HUMANAE VITAE FIFTY YEARS HENCE (1) – The encyclical that defended nature

Blessed Pope Paul VI

– Fausto Gomez OP

In July 2018, the Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (HV), the controversial Encyclical Letter On the Regulation of Birth. From an ethical and theological perspective, we wish to present the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Paul VI when it was issued fifty years ago, and the continuing influence of the papal encyclical upon the Magisterium of the Church through fifty years, that is, from 1968 up to 2018.

The Encyclical – addressed to all the faithful and “to all men of good will” – was issued by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968. Blessed Paul VI is very kind to all the groups of men and women that he addresses in Humanae Vitae (HV), including public authorities, health care professionals, pastors and theologians – and above all married persons. HV is one of the shortest encyclical letters of all times (31 numbers in 24 pages, with 41 footnotes), and one of the most controversial through the last fifty years. Its central content is the regulation of birth focused on the nature of marriage and the correct use of conjugal rights and duties of husband and wife (HV, 4).

Pope Paul VI issued this encyclical letter after mature reflection and assiduous prayers (HV, 6). The main sources of the encyclical are, beside the Sacred Scriptures, magisterial texts from Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, and St. John XXIII, from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, and the documents of Vatican II, the Constitutions Gaudium et Spes (GS) and Lumen Gentium (LG) in particular.

Before Vatican II (celebrated in 1962-1965) and Humanae Vitae (1968), there was “expectation of change,” and some theologians, bishops, priests and lay persons fed that expectation by advancing that the Pope would approve artificial birth control, which they themselves approved.

Pope St. John XXIII had appointed a Study Commission on Birth Control (HV, 5). Thereafter, Pope Paul VI enlarged it by appointing some more members. The Commission was “a fact-finding commission,” which at the end of its work recommended by a majority of members a change in the traditional Magisterium of the Church. One reason why the Pope was unable to regard the conclusions of the Commission as definitive was that the Commission was divided concerning the norm to be proposed, and above all because certain criteria of solutions had emerged which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching of the Church (HV, 6).

The framework of the encyclical is the Church’s teaching — grounded on reason and revelation — on sexuality, love, marriage (its nature, dignity, and holiness) and the family. 

Sexuality is an essential dimension of the human person, who is called to love. It is path of loving. Unfortunately, as a theologian wrote after HV, “Great stress is currently placed on sex and sex education, but the cardinal point for our modern civilization to learn is what love really is.” Marriage is “a wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind his design of love” (HV, 8). It is a reciprocal personal gift, proper and exclusive of husband and wife (heterosexual), that leads to their communion and mutual personal perfection. Marriage is grounded on “an integral vision of man and of his vocation – not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation” (HV, 7). The Church speaks of the natural dignity and sublime value of the married state. Christian marriage is covenantal love, a sacrament of grace. For baptized persons, it “invests the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace,” for it represents the union of Christ and the Church (HV, 8). 

Conjugal love has its origin in God and its characteristics are: it is human, total, faithful and exclusive, and fecund (cf. HV, 9). The end of conjugal love is the education and procreation of children (GS, 48). The mission of a Christian couple is to witness true conjugal and paternal love, and to educate their children on the dignity of marriage and its responsibilities. True conjugal love implies the mutual faithful donation between husband and wife that includes but “goes beyond erotic attraction.” It is affective love (sexual-genital) “uniquely expressed and perfected in married intercourse,” and also in other expressions of “human and honorable sexual, activities” (GS, 49).

The family is “an intimate partnership of life and love… established by the Creator,” a community of love, a school of humanization, and the basis of society (GS, 47-52). The Christian family is a community of life and love, which respects human life from the moment of conception.   

The focus of the encyclical is the regulation of birth. Writes Pope Paul VI in the most controversial number of the whole Encyclical Letter: “The Church calling men back to the observance of the norms of natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimoni usus) must remain open to the transmission of life” (HV, 11. Bold letters added).

The direct termination of unborn life, or directly willed and procured abortion is to be absolutely rejected by Christians. Abortion is, with infanticide, “an unspeakable crime” (GS, 51). Paul VI affirms: “The direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and above all directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth”(HV, 14). Human life has to be respected from its beginning, because it is sacred, it comes from God (cf. HV, 13). Permanent or temporal direct sterilization of man and/or woman is also to be excluded as a means to regulate births (HV, 14).

Furthermore, contraception is excluded as a means to practice responsible parenthood (cf. HV, 14). Pope Paul VI excludes the application of the principle of totality (HV 17) and also to the principle of double effect with the principle of the lesser evil (HV, 14). The Pope defends, however, in other situations the principle of the lesser evil – the tolerance of “a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good.” He concludes: “It is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right by the ensemble of a fecund conjugal life” (HV, 14). However, the use of truly necessary therapeutic means “to cure diseases of the organism, even if an impediment to procreation,” are licit (HV, 15). Also licit is the recourse by spouses to infecund periods when there are serious reasons to do that, because in this case, the order of nature, the moral principles and also the evangelical law are respected (cf. HV, 16). Artificial means, on the contrary, impede the development of natural processes” (Ibid).

The strong argument in favor of the regulation of births is the argument from natural law and divine law. “The immorality of contraception is not a matter of positive law, or of Church discipline but of the divine law.” Paul VI continued the traditional teaching of the Church: “Contraception is incompatible with the true nature of man” (cf. HV, 4, 10, 13; cf. GS, 50-51).

Many difficult situations afflict families. God’s help is needed – and therefore prayer. Pope Paul VI recommends to the couples some ascetical practices to be able to control their instincts and have self-mastery and be able to practice successfully periodic continence for natural family planning methods (HV, 21). This self-mastery is important for the couple to be able to educate their children in values – human as well as spiritual and evangelical. The virtue of Chastity, in particular, is most beneficial.  Chastity is not opposed to freedom. Quite the contrary: while license is a denial of true freedom, chastity is “healthy liberty” (HV, 22), for it respects the moral order.

Christian couples are asked by Pope Paul VI to be missionaries, “free and responsible collaborators of God, the Creator” (HV, 1), apostles to other married couples with problems. This is “a most opportune apostolate today” (HV, 26).

Doctors and other health care professionals are asked by the Pope “to be able to give to those married persons who consult them wise counsel and healthy directions, such as they have a right to expect.”

Bishops and priest are asked to practice charity for souls, to be patient with married persons, to echo in their dealings with married persons with difficulties “the voice and the love of the Redeemer,” to be – like Jesus – “intransigent with evil, but merciful towards individuals” (HV, 28).

Theologians, moralists and pastoralist ought to speak with one voice and the same language, attuned to the Magisterium of the Church (cf. HV, 28-29). Blessed Paul VI asks pastors and theologians to “agree, and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (cf. I Cor 1:10).

We close with the words of Blessed Paul VI in the final paragraph and number of Humanae Vitae (HV, 31): “We all long for happiness, which is found solely in respect of the laws written by God in man’s very nature, laws which he must observe with intelligence and love.”