HUMANAE VITAE AFTER 45 YEARS (Part 2: A Closer Look)

(Click here for Part 1)

On July 25, 1968, Paul VI promulgated the much anticipated encyclical Humanae Vitae. While simply maintaining the position held by the Catholic Church for nearly 2,000 years, and reaffirming the teachings of the popes since Pius XI in 1930, Paul VI’s pronouncement was met with shock and incredulity by the self-proclaimed experts who had anticipated a change of course. Professional reputations were at risk and many felt that the pope had betrayed them. Open revolt was about to take place as those who were hoping for change scrambled to push back against what they perceived as a serious mistake by Paul VI.

The encyclical was released to the public on July 29th and on July 30th Fr. Charles Curran, a theologian at Catholic University, and a group of Catholic theologians held a press conference to address the world with their opinions of Paul VI’s work. They began by attacking the authority of the document itself, calling into question the weight a papal encyclical had on binding the conscience and behavior of Catholics. Their basic premise was that Catholics were free to take what the pope had taught and simply decide for themselves whether they agreed with it or wanted to follow it. In this sense, Humanae Vitae gave birth to the modern concept of “faithful dissent” or what others would call cafeteria Catholicism, the notion that one could remain a Catholic in good standing while freely choosing to ignore or reject individual teachings of the Church. Combined with the sexual revolution and chaotic social upheaval of time and full blown dissent among many theology departments in colleges and seminaries a generation of Catholics, lay and clergy, were left with the impression that the Vatican was simply out of touch and married couples were free to allow their conscience to dictate sexual ethics in their marriages.

While many have criticized Paul VI and ignored Humanae Vitae, few have read it. What exactly did Paul VI say? What reasons did he give for retaining the practice of condemning artificial birth control? Did he provide any guidance to married couples?

Paul VI begins his encyclical with a review of the modern concerns and questions that gave rise to the formation of the birth control commission and a summary of his evaluation of its findings. He mentions concern about increasing population, economic difficulties faced by large families, the changing role of women in society and concerns over the value of marriage itself. In addition, he cites advances in modern science (the Pill) giving man greater control over the forces of nature. Paul VI establishes the moral authority of the Church to address these concerns as being rooted in Christ’s commissioning of the Apostles and their successors, and noting the “coherent teaching” on this subject that has been handed down.

Paul VI acknowledged the efforts of the birth control commission, yet noted that their conclusions could not be taken as definitive. He notes that the commission itself was divided in their interpretation and application of moral law. He further noted that “certain criteria of solutions had emerged which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church.” (HV #6)

Before addressing the issue of contraception, Pope Paul VI first provided an exposition on the very essence of conjugal love. The love of husband and wife finds its ultimate meaning and purpose in “God, who is love.” Paul affirms that marriage is an “institution of the Creator” and not merely a human construct.  Within the union of two baptized persons marriage takes on a special meaning as a sacramental sign of Christ’s love for the Church. This conjugal love is rooted in an act of the will, not just emotions, and is oriented not in what one receives but on giving of one’s self to their spouse. In this sense, the love of husband and wife is fecund, fruitful, dedicated to raising up new life. For this reason marital love must also be faithful and exclusive until death.

Within the context of each marriage Paul VI calls couples an “awareness of their mission of responsible parenthood.” Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not command husbands and wives to simply have as many children as possible.  Humanae Vitae teaches that responsible parenthood means a thoughtful, prayerful consideration of being open to new life. Paul VI tells married couples to be knowledgeable of natural biological rhythms of fertility. He challenges them to exercise reason and will to keep passions in proper order. Most importantly he recognizes that “physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions” should be legitimately considered when deciding to raise a “numerous family” or by using methods in keeping with the moral law “to avoid for the time being, or even for an indefinite time, a new birth.” Within this context Paul VI affirmed the Church’s teaching that, what has become known as Natural Family Planning, is morally licit and acceptable.

Only after laying out the Church’s consistent position on birth control, praising the beauty and significance of conjugal love, and urging responsible parenthood does Paul VI then turn his attention to pointing out specifically illicit means of regulating births. First among these is the use of abortion, “even if for therapeutic reasons”, and sterilization as a means of birth control. Paul VI then writes, “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Of particular interest are the sources cited as an end note to this particular sentence. Almost as a means of tying Humanae Vitae to Church tradition he cites the Catechism of Trent, Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, and writings of Pius XII, John XXIII, and Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He reminds the Church that no good reason or purpose can ever justify the deliberate use of an immoral action.

(Note: Paul VI, relying on the moral principle of double effect, specifically address the issue of use of procedures that may prevent conception but are done for other medically necessary reasons by saying the Church “does not at all consider illicit the use of those therapeutic means truly necessary to cure diseases”.)

Apart from Paul VI’s predictions of the consequences of wide spread contraceptive use (which I’ll explore in Part 3 of this series) the remainder of the document is a call to holiness and encouragement by the pope. He recognizes that “this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all”, but also proclaims the Church’s call to faithfulness to Christ over cultural relevance. Confessing that the Church is not the author of the moral law, but only its guardian Paul VI calls on the children of the Church to rely on God’s grace to find the strength for obedience.

For those with the strength of will to adhere to this teaching, the pope promises of various fruits within marriages and families. For couples, rejecting a contraceptive mindset will lead to serenity and peace, driving selfishness out of relationships, being more attentive to each other, and acquiring greater capacity for deeper and more effective influence over their children. Children and youth would benefit as well according to Paul VI by being raised with a just understanding of human values. In order to preserve towards the goal of faithful adherence Paul VI urged married couples to call upon the grace available to them by virtue of their baptism and matrimony. Particular emphasis was placed on drawing strength from the Eucharist and turning to the sacrament of reconciliation when they fail. He encouraged couples to encourage others through being apostles of marriage by spreading the love, joy and hope found in being faithful to the Church.


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