 by Science Daily, mentions that birth control pills increase the risk of stroke. An increased risk of heart attack is also a possible adverse effect that may result from the use of oral contraceptives. Such risks are not often spoken about, but in fairness to every woman and to a woman’s health, knowledge of any possible risks should be made available. Since I am not a medical doctor, I truly do not know much about these issues other than what I have read. However, from the things that I have read, medical concerns exist with regard to a woman’s health if oral contraceptives are used.
10. There are several major theological and spiritual themes that the encyclical addresses. I will briefly mention four of them.
The transmission of human life
Pope Paul VI wisely mentioned that human procreation touches upon more than biology, sociology and psychology. In other words, the Holy Father was reminding us that human procreation, which has its origin in God, also has a supernatural aspect which should be taken into consideration. He beautifully stated the following: “ . . . husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.” (para. 8)
The Holy Father wrote that while each woman and man has basic drives and emotions, responsible parenthood includes the married couple’s ability to let reason and will exert control over the drives and emotions. Further, he mentioned how physical, economic and social conditions must be taken into consideration when planning for a child. Taking these conditions under consideration is a necessary aspect of responsible parenthood. He then stated that responsible parenthood has one further essential aspect – that the married couple are to recognize that they have a duty toward God, toward themselves, their family and human society. What does that mean? The Holy Father explains thus: “From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.” (para. 10)
The respect that should be given to the marital act
We know that society condemns the crime of rape. Unfortunately, it continues to occur. Pope Paul VI discussed this aspect in the following excerpt: “. . . a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends . . . the intimate relationship of husband and wife.” He also mentioned that if couples further reflect what is proper to the marital act, they must recognize that acts of mutual love need to be open to the transmission of life if the act is truly following the will of the Author of life. The pontiff stated: “. . . to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.” (para. 13) This is what is meant by the natural law, a law imprinted on our souls by God.
Faithfulness to God’s design for human sexual behavior
Pope Paul VI stated succinctly the essential good of self-discipline and the willingness to sacrifice in marriage. Without self-discipline and without sacrifice, we know that marriages will not succeed. Unfortunately, the lack of self-discipline and sacrifice seems to be on the rise as the secular culture promotes forms of hedonism, self-centeredness and exaggerated individualism. The Holy Father’s words are profound at this point. He stated:
The right and lawful ordering of birth demands . . . that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. (para. 21)
11. Pope Paul VI was a realist. He knew that the encyclical would create some contention. He stated the following:
It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. An intensive, clamorous outcry is being raised against the voice of the Church that is made more intense by today’s means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction’ (Lk 2:34). She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. (para. 18)
12. As I conclude this letter, I would like to comment about the current situation in our own country with regard to artificial contraception in light of recent decisions by the justices of the Supreme Court and the fall-out from their decision. You may recall that on June 30, 2014, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court rejected the Obama administration’s argument that businesses do not have free exercise rights and that the touted public-health benefits of requiring health plans to provide coverage for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization must take precedence over the faith-based objections of for-profit employers like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood (cf. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Finding that the “HHS contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion,” the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot require private corporations to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.
13. “Women’s rights” activists and those from the liberal media were quick to respond with condemnatory words for the Supreme Court decision. There were many who wrote comments over the internet saying that Hobby Lobby stores should be burned down as a sign of protest. One woman who had a photo taken where she was wearing a pro-life tee shirt and standing in front of a Hobby Lobby store received death threats to herself and her children. The Supreme Court decision favoring the exemption of Hobby Lobby and other corporations caused an explosion of anger not unlike the 1968 uproar when Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. Some columnists, after the June 30 decision, wrote that within the Supreme Court there were religious extremists, and then compared Hobby Lobby to the Taliban. Of course, all of this was to foment the fallacious idea that the Supreme Court decision has now endangered the lives of many American women.
14. The Catholic Church continues to speak with clarity about the issues which Pope Paul VI addressed in Humanae Vitae. A few months ago Bishop Callahan, our Bishop, stressed the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to Catholic hospitals while responding to an issue that was raised pertaining to a Catholic hospital in La Crosse. Bishop Callahan, as the chief shepherd of our diocese, called upon the Catholic hospital administrators to ensure that they were in compliance with the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to ethical and religious procedures used in medicine. Bishop Callahan’s statement to the hospital administrators reminded them that they are to implement the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services in accord with Catholic teaching. These directives, expressing the Catholic Church’s theological and moral teachings, offer guidance on various aspects of health care. Many of the ethical and religious principles clearly reiterate what Pope Paul VI stated in the 1968 encyclical. Several of them will be cited in order to show their similarity to the encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
ERD #45 Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. . . . Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.
ERD #52 Catholic health institutions may not promote or condone contraceptive practices but should provide, for married couples and the medical staff who counsel them, instruction both about the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and in methods of natural family planning.
ERD #53 Direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution. Procedures that induce sterility are permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.
ERD #54 Genetic counseling may be provided in order to promote responsible parenthood and to prepare for the proper treatment and care of children with genetic defects, in accordance with Catholic moral teaching and the intrinsic rights and obligations of married couples regarding the transmission of life.
15. As you can see from these aforementioned directives, the clarity with which Pope Paul VI wrote in the encyclical Humanae Vitae has been adopted in these Ethical and Religious Directives. Although criticisms will continue to be leveled against the Catholic Church for its ethical and religious beliefs, and although companies like Hobby Lobby will be persecuted for the religious convictions held by the owners, we can take heart in the words of Jesus that we find in the Gospel according to Matthew where He says, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:23). The working paper for the Synod of Bishops that will meet this October perhaps says it best. The author of the working paper writes in No. 122:
The encyclical Humanae Vitae certainly had a prophetic character in reiterating the unbreakable link between conjugal love and the transmission of life. The Church is called to proclaim the fruitfulness of love in light of that faith which ‘helps us grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person’ (cf. Lumen Fidei, 52).
16. In 1998, thirty years after Humanae Vitae was published, the Servant of God, Father John Hardon, S.J., wrote the following with regard to using artificial contraceptives in order to regulate birth:
Abortion follows contraception like the law of gravity. This is obvious. As people come to equate sexual pleasure with self-gratification, there is no limit to their lustful pride. Contraception has taught them to have their own way. They will stop at nothing to have their way, not even murder of their unborn offspring. Respect for human life requires selfless love of human beings. As a nation is nurtured on contraceptive self-indulgence, it becomes a nation that kills innocent children if they are an obstacle to the self-gratification of those who brought them into existence.
17. This letter was written primarily for our parishioners who care about virtue and about living a virtuous life. We understand that the society in which we live is postmodern, secular and liberal. We live in a society that opposes moral convictions which reflect Christ-given teachings that are embodied by the Church. However, if you have read this letter and believe in virtue, may I suggest that you offer a prayer for the success of the Synod of Bishops who are discussing the topic “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” To that end, we can also call upon Pope Paul VI, soon to be beatified, to intercede for a positive outcome of the Synod of Bishops. Please pray that the results of this important meeting will strengthen a healthy understanding of married life which the world urgently needs. May God’s peace be in our hearts, the lasting peace which comes from knowing and doing God’s will in all things.
Benedict XVI. Encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, June 29, 2009.
Hardon, John A. Contraception: Fatal to the Faith, 1998. Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life, 2011.
Paul VI. Encyclical letter Humanae vitae, July 25, 1968.
USCCB. Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fifth Ed., November 2009.
Krajacic, Zachary, “Some Compelling Evidence of the Pill’s Harmful Effects,” Crisis Today, May 28, 2014.