More significant than the debates or documents of the Synod of Bishops that just concluded was the act with which it concluded. Yesterday at the Vatican, Pope Francis again declared in an official way the holiness of one of his predecessors: he beatified Pope Paul VI, the Pope who brought the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion and also issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968)— a document preceded and followed by no small controversy, and sometimes called “the birth control encyclical.”
Humanae Vitae does not identify the key problem of our day in the realm of sex or birth or “the pill,” but rather in the myth that we can be God. Pope Paul writes at the beginning of the document, “But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life” (n.2).
The Pope here is painting a wider vision of the problem. We think everything belongs to us, but the reality is that we belong to God. “Humanae Vitae” means “Of human life.” Human life came from God, belongs to God, and goes back to God. “You are not your own,” St. Paul declares. “You have been bought, and at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Sex and having children are aspects of a whole cluster of realities that make up our lives and activities. We suffer from the illusion that all of these activities belong to us. “This is my life, my body, my choice.”
The problem we face is not that our society is obsessed with sex. Rather, it is afraid of it— afraid of the total reality and power of what it represents, where it comes from, and where it leads. Sex properly understood requires that we acknowledge God who made it. More than that, sex can never be separated from its purpose: to insert us into this immense, powerful movement of life and love that started when God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) and culminates when the Spirit and the Bride say “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:17).
Sexual activity means so much that it is wrong to diminish its message or deny its full reality: it belongs in the context of committed love (sealed by marriage) and openness to life precisely because this is the only context great enough to hold its message and reflect the greater reality to which the gift of sexuality points us and to which it commits us.
This is a reality that is bigger than all of us. It is the self-giving which starts in the Trinity, and is revealed in a startling way on the Cross, and then challenges each of us in our daily interaction with others, with God, and with our own eternal destiny. It is so real and so big that it is scary. That’s why so many today are afraid of the full reality and meaning of sex. That’s why Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae.
And to remind the faithful of that teaching, and of the holy Pope who articulated it so well, is part of why we now call Pope Paul VI Blessed.