Charlie Hegarty hails a brave minority voice from 1968
The Encyclical Humanae Vitae
By Dietrich von Hildebrand, Hildebrand Press, 136pp, £8.99
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, explaining why the Church cannot change her teaching on the wrongness of artificial birth control. It is fair to say that public protest against the encyclical, made by progressive Catholics who had assumed that taking the Pill was licit, proved intense, wide-reaching and long-lasting. It is also true that Pope Paul’s predictions on what would happen to marriage and relationships should society adopt a contraceptive mentality have been proved correct.
The Catholic theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the few brave minority voices to speak out in defence of Humanae Vitae at the time. This book, now reissued by the Hildebrand Project, was first published in German in 1968, only a few months after the encyclical. Reading it for the first time, I was reminded what an original and creative thinker von Hildebrand is. Rather than spending time explaining the difference between “natural” and “artificial” forms of conjugal love and the two purposes of marriage, his whole focus is on showing married couples why spousal love, as he prefers to call it, is a noble and sacred activity. Emphasising that the biblical Song of Songs should be interpreted in a literal sense before its symbolical meaning, von Hildebrand writes of the “deep reverence” that should accompany married love which is “called to be transformed by Christ”. Procreation, “entrusted” to couples, becomes a “superabundance” of love, not merely “an instrumental finality” of it.
The author’s approach to this subject is romantic in its fullest sense, describing how falling in love and then living together in a spousal relationship becomes “the sublime union in the mutual interpenetration of souls in love”. Read with openness to its argument, it is easy to accept how lust becomes a desecration, or a “mysterious betrayal of our spiritual nature”.
Only 136 pages, this slim book is an indispensable accompaniment to the encyclical itself. Von Hildebrand brings all his faith, imagination and wisdom to the subject.
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