Humanae Vitae: The foundation and companion of Laudato Si'

On this Golden Anniversary of Paul VI's prophetic encyclical, Catholic eco-advocates must reaffirm and teach Humanae Vitae

Forty-seven years before the issuance of Laudato Si’, another encyclical about life rocked the Church. Like Laudato Si’, this earlier encyclical was cheered and reviled along ideological lines and still is. And also like Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae speaks more than a few inconvenient truths to those who seek the satiation of personal desires rather than heed the natural order of things.

Paul VI issued his prophetic encyclical on human life against the advice and hopes of many—a topic receiving much attention on this Golden Anniversary.

Given a great number of errant voices seeking magisterial approval for artificial contraception and other ills, Paul VI demonstrated a prophet’s courage and trust in Christ by making clear the teachings of the Church. A good many on the left were outraged by this—and still are—just as some on the right are dismissive of Laudato Si’.

The good news is that the commonality between these two papal documents offers ways forward.

Papal prophets

Paul VI was correct in his warnings about disconnecting the conjugal act from procreation—as many have noted recently. Who can deny the coming to pass of this prophetic statement?

Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that 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, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Pope Francis will be proven equally correct in stating his concerns regarding the impacts of wanton human desire on both innocent lives and on planetary and local ecosystems, which nurture and protect human life. In Laudato Si’, he writes of similar concerns as those stated by Paul VI:

In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.

Protecting creation begins with marriage and is nurtured in the womb

When a culture chooses to disconnect the pleasures of sexual relations from procreation, it is more likely to abuse or end all forms of human life—especially the vulnerable. And then it can more easily abuse or dismiss all life.

As ecologists exhort the world to consume less and live in proper relation to nature, Catholic ecologists must, in addition, exhort the world to quench different human desires that lead to the consumption of each other

And since ecology studies the interconnectivity of life and its physical environment—how impacting one element impacts others—the topic thus becomes a tool to teach the consequences of choices. Ecology encourages conversations about how our earthly decisions, particularly those related to our bodies, reverberate into greater realities.

In a culture that increasingly sees an individual’s choices as affecting only the individual that makes the choice, the popular topic of environmental protection demonstrates that one’s choices impact one’s neighbors—that we do not reign supreme over our bodies, our relationships, or our corners of creation.

As ecologists exhort the world to consume less and live in proper relation to nature, Catholic ecologists must, in addition, exhort the world to quench different human desires that lead to the consumption of each other—of a moral and sexual license that has devalued to nil the life of the unborn and the place of the family.

In Laudato Si’ and elsewhere, Francis connects ecology with human life issues. Sadly, among some of those that cheer Laudato Si’, often there is little enthusiasm for Francis’s condemnation of artificial contraception and abortion, as I had written about over a year before Laudato Si’s release.

Two ways forward

In 2012, I and a group of Evangelicals and Catholics published A Joint Declaration on Life. In part, it read,

We implore those who defend human dignity and those who defend the created order to see the unity and interconnectedness of all life. We understand that abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia, intrinsically involve the willful termination of a human life, whereas the loss of life caused by environmental toxins is often unintended. Nevertheless, the damage done to the human person by toxins is real, debilitating, often deadly, and it is always the result of human choices. Thus, we see the issues of human dignity and ecological integrity as linked by our choices for either a blessing or a curse—for life or for death.

The document made only a small impact in its day. Without adequate funds, it was presented only on my blog, where it remains today. But on this fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important papal encyclicals in the history of the Church, it’s time that this joint declaration reappears and be shared and pondered, individually and as communities.

More so, it's time for Catholic ecologists to add Humanae Vitae to their arsenals of papal teachings. Doing so will not only help build unity within the Church (and the wider world), it will help us get to the root of why we’re harming the great gift of life—human and otherwise—in the first place. Importantly, this will provide credence to the need, now more than ever, of self-denial. [For more on that, see this post with input from some of our time's most influential moral theologians.]

Last, in a statement that Catholic ecologists should cheer, Paul VI concludes Humanae Vitae thus:

[M]an cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature. These laws must be wisely and lovingly observed.

And to that, we can say together Amen.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.