I first read Humanae Vitae as a Protestant. Its truthfulness made me weep

humane vitae

The world is full of lonely souls who need a beacon in their darkness, an ointment for their wounds, and a means of grace for their bereft spirits. For many, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae has been all that and more. When I read it for the first time, while I was still a Protestant, I had to read it several times – for personal spiritual reasons and for studying. Each time I was moved to tears.

The encyclical is known for restating Church teaching against artificial contraception. But Humanae Vitae, whose 50th anniversary falls on July 25 this year, also helps us to answer the question: Who is man and what is his whole mission?

It was Humanae Vitae that succinctly described my dignity as a human being, that as a woman I was not a second-class citizen to man. The encyclical, which mentions early on “the dignity of woman and her place in society”, stresses the reciprocity and complementarity of man and woman. A woman must be revered: artificial contraception encourages a man to “disregard…her physical and emotional equilibrium” and “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”

Paul VI’s words told me that my body and mind, both together, were esteemed—that my reason and will are valuable. I learned that my entire being is a gift, and that “love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit.” And finally, the encyclical showed me the depth of the moral order and the necessity that it be respected even within marriage.

True, all Church teaching touches on the question of man and his mission in life. But during this historical period when people en masse have bought the world’s lie about love, marriage, and sexuality, Catholic doctrine on these matters has a special ability to draw us out of the darkness and towards God. I know I am not the only convert who has discovered in Humanae Vitae a means of grace, capable of pricking the conscience of the self-absorbed.

My tears on reading the encyclical were, I think, a sign of the unitive physical and spiritual response to truth. Our inner being always knows when we encounter it; it is part of our nature. As St Paul explained:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power, and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse, for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.

We know the truth when we see it; and the truth can bring us to conversion. When I was a physics student, I was fascinated by “phase transitions”: the process by which, say, water becomes ice. Phase transitions always have a critical point where there is a definitive change from one phase to another; they also have a coexistence curve – a two-phase region where the matter is in both forms. What has always intrigued me is what happens inside these kinds of systems at the most fundamental level.

Conversion requires a change, a turning, and in my phase transition to Catholicism, it was Humanae Vitae that took me from one state of darkness to a state of less darkness. Continue reading

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