Bishop's Blog

40th Anniversary of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae

In 1968 Pope Paul VI addressed the issue of contraception and warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality"; that man would lose respect for woman and "no longer care for her physical and psychological equilibrium"; rather, man would treat woman as a "mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion" and "the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments."

Humanae Vitae may be the most prophetic and the most ignored encyclical of our era. Although many have criticized the document, in my experience, most have not read it.

It is also ironical that many social scientists, not necessarily Christian, nor political or social conservatives, but simply honest investigators willing to follow the data wherever it may lead, are confirming the dire social and moral consequences of the separation of sex and procreation.

Some rereading and rethinking is in order.

Pope Benedict XVI recently commented: "The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change: on the contrary, precisely in the light of the new scientific discoveries, its teaching becomes more timely and elicits reflection on the intrinsic value it possesses. The key word to enter coherently into its contents remains 'love'... Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united ... Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. If this unity is removed, the value of the person is lost and there is a serious risk of considering the body a commodity that can be bought or sold. In a culture subjected to the prevalence of "having over being," human life risks losing its value. If the practice of sexuality becomes a drug that seeks to enslave one's partner to one's own desires and interests, without respecting the cycle of the beloved, then what must be defended is no longer solely the true concept of love but in the first place the dignity of the person. As believers, we could never let the domination of technology invalidate the quality of love and the sacredness of life."

The teaching of the encyclical is based on four points of Catholic doctrine:

  1. A total vision of the human person.
  2. The sacrament of marriage.
  3. Conjugal love and responsible parenthood.
  4. The Church's moral teaching on sexuality.

Paul VI clearly stated that the birth of each human person must be looked at in the light of a total or integral vision of the human person and of his or her vocation, not only the natural and earthly, but also the spiritual and eternal vocation. Each human person is created by God, redeemed by Christ Jesus and called to eternal union and glory with the Holy Trinity. That is our fundamental vocation, and all of our activity must be consistent with that vocation and directed toward its achievement. This vocation, or call from God, is also the source of our human dignity.

As Pope Paul VI told us, "Marriage is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind his design of love." But marriage exists in the order of grace; it is a Christian sacrament. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, each sacrament, like the Church itself, is a sign and instrument of union with God and with one another. The sacramental grace of marriage empowers the couple to carry God's grace to their children, their families and to the entire world.

Following closely the lines of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Paul VI spoke of conjugal love, that special and unique love of husband and wife that binds them together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it profoundly influences their whole lives.

Paul VI went on to speak of conjugal love as "fully human," that is to say, a very special form of personal friendship, "faithful and exclusive," and "fecund," directed toward the begetting and education of children. Conjugal love includes and gives meaning to sexuality. Sexuality itself is not something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such.

This is all very difficult to accept in a world that sees sexuality primarily as a means of self-gratification, and legitimates every type of sexual behavior. Adultery, out-of-wedlock intercourse, homosexual activity and pornography separate sexual activity from love and marriage. The Church calls us to take a different and more ennobling view of conjugal love and of the sexual expression of that love reserved to married couples. Conjugal love is an all encompassing, interpersonal dynamic that constantly grows and becomes stronger and more binding. It requires of each spouse openness and generosity and a willingness to risk something of self in the interest of the conjugal relationship.

The expressions of conjugal love are myriad and to some degree particular to each couple. But virtually all married couples will acknowledge that consideration of the other person, understanding and encouragement are indications of and powerful sustainers of conjugal love. So too is sexual love, in which the couple engages in a deep and specially reserved interpersonal sharing and through which they become co-creators with God by bringing children into the world and building their own family.

The companion principle that Paul VI drew from Vatican II and affirmed in Humanae Vitae is responsible parenthood. Unfortunately this term has often been misinterpreted and seen primarily as justification for avoiding or rejecting childbearing. However, as described by Paul VI, the concept of responsible parenthood involves a number of elements: a free, informed, mutual decision by the couple regarding the frequency of births and size of the family, based on a conscientious assessment of their responsibilities to God, themselves, their children and family, and the society of which they are a part. This is enlightened by the authentic teaching of the Church's magisterium regarding the objective moral order and the licit methods of spacing or limiting pregnancies.

An important aspect of Humanae Vitae is the positive emphasis on children. Paul VI noted that marriage is important because it takes the couple beyond themselves and it reaches out to the bearing and education of children. Referring again to Vatican II, Pope Paul emphasized that "children really are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents."

Having reviewed the Church's teaching, particularly as set forth by Vatican II, Paul VI then applied the principles to the act of marital intercourse and to the means of family planning. He affirmed the authentic and oft-repeated teaching of the magisterium that the act of sexual intercourse has two meanings, the unitive and the procreative. There is an "inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings." Consequently, "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life ." That is the central teaching of Humanae Vitae and it is the precise point of confrontation for the encyclical. The unitive and procreative elements are meant by God to be balanced.

Paul VI recognized that not every act of intercourse would be a reproductive act and that couples could, and in some cases should, limit their marital embrace to those times when the woman is not fertile. In effect Paul VI gave strong endorsement to natural family planning, not as an escape hatch, but as part of the responsible dynamic of marriage and family life.

Paul VI recognized that this teaching would appear difficult to many people and incapable of ready acceptance by some. But he reminded us that it was possible if we called on God for his assistance and made every effort to see the spacing and limiting of births in the overall context of married life and love.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

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