By Archdiocese of Singapore
Issue: September 2008

Humanae vitae is the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968,  “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 and the family.

The encyclical has been controversial because of its prohibition of all forms of artificial contraception.  The document is 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 Humane vitae, would not issue any additional encyclicals in the remaining ten year 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”; 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 woman’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.

Canadian, Dutch and German bishops
Two months later, the controversial “Winnipeg Statement” issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that those who cannot accept the teaching should not be considered shut off from the Catholic Church, and that individuals can in good conscience use contraception as long as they have first made an honest attempt to accept the difficult directives of the encyclical.  Dutch and German bishops also stressed the role of the individual conscience in their catechisms.

Catholic Insight’s editor: Nota Bene
The “Winnipeg Statement” has no teaching value.  Its dispensation is null and void because its authority is flawed.

Two things are necessary for a teaching by a Conference of Bishops to be valid: 1) unanimity of all bishops belonging to the Conference; 2) approval by Rome. (See “The theological and juridical nature of Episcopal conferences”, Apostolic Letter by His Holiness John Paul II, May 21, 1998).

Neither of these conditions was achieved.  There was no unanimity – at least six bishops rejected the document.  And approval from Rome was neither sought, nor given.  The Canadian bishops of the time may be said to have ignored the need for both internal and external collegiality.

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Updated: Dec 23rd, 2008 – 15:59:21


Back to: Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life)