Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life") is an encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI on Jul 25, 1968. Subtitled "On the Regulation of Birth", it re-affirms the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding abortion, contraception, and other issues pertaining to human life.

Mainly because of its prohibition of all forms of artificial contraception, the encyclical has been controversial. The document is sometimes described as prophetic by those who believe that its predictions about the effects of contraception on society were accurate.

Pope Paul VI, saddened by the reactions to Humanae Vitae, would not issue any additional encyclicals in the remaining ten years of his pontificate.

The encyclical opens with the observation that circumstances often dictate that married couples should limit the number of children, and that the sexual act between husband and wife is still worthy even if it can be foreseen not to result in procreation. Nevertheless, it is held that the sexual act must "retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life", and the "direct interruption of the generative process already begun" is unlawful.

Abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, is absolutely forbidden, as is sterilization, even if temporary. Similarly, every action specifically intended to prevent procreation is forbidden. This includes both chemical and barrier methods of contraception. All these are held to directly contradict the "moral order which was established by God".

Therapeutic means which induce infertility are allowed, if they are not specifically intended for that purpose (double effect). Natural family planning methods (abstaining from intercourse during certain parts of the women’s cycle) are allowed, since they take advantage of "a faculty provided by nature".

The acceptance of artificial methods of contraception is then claimed to result in several negative consequences: a "general lowering of moral standards" resulting from sex without consequences; the danger that men may reduce women "to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of [their] own desires"; abuse of power by public authorities; and, a false sense of autonomy.

The encyclical acknowledges that "perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching", but points out that the church cannot "declare lawful what is in fact unlawful".

The encyclical closes with an appeal to public authorities to oppose laws which undermine the natural moral law, an appeal to scientists to further study effective methods of natural birth control and appeals to doctors, nurses and priests to promote the method. n Catholic Encyclopaedia, Wikipedia


By Janet Smith

THE AMOUNT OF hostility directed at Humanae Vitae has been so great that most people are astonished when they first learn that contraception has not been a hotly debated issue since the very beginnings of the church. All Christian churches were united in their opposition to contraception until as recently as the early decades of this century. It was not until 1930 that the Anglican Church went on record as saying that contraception was permissible, for grave reasons, within marriage. It was also at this time, however, that Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical "Casti Connubii", generally translated as "On Christian Marriage," in which he reiterated what has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church: Contraception is intrinsically wrong.

One might assume that there has been a continuing dispute since the 1930s, but there has not been. Surveys of this period indicate that as many as 65 percent of Catholics in the US were living in accord with the church’s teaching, as late as the early sixties. A book titled "Contraception", written by John Noonan, provides a comprehensive history of the church’s teaching against contraception. It clearly documents that the church has been "clear and constant" in its position on contraception, throughout the whole history of the church.

The first clamouring for change appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the widespread availability of the birth control pill. Some Catholic theologians began to think that the pill might be a legitimate form of birth control for Catholics because, unlike other kinds of birth control, it did not break the integrity of the sexual act. This was the very first attempt within the church to argue that contraception might be morally permissible.

Meanwhile, in the political and social realms, there were perceptions of a population problem and growing sentiments that it would be inhumane for the church to continue with a "policy" that promoted large families.

Feminism had also begun to make itself felt with its demand that women be given full and equal access to employment and the political process. Feminists argued that having children had been a hindrance to such opportunities in the past, and that contraception – not having children – would enhance access to careers and thus be a great boon for women.

These were the developing pressures on the church to reconsider its teaching regarding contraception.

Pope John XXIII set up a commission of six theologians to advise him on these issues. Pope Paul VI took over the commission when John XXIII died and began adding new members with expertise from different fields, including married couples. The majority of the commission voted that the church should change its teaching. A minority on the commission argued that the church not only should not but could not change its teaching regarding contraception because this was a matter of God’s law and not man’s law, and there was no way that the church or anyone else could declare it morally permissible.

The report of this vote and its recommendation, as well as all of the other records of the commission were, of course, to be kept strictly confidential, intended for the eyes of Pope Paul VI alone. They were meant to advise and assist him in the writing of a formal document. The commission finished its work in 1966. In 1967, the commission’s records, including the report on its recommendation, were leaked to both The Tablet in London and to The National Catholic Reporter in the United States.

Interested parties had known about the commission and had been waiting for several years for the church to make a decision. There had been an incredible proliferation of articles on the subject of contraception between 1963 and 1967, most of them favouring it. For instance, there was a book written by an archbishop during these years under the title "Contraception and Holiness", a text consisting of articles by married couples and others promoting the practice of contraception. The commission reports were undoubtedly leaked to fan these fires and they did, in fact, heighten the expectations of those desiring a change.

When Humanae Vitae was released in July 1968, it went off like a bomb. Though there was much support for the encyclical, no document ever met with as much dissent, led to a great extent by Father Charles Curran and Father Bernard Haering.

It was a historic and pivotal moment in church history. Dissent became the coin of the day. This had not been true prior to Humanae Vitae. Dissenting theologians had never before made such a public display of their opposition on any given issue. The open dissent to Humanae Vitae is a real watershed in the history of the church. One can view the phenomenon as either a crystallization of something that had been bubbling under the surface for some time, or as catalyst for everything that was yet to come. Soon theologians and eventually lay people were dissenting not only about contraception but also about homosexuality, masturbation, adultery, divorce and many other issues.

In spite of the dissent and in spite of widespread use of contraception among Catholics, the church continually reiterates its opposition to contraception as a great moral wrong; Pope John Paul II made opposition to contraception one of the cornerstones of his pontificate and he wrote and spoke extensively on the topic.

I think the experience of the last many decades has revealed that the church has been very wise in its continual affirmation of this teaching for we have begun to see that contraception leads to many vicious wrongs in society; it facilitates the sexual revolution which leads to much unwanted pregnancy and abortion. It has made women much more open to sexual exploitation by men.

In fact, Humanae Vitae predicted a general lowering of morality should contraception become widely available and I think it is manifest that ours is a period of very low morality – much of it in the sexual realm. There is little need here to provide a full set of statistics to demonstrate the consequences of the sexual revolution, for who is not familiar with the epidemic in teenage pregnancies, venereal diseases, divorces, AIDS, etc.?

Western society has undergone a rapid transformation in terms of sexual behavior and few would argue that it is for the better. For instance, only ten years ago the divorce rate was one out of three marriages; now one out of two marriages end in divorce. Only ten years ago four out of ten teenagers were sexually active; now it is six out of ten. Twenty-two percent of white babies are born out of wedlock; sixty-seven percent of African-American babies are born out of wedlock. The millions of abortions over the last decade and the phenomenal spread of AIDS alone indicate that we have serious problems with sexuality. The statistics of ten years ago were bad enough; many thought things could hardly get worse – as did many twenty years ago, and thirty years ago. In the last generation the incidence of sexual activity outside of marriage and all the attendant problems have doubled and tripled – or worse. We have no particular reason to believe that we have seen the peak of the growth in sexually related problems.

Statistics do not really capture the pervasive ills attendant upon sexual immorality. Premature and promiscuous sexuality prevent many from establishing good marriages and a good family life. Few deny that a healthy sexuality and a strong family life are among the most necessary elements for human happiness and well-being. It is well attested that strong and secure families are less likely to have problems with alcohol, sex, and drugs; they produce individuals more likely to be free from crippling neuroses and psychoses. Since healthy individuals are not preoccupied with their own problems, they are able to be strong leaders; they are prepared to tackle the problems of society. While many single parents do a worthy and valiant job of raising their children, it remains sadly true that children from broken homes grow up to be adults with a greater propensity for crime, with a greater tendency to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, with a greater susceptibility to psychological disorders.

The church, however, does not condemn the use of contraception because it is an act that has bad consequences. Rather, it teaches that since contraception is an intrinsically evil action, it is predictable that it will have bad consequences. The church teaches that contraception is evil because it violates the very purpose and nature of the human sexual act, and therefore violates the dignity of the human person.

The experience of the last several decades has simply served to reinforce the wisdom of the church’s teaching. But it is not only on a practical level that we have a better understanding of the church’s teaching; our theoretical understanding has also been much advanced. Often it happens that the church does not know very fully the reasons for what it teaches until it is challenged. The church’s condemnation of contraception went unchallenged for centuries. In attempting to explain its condemnation, the church has deepened its understanding of marriage and the meaning of the sexual act.

Again, John Paul II, with his claim that the sexual act signifies total self-giving and his insight that contraception diminishes that self-giving, has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the evil of contraception.

As we consider the reasons why contraception is evil, let us first consult a few church statements that suggest the strength of its constant teaching against contraception. "Casti Connubii" states:

"No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose, sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."

It continues:

"Any use whatsoever of matrimony, exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

Humanae Vitae puts it this way:

"But the church, which interprets natural law through its unchanging doctrine, reminds men and women that the teachings based on natural law must be obeyed, and teaches that it is necessary that each and every conjugal act remain ordained to the procreating of human life."

Further on it states (12):

"The doctrine which the Magisterium of the church has often explicated is this: There is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, and both are inherent in the conjugal act. This connection was established by God and cannot be broken by man through his own volition."

The church condemns contraception since it violates both the procreative and unitive meanings of the human sexual act. It diminishes an act that by its very nature is full of weighty meaning, meaning that is unique to the sexual act. To engage in Sexual union has a well-recognized meaning; it means "I find you attractive"; "I care for you"; " I will try to work for your happiness"; "I wish to have a deep bond with you". Some who engage in sexual intercourse do not mean these things with their actions; they wish simply to use another for their own sexual pleasure. They have lied with their bodies in the same way as someone lies who says "I love you" to another simply for the purposes of obtaining some favour from him or her.

It is easy for us to want to have sexual intercourse with lots of people; but we generally want to have babies with only one person. One is saying something entirely different with one’s body when one says "I want only to have sexual pleasure with you" and when one says "I am willing to be a parent with you".

In fact, one of the most certain ways to distinguish simple sexual attraction from love is to think about whether all you want from another person is sexual pleasure, or whether you would like to have a baby with him or her. We generally are truly in love with those with whom we want to have babies; we do want our lives totally tied up with theirs. We want to become one with them in the way in which having a baby makes us one with another – our whole lives are intertwined with theirs; we buy diapers with them, and give birthday parties, and pay for college and plan weddings. A non-contracepted act of sexual intercourse says again just what our marriage vows say "I am yours for better or worse, in sickness and health, till death do us part." Having babies with another is to share a lifetime endeavour with another.

A sexual act open to the possibility of procreation ideally represents the kind of bond to which spouses have committed themselves. Contraceptives, however, convey the message that while sexual intercourse is desired, there is no desire for a permanent bond with the other person. The possibility of an everlasting bond has been willfully removed from the very act designed to best express the desire for such a relationship. It reduces the sexual act to a lie.

Contraception, then, is an offense against one’s body, against one’s God, and against one’s relationship with one’s spouse.

The church condemns contraception not because it wants to deny spouses sexual pleasure but because it wants to help them find marital happiness and to help them have happy homes for without these our well being as individuals and as a society is greatly endangered. Section 18 of Humanae Vitae states:

[I]t is not surprising that the church finds herself a sign of contradiction – just as was Christ, her Founder. But this is not reason for the church to abandon the duty entrusted to her of preaching the moral law firmly and humbly, both the natural law and the law of the Gospel.

Since the church did not make either of these laws, she cannot change them. She can only be their guardian and interpreter; thus it would never be right for her to declare as morally permissible that which is truly not so. For what is immoral is by its very nature always opposed to the true good of Man.

By preserving the whole moral law of marriage, the church knows that she is supporting the growth of a true civilization among men.

In teaching that contraception is intrinsically immoral, the church is not imposing a disciplinary law on Catholics; she is preaching only what nature and the Gospel preach. By now we should have learned – the hard way – that to defy and overindulge our sexual nature, to go against the laws of nature and God, is to inflict terrible damage on ourselves as individuals and our society as a whole.

Janet Smith is Professor of Moral Theology and holds the Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She has written extensively on church teachings on morality, in particular on the evils of contraception and abortion. This article is adapted from her article, "Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later".

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