We would be hard-pressed to find too many people across the 19 counties of western and north-central Wisconsin who are unaware of the fact that the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse is in the midst of our 150th anniversary — even if they would not be able to say “sesquicentennial!” Our diocesan anniversary is significant, and draws us more deeply into the growth and development of this part of our state, which is our spiritual and social home.
Another anniversary more worthy of our attention, however, is the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Its message is one of those great moments in Catholic history that points to how the church, through the papacy, speaks intentionally and prophetically to the world.
In 1963, Pope St. John XXIII appointed the initial members of the Papal Commission for the “Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate.” Following his predecessor’s death, Blessed Pope Paul VI continued the work, putting together the commission that formulated the basis of the encyclical. Some would call it the “Papal Birth Control Commission.”
Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae merely reiterated consistent teaching. Throughout history, Christian churches had uniformly condemned contraception. John Calvin called it “a monstrous thing” and Martin Luther described it as a “sin greater than adultery or incest.” For centuries, the vast majority of Catholics lived according to church teaching and dissension was unknown.
For those of us who remember the 1960s, we may recall it as a time of fast and furious change in so many areas of secular and religious life. A sexual revolution that would seem almost modest by today’s extraordinary standards (or lack thereof) swept round the world with the strength of a typhoon. Even Humanae Vitae was a force that could not stop it. Now, 50 years after its promulgation, the encyclical still speaks volumes to the ages of humanity — in and out of the Catholic Church — if for no other reason than its strength and its amazing prophetic truth!
In the Diocese of La Crosse, our Office for Marriage and Family Life is blessed with Alice Heinzen as its director. Alice and her husband Jeff were invited to Rome to participate in the preparation for the Synod on the Family that took place two years ago. Alice is also a noted speaker, defending the church’s teachings on the issues of contraception and the use of artificial birth control as destructive to marriage and family life.
Throughout our diocese, the awareness of the sacredness of marriage and the beauty of family life surface in our comprehensive and beautiful marriage preparation programs. Men and women move forward in professing their love for each other and their willingness to see their love articulated in the gift of their children. Humanae Vitae remains perhaps the most controversial encyclical in history, but its teachings on conjugal love and the dignity of marriage and family continue to manifest themselves in authentic love and marriage in our own diocese and throughout the whole church!
Bishop William Patrick Callahan
Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse