‘Humanae Vitae’ teaches about human sexuality

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Fifty years ago this month, I was a seminarian at St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver and I remember well the day (soon-to-be Saint) Blessed Pope Paul VI issued one of the most important encyclicals (papal letters) of the past two centuries.

“Humanae Vitae” (On Human Life) offered a clear defense of the church’s unchanging teaching regarding human sexuality, especially its cooperation with God’s plan for human flourishing. The key elements of that divine plan are well-known, albeit much maligned by our modern culture; namely, the reservation of sex for marriage only, the immorality of contraception and sterilization and the necessity of openness to life each time the sexual act is performed by a married couple, and the social and personal dangers of the “contraceptive culture.”

The Holy Father’s warnings about these dangers have proved to be true. We all suffer from the widespread failure or refusal to follow these never-changing truths.

Because of our fallen nature, we are all subject to concupiscence, that is, the attractiveness or sweetness of sin which tempts us. Sexual sins are potent temptations, because of the great goodness of human sexuality, as God designed it, and because of its emotional depth in our nature.

There has never been a time when no one fell into such sins. However, in our traditional, Christianized, culture of the West, the virtues of chastity, fidelity, and self-control were extolled and strived for. The high social status of marriage helped to uphold those virtues, and the church’s own commitment to chastity and continence for consecrated religious and priests likewise highlighted the same virtues. We often fell short of the goal, perhaps, but the goal itself was clear.

In the last two centuries, however, our culture has changed greatly. Our culture now rejects chastity, fidelity, and self-control, denying that these are virtues worth striving for, right and good in themselves, part of our imitation of and union with Christ our Savior. Our culture insists that they frustrate our freedom and self-expression and teaches relentlessly that the only necessary qualification for sexual activity to be right and good is consent.

In all this, our culture is gravely wrong. Just as Pope Paul VI recognized and predicted 50 years ago, the legitimization of divorce renders fidelity meaningless, and the ready availability and social acceptance of chemical and mechanical contraception render chastity and self-control meaningless.

Can we not see how this worshipping of vice is merely rebellion against God, an attempt (doomed to failure) to carve out another path than the one he has marked for us? Can we not see that those who reject chastity, fidelity, and self-control as virtues are committing a sin like that of Adam and Eve that lead to the fall?

God made us in a certain way, and, therefore, certain things correspond to what is good for us, for our flourishing and happiness, and indeed, ultimately, for our salvation. The opposite is also true; certain things can only harm us, cause us unhappiness and suffering, and possibly lead to our losing eternal salvation. We veer away from that divine plan at our peril, for God does not change, nor his plans, nor our nature.

The contents of “Humanae Vitae” are still the teachings of the church. They are right and good in themselves. The happiness of the few who follow them, and the unhappiness of the many who don’t, is proof enough of that. Pope Paul showed briefly in that document how these teachings derive from Biblical revelation and the teachings of Christ himself. As unpopular as they may be, they are necessary teachings for our flourishing and salvation. And Pope St. John Paul II, in his excellent “Theology of the Body,” elaborated on all these points at much greater length, and still more convincingly.

As G. K. Chesterton said, the modern world has replaced common sense with uncommon nonsense. Nowhere is this clearer than on this topic.

Especially in this anniversary year, I urge all of you to read “Humanae Vitae,” which is neither long nor difficult, despite its possibly unfamiliar vocabulary.

We must come to understand more deeply what these teachings mean, and how we can strive to live them out, and how we can try to defend them against the lies of the culture, inviting others also to recognize their goodness.

Above all, I urge you to remain faithful to the sacraments, especially the holy Eucharist which gives us strength to follow wherever Christ leads, even when difficult, and penance, where we receive mercy and healing for our sins and weakness.

Christ has not laid upon us a yoke too heavy to bear, even in these teachings about sexuality. Trust him, and follow him, with the greatest possible fidelity, and you will see what virtue and happiness result. Pray for each other, just as I pray constantly for all of you.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City


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