Father Peter Ryan, SJ, Executive Director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
STEUBENVILLE, OH—Of all the encyclicals published in the last century, one has unquestionably received a more passionate response than the rest. To mark the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae this year, Franciscan University of Steubenville hosted a conference titled “Humanae Vitae at 45: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Holiness.”
The September 27-28 conference brought together leading Catholic theologians and philosophers to examine the interaction of culture and this landmark document.
In his keynote address, “Humanae Vitae in Historical and Social Perspective,” Father Peter Ryan, SJ, STD, executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained the impact of societal changes on the family during and after the industrial revolution, and how those changes placed increasing pressure on a culture that once unequivocally opposed contraception.
“A situation began to emerge . . . in which it became impossible for most people to have all the children that they naturally can have,” Father Ryan said. “This hasn't changed in post-industrial technological society.
“From her earliest days, the Church has sought to avoid [burdening people beyond what is required],” Father Ryan said. In the years leading up to Humanae Vitae, “It began to seem to many people that to exclude contraception even in dire circumstances meant unnecessarily burdening people.” It was into this social climate that Humanae Vitae was released, and when not properly presented, it was dismissed by many.
As Blessed Pope John Paul II unequivocally affirmed, Father Ryan reminded listeners, “the teaching that contraception is wrong is a revealed truth that cannot be other than it is.
“A great deal of the movement to approve contraception was not to understand truth, but arguing for a certain policy, seeing it merely as a matter of rule making,” Father Ryan said. Pope Paul VI “grasped an essential distinction: He realized that what was at stake was not making a decision about what to allow, as though it were up to him to construct a rule. Rather, it was a matter of coming to understand the moral truth more deeply.”
Father Ryan's talk was also sponsored by the Henkels Lecture Series and was part of the Fall 2013 Distinguished Speakers Series.
Teresa Collett, JD, professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family, expanded on the cultural background Father Ryan gave by presenting the legal history of contraception in America up to the present controversy over the Health and Human Services mandate. In her talk, “Humanae Vitae, Contraception, and American Law,” she said, “In the 1800s and early 1900s, we had a complete code of laws regulating sexual behavior, and there was no concept in any of the judges' minds in the 1800s that there was some sort of constitutional realm of privacy that the state could not regulate if that conduct had very real consequences to the common good. . . There are a number of laws that continue to remain on the books, but their enforcement is rare and constitutionally questionable under current interpretations.”
Collett also fleshed out the distinction between permissible and impermissible material cooperation with evil, explaining why what the HHS mandate requires is impermissible. “What's at issue,” she concluded, “is whether we as Americans have the right to tell the government that we won't fund something that we believe is harmful to the common good. And all Americans oppose coercing consciences.”
Three other well-recognized figures also presented:
Dr. Richard Fehring, director of the Institute of Natural Family Planning at Marquette University, discussed the history and use of fertility awareness methods in light of Humanae Vitae in his talk, “Scientific, Spiritual, and Marital Dynamics of Natural Family Planning.” Fehring's research on the ease of use and efficacy of Natural Family Planning methods has been widely published in academic journals.
Dr. Jennifer Frey, collegiate assistant professor of humanities and the Harper Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago, discussed the ethical and anthropological aspects of the teaching of Humanae Vitae in her talk.
Dr. Michael Waldstein, founding president of the International Theological Institute in Austria, discussed the theological underpinnings of Humanae Vitae in his talk. Waldstein was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family from 2003 to 2009 and is the Max Seckler Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University in Florida. He published a translation of Blessed John Paul II's Theology of the Body, entitled Man and Woman He Created Them, in 2006.
For complete video of the talks by Father Peter Ryan and Teresa Collett, go to www.FaithAndReason.com and type the speaker’s name into the search engine.