Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae shocked Catholics and non-Catholics alike with its continuation of long-standing Church opposition to artificial birth control….But in 1968, the West was in the throes of the sexual revolution, especially the freedom offered by the birth control pill.

Ethicist Margaret Somerville recalled the shock that greeted Humanae Vitae 40 years ago. “We all thought the pill was going to be allowed,” she said.

The founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law said the invention of the birth control pill 50 years ago was as significant an event in human history as the discovery of electricity.

“I understand now what the Church may have intuited in terms of its profound and wide-reaching impact,” she said. “The pill was a radical dividing line between the past and how society developed from then on, for good or ill.”

Crossing the threshold of artificial contraception opened up a line of events that fundamentally altered the concept of human sexuality and the passing on of life, and the relationship between men and women, she said.

Prendergast, who was studying at the University of Ottawa in 1968, also said the encyclical surprised many because the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were in the air and many interpreted the council as a rupture from previous Church teaching.

“What Paul VI did was say, ‘No, this teaching is valid for all times; it’s not going to be changed,’” he said.

He described Paul VI as prophetic but also lonely, as someone who became deeply discouraged in his ministry after trying to do “something good for the Church.”

Prendergast said he has encouraged priests both in Ottawa and in Halifax to teach on Humanae Vitae and make it part of marriage preparation and family life courses.

Prendergast said the encyclical is more about the “beauty of following the natural law that God has prescribed in our nature” than it is about contraception.


Somerville said the Church aspires to teach that sex is not just a recreational pursuit, or a casual event, but something that needs to be surrounded with meaning, respect and sacredness.

“This still needs to be taught, even if the teachings cannot be lived up to, at least all the time.”

But Humanae Vitae’s insistence on never separating the unitive and procreative aspects of “the marriage act” also has raised questions about the direction of reproductive technology.

Somerville noted an in vitro fertilization specialist said recently that in the future people will have sex for fun, but when they want to reproduce they will use IVF to control all the variables.

This has implications on whether parents will be expected to love their children unconditionally regardless of their sex, or their physical characteristics, she said.

Somerville calls for a “presumption in favour of the natural.”

“The most fundamental human right of all is to come from natural human origins,” she said. That means from “one natural ovum from an identified, living adult woman and one natural sperm from an identified living adult man.”

Another issue that birth-control proponents 40 years ago failed to see was the onset of demographic winter in the West.

Paul VI also warned that governments could start to impose contraceptive measures on citizens, violating their personal responsibilities. While China’s one-child policy is one example, McGill associate professor of Christian Thought Douglas Farrow said Canada’s mandatory sex education policies are another.

“The Canadian bishops never imagined mandatory programs teaching Catholic children how to experiment in all manner of ‘sterile’ sex, including sodomy, or how to appreciate the fact that ‘families’ come in all sizes and shapes,” Farrow wrote for the National Post’s Full Comment section July 31. (Source)

Absent strong leadership from the Church on the issue of contraception, I don’t see a major turnaround happening. That’s why The Rosarium has been pressing for the Canadian bishops to reflect on their own failure to uphold Humanae Vitae.

For me, any Canadian bishop speaking on Humanae Vitae who does not favour the retraction of the Winnipeg Statement is someone who wants to bask in the glory of Paul VI’s prophetic words, but doesn’t want to admit that his own predecessors were the ones dissenting from his teaching.  That’s pretty lame.

John Paul II had the courage to apologize for centuries of misdeeds that both lay persons and ministers of the Church committed.

The Canadian bishops should follow his lead and retract the Winnipeg Statement.

One Response to “Presumption in Favour of the Natural”
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