Humanae Vitae at 50, and teaching sexual morality

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It can be quite a profound challenge to figure out the right way to teach sexual morality to teens today. There is even a debate as to the best age to teach it: while we want to avoid teaching it too early, and opening that can of worms before it is appropriate to do so, we also want to ensure that we (as parents and educators) are the ones who give them the right message and the correct information, rather than the dangerous misinformation they may get from peers or pop culture.

This year, the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae, Pope Bl. Paul VI’s landmark encyclical on human life and sexuality. By far, most coverage of this encyclical focuses on the fact that, in this document, Bl. Paul VI affirmed the Church’s ancient and unbroken opposition to artificial methods of birth control — famously going against the final decision and recommendation of a committee he had set up to look into the issue. But the encyclical contains so much more than that — beautiful elucidations of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, love, living life in the vocation of marriage, and much more. Humanae Vitae has been a great gift to the Church.

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For the 25th anniversary of the encyclical’s release, 25 years ago, Ignatius Press produced a volume edited by Janet E. Smith called Why Humanae Vitae Was Right, featuring a number of essays on the encyclical by some of the finest minds in moral theology. This year, for the 50th anniversary, Dr. Smith has edited a new compendium of essays, entitled Why Humanae Vitae is Still Right, which Ignatius Press will be releasing this summer. Both of these volumes are invaluable resources for unpacking and understanding the encyclical itself, as well as the import it has down to today.

Perhaps it is due to our fallen nature that the debate about sexual morality rages ever on, and western society continues to fight the natural, common-sensical, ancient understanding of the proper use of the sexual faculty. It seems as though things only get worse with each passing year. It is more important than ever to be able to impart the truth to our young people, so that they go out into the world properly equipped, and fortified by grace through the sacraments to fight temptation and sin.

Ignatius Press offers a Catechesis on Christian Sexual Morality for teens called Love & Life, which utilizes the great patrimony of the Church’s Tradition, and in particular the writings of Paul VI and John Paul II, to guide the instruction. Offering a student guide, a teacher’s guide, and a parent guide, Love & Life is an orthodox guide to sexual morality that does a great job of appropriately approaching the topic. (If you have questions, or would like a free review copy, please contact me at paul@ignatius.com, or my colleague Julie Johnson at julie@ignatius.com.)

Another great resource for teens is the YDisciple video series components on chastity: “True Beauty: Chastity for Girls,” and “True Strength: Chastity for Guys.” Each of these is in four sessions, each session only a few minutes long. These videos are short and engaging, packing terrific information about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. The YDisciple videos can be ordered from the Augustine Institute, and they are available on Formed.org.

Of course, there are also the crucial reflections of Pope St. John Paul II, collectively known as the Theology of the Body. Reflections given at his general audiences over the course of several years, this catechesis on human sexuality and love is one of the greatest treasures the Church has given us, and is the fruit of a lifetime of reflection from this man, a great philosopher with incredible insights into God’s desires for human sexuality. There are many great resources on the Theology of the Body, but perhaps the best place to start would be the texts of the reflections themselves.

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It was recently announced that Paul VI will be canonized sometime in 2018, although the date has yet to be released. It will likely coincide either with the anniversary of the encyclical’s release, or possibly with the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Let us pray for the intercession of Bl. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and St. Maria Goretti, that we are able to adequately impart to young people the beauty and truth of the true ends of human sexuality.

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