Professors, lay graduates share insights on St. Paul VI’s landmark document 50 years later

DETROIT — When Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron — then-Bishop Vigneron, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary — recruited professor Janet Smith to teach at Detroit’s institution of priestly and lay formation, he told Smith he wanted to make Sacred Heart the “Humanae Vitae seminary.”

“He said, ‘I want to make certain that the students go out having studied and hopefully being persuaded by the arguments of Humanae Vitae,’” Pope St. Paul VI’s landmark 1968 encyclical on human life and married love, Smith recalled.

That was in 2001. Seventeen years later, the future archbishop’s vision has been realized in an emphatic way, Smith told a gathering of professors, faculty, students and laity gathered at the seminary Oct. 20 for a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic papal document.

At Sacred Heart, such a focus on teaching one of the essential truths of the Catholic faith “is one of the things that makes us one of the best seminaries on the face of the earth,” Smith said to rousing applause.

If anyone would know, Smith would. In addition to serving as an adviser to Pope Francis as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family, Smith has written, edited or contributed to countless books, journals, programs and podcasts and distributed more than 2 million copies of her famous talk, “Contraception: Why Not?”

Professor Janet Smith, whom Sacred Heart rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness called "perhaps the world's foremost expert" on Humanae Vitae, speaks to seminarians and lay students about the Church's response to the historic document. 

Smith: Rocky start for historic papal document

Widely regarded as the foremost expert on St. Paul VI’s encyclical in the U.S. — and “perhaps the world,” Msgr. Todd Lajiness, Sacred Heart’s rector, said — Smith, professor of moral theology and the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart, shared her insights on Humanae Vitae as part of a panel of speakers assembled to assess the document’s history and impact in the modern world.

Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, and it was explosive,” Smith said. “The Church has never been the same since 1968.”

Before the 1960s and the advent of the birth control pill, Catholic teaching against artificial contraception was widely accepted by the faithful and the Church’s clergy. In fact, it was almost universally taught across all Christian traditions until the Anglican Church became the first major denomination to break with that teaching in 1930, Smith said, when it issued a resolution allowing contraception in limited circumstances.

By the time the Pill appeared, however, Catholic teaching on the issue was regarded as settled. 

By the 1960s, St. John XXIII, Pope St. Paul VI’s predecessor, had set up a six-person advisory commission to study how the Church could spread its teaching in the modern world. Upon John XXIII’s death, Pope Paul VI reconstituted the commission and drastically increased its membership, adding 60 new members, including many lay experts — a decision that had unintended consequences. 

Rather than debating how the Church could spread its teaching, as both popes had asked, the commission instead began to debate whether the Church could and should change its long-held teaching — an idea that picked up popularity among some of the commission’s members, Smith said.

"That takes some chutzpah, when you're asked by the pope to consider one topic, and you decide you're going to take up another one," Smith said.

When the commission’s 15 voting members, the bishops and cardinals, cast their ballots — “nine voted ‘yes,’ that the Church could and should change its teaching, three voted ‘no,’ and three abstained,” Smith said.

Given the pressure from both the commission and the public — which had become aware of the commission’s vote — Pope Paul VI wrestled immensely over the next steps, Smith said.

Pope St. Paul VI is pictured next to Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the three Fatima visionaries, during a visit to the Marian shrine in Fatima, Portugal, May 13, 1967. Pope Paul, who led the Catholic Church from 1963-1978, was declared a saint Oct. 14. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Brescia)

“He struggled and agonized over it, but in 1968, he published a very beautiful document, Humanae Vitae,” Smith said. “And it was immediately met with dissent from theologians all over the world.”

In pockets of the Church, such dissent persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s — including in many Catholic colleges and seminaries, Smith said — with Paul VI doing everything in his power to avoid open schisms while still affirming the Church’s long-held beliefs.

It wasn’t until the papacy of St. John Paul II and his “Theology of the Body” that the average layperson began to really grasp the beauty of Humanae Vitae, Smith said.

“One of the great gifts to the Church was John Paul II, who wrote some of the great defenses of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. The first was his book in 1959 called ‘Love and Responsibility,’” Smith said. The pope's philosophical treatment of the nature of romantic love “is one of the most brilliant works on human sexuality in the history of mankind,” Smith added.

With the help of the pope’s insights and the ability of some orthodox priests and professors to puncture walls of dissent, the teachings of Humanae Vitae slowly began to gain traction and appreciation.

“It’s gotten a whole lot better in the last 25 years,” Smith said. “And Sacred Heart is one of those ‘whole lot betters.’ Almost every seminary is a whole lot better. There are a lot of Catholic colleges that have gotten a whole lot better. 

“I’m confident because I believe in God, because I believe in the Holy Spirit, that the truth will win out,” Smith added. “I see the young priests we graduate from this seminary and other seminaries, and the revival in religious life of those who are completely faithful to the Church’s teaching, and the laity who are on the march, and I am very confident things will get a whole lot better.”

Sociologist: Parishes key to teaching Humanae Vitae

Michael McCallion, a sociologist and professor of theology at Sacred Heart who studies Catholic behavior from the perspective of societal norms, followed Smith in analyzing the barriers to full acceptance of Humanae Vitae among the Church’s faithful.

McCallion argued that apart from the document’s naturally challenging prescriptions for human life and love, an increasing tendency toward individualism has meant fewer Catholics have the cultural support necessary to live Humanae Vitae.

A lay student shares his thoughts on using natural family planning as a young married Catholic during a question-and-answer session with panelists Oct. 20 during a conference examining the history and impact of Humanae Vitae.

“It is more unlikely that the teachings of Humanae Vitae will ever be transmitted to people on the move, not because they have not heard of it, but because there are no fellow Catholics to whom they are connected who practice the teachings,” said McCallion, who holds the Fr. William Cunningham Chair in Catholic Social Analysis at Sacred Heart.

In other words, because fewer people in the modern world tend to live in the same place for very long, it’s difficult for Catholics to develop a community of like-minded individuals who can support one another in those teachings, McCallion said.

The solution, he argued, is a stronger Catholic version of “a 21st century village” — the parish.

“Sociologists would predict that if a group of Catholics can build up a parish and maintain it over time by staying put physically, members are more likely to follow that tradition, even Humanae Vitae,” McCallion said. “The solution is not necessarily more education and classes — even though that helps. Sociologically, the more important thing is the practice of being in community.”

Also speaking at the conference were Sacred Heart assistant philosophy professor Elizabeth Salas; theology professors Robert Fastiggi and Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ; and Sacred Heart lay graduates Nicole Joyce and Joyce Yurco.

Yurco, a teacher at Spiritus Sanctus Academy in Plymouth, offered conference-goers a reflection on the lay perspective of Humanae Vitae as a document fully rooted in the love of Christ.

“Many of us are called to become a reciprocal gift in marriage. Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament, a means of sanctifying grace. Our reciprocal self-gift in marriage not only creates new members of the kingdom, it is preparing us for eternal life in God,” Yurco said.  

“Through his passion, death and resurrection, Christ demonstrates for us and obtains the grace for us to freely and fully offer ourselves in love. On the cross, Jesus is the perfect example of self-donation,” Yurco said. “He demonstrates for us the paradox that by emptying ourselves, through becoming a gift freely given, we become like God.”