Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote a passionate defence of Humanae Vitae

2018 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s papal encyclical Humanae Vitae on 29 July 1968. This significant milestone has been somewhat disregarded because of more pressing news in the Church this year. Yet its importance remains. Indeed, some theologians have linked the widespread rebellion against the Church’s ban on artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae to all the later troubles the Church has subsequently endured.

As a way of properly commemorating the 50th anniversary, the Hildebrand Project has reissued a slim book of barely 100 pages, written by the theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand in 1968, only a few months after the publication of the encyclical itself. Titled The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction, and with a new foreword by Catholic scholar Professor Tracey Rowland, it is a highly courageous book to have brought out in the aftermath of Pope Paul’s own reaffirmation of the Church’s constant teaching, but a very necessary one.

Unlike the numerous dissident voices of the time, Hildebrand provides a wise, robust and eloquent defence of Humanae Vitae which has only grown more meaningful and relevant with the years. At its heart is a beautiful, indeed romantic (in its true sense) description of the meaning of married love. Unlike Pope Paul’s somewhat formal, stilted language, which was mistakenly read simply as “Thou shalt not…” von Hildebrand spends most of the book arguing not about the distinction between the words “natural” and “artificial”, but on the meaning of the Old Testament Song of Songs which he believes should be read literally before being interpreted symbolically.

That is, the profundity and goodness of conjugal love – or “spousal love” as he terms it – created by God for the purpose of marriage, is of such great importance that any attempt to interfere with it artificially would be a “desecration”, a “sacrilegious” affront to the sacrament of marriage. Dismissing Freud’s reductive emphasis on “sex”, Hildebrand reminds men and women of their “noble” vocation, the “deep reverence” they should have for the privilege of sexual fulfilment and why impurity or lust is so clearly “a mysterious betrayal of our spiritual nature.”

Defining spousal love as “the longing for the attainment of the sublime union in the mutual interpenetration of souls in love”, the author, echoing the language of the Song of Songs, emphasises that the beauty of the beloved “awakens awe in us”, called as we are to be “transformed by Christ”. Only after this paean to married love in the first section of his book, “Sex, love and marriage”, does Hildebrand go on to explain why procreation is “entrusted” to spousal love and is a “superabundant” feature of it rather than merely an “instrumental finality” of it.

There is much more to this slim book, such as the Christian idea of sacrifice and taking up one’s cross – “among these crosses are the sacrifices that a Christian marriage can impose on us” – and a rigorous rebuttal of the so-called “competence” of “experts” in the area of faith and morals, so evident in the arguments against Humanae Vitae that followed in its wake.

Fifty years ago Hildebrand’s words would have been drowned out by the cacophony of dissident voices; today, with so much widespread unhappiness and confusion in relationships, perhaps the time has come to reflect on what this great champion of true romantic love has to say.