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Humanae Vitae

A Summary of Pope Paul VI's Prophetic Encyclical

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The two youngest Richerts camp out under the loveseat. (Photo © Amy J. Richert)

The two youngest Richerts camp out under the loveseat.

(Photo © Amy J. Richert)

When it became known in 1968 that Pope Paul VI intended to issue an encyclical on birth control, many people thought that they saw the writing on the wall. A commission initially appointed by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and expanded by Paul VI had suggested in a 1966 report to the Holy Father that artificial contraception might not be intrinsically evil, and copies of the report had been leaked to the press.

When Humanae Vitae was released, however, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching on birth control and abortion. Today, the encyclical is regarded by many as prophetic.

Quick Facts

  • Latin Title: Humanae Vitae
  • English Title: "Of Human Life"
  • Type of Document: Encyclical
  • Date Issued: July 25, 1968
  • Issued By: Pope Paul VI
  • Full Text: Humanae Vitae (at the Vatican website)

"On the Regulation of Birth"

Subtitled "On the Regulation of Birth," the encyclical begins by noting that "The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator." The increase in global population, "a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, of the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love," and "man's stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature" has raised "new questions" that "[t]he Church cannot ignore."

The Church's Authority To Teach

Each of these new questions is a moral one, which "requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation." Referring to the commission appointed by John XXIII, Paul VI noted that its finding were not unanimous, and he had a personal duty to examine the issue. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of natural law, which "declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation."

The Nature of Married Love and Responsible Parenthood

"The question of human procreation," the Holy Father notes, involves "the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called." Married love is "total": The spouses give themselves to each other unconditionally. It is "faithful and exclusive." And, "Finally, this love is fecund" (fertile), which means that it is ordered toward parenthood. But responsible parenthood can either welcome more children or hold off on having others "for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts," which means recognizing "their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society."

The Inseparable Connection Between Union and Procreation

Those duties include respecting the natural law, which reveals that the marriage act has both unitive and procreative aspects, which cannot be separated. "[A]n act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life . . . contradicts the will of the Author of life." We acknowledge God's design by "respecting the laws of conception," which allows us to be "the minister of the design established by the Creator." Therefore, artificial birth control, sterilization, and abortion "are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children."

Natural Family Planning: The Moral Alternative

Noting that some advocates of artificial birth control argue "that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man," Paul VI agrees. But this, he notes, "must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God." That means working with "the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system" rather than frustrating them. Marital intercourse during infertile periods remains open to God's design and "express[es] their mutual love and safeguard[s] their fidelity toward one another." While Paul VI does not use the term, today we call this Natural Family Planning (NFP).

The use of NFP, the Holy Father notes, promotes self-discipline and chastity, whereas artificial contraception "could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards." The explosion of the divorce rate and the extensive recourse to abortion as a backup to contraception since the promulgation of Humanae Vitae are only two of the reasons that Pope Paul VI has been regarded as a prophet. There is also the danger that a husband might come to regard his wife as "a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires," since artificial contraception removes any need to be aware of his wife's biological cycles.

Long before China instituted her "one child per family" policy, Paul VI noted that the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception would make it easier for governments to force couples to use such contraception. "Consequently," he wrote, "unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed."

"A Sign of Contradiction"

Pope Paul VI knew that Humanae Vitae would be controversial. But, he declared, the Church "does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical." Like Christ, the Church "is destined to be a 'sign of contradiction.'"

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