Most Rev. James T. McHugh
Bishop of Camden, NJ

Almost 25 years ago, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul Vl issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae. The document is often subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth,” but it is best known by the Latin title that comes from the opening line:”The most serious duty of transmitting human life…” In any case, it is best to use the Latin title because the subtitle tends to focus on only one aspect of the document (birth control), while the encyclical actually addresses many more fundamental and humanly enriching issues.

Before moving to Humanae Vitae itself, it is useful to recall its immediate history. In the aftermath of World War II, the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, family size was relatively large. The stereotype was the family of six to ten children, one year apart, but the average size was closer to three or four. In the 60’s there was new emphasis given to spacing births and to decreasing overall family size. Furthermore, as Paul Vl acknowledged in his introductory paragraphs, there was a new concern about world population growth and, in the 60’s, the discovery of the birth control pill. Paul Vl also noted the emerging recognition of women as persons of equal dignity and value and the importance of conjugal love, that is, the mutual interpersonal love of the spouses and the special meaning of their sexual relationship.

These issues received considerable attention within the Church, as theologians and other scholars began to question the relevance of the Church’s teaching on birth control. The Second Vatican Council had not directly addressed the topic, and Paul Vl appointed a special commission to study the matter. While this international commission was conducting its study over a period of years, pressure was mounting for some new pronouncement from the Church. Paul Vl recognized this in some of his addresses during the 1960’s and there is little doubt that the time was ripe for the Pope to speak.

The issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968 was a world–shaking event. Why? Because the encyclical did not say what the world wanted to hear and what much of the anticipated buildup had prepared people for. As a result, the encyclical ran into a firestorm of rejection, criticism and dissent, and its carefully reasoned message was virtually lost in the confusion of the moment. Ever since, Humanae Vitae has been treated as some thing of an anomaly and has been blamed for many other problems that have confronted the Church.

It is important to realize that Humanae Vitae is a relatively short summary statement and reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, family life, human sexuality and responsible parenthood. It was situated in the context of the Second Vatican Council and drew upon the Council’s deliberations and teachings. It took a contemporary approach to the family, to progress and development in modern societies and, despite all the scientific investigations and studies, to the fact that there were still many unanswered questions in the fields of demography, biology and biochemistry. Facing an absence of conclusive data in many of these fields, the Church was in no position to render final and detailed moral conclusions. Perhaps one example may illustrate what I mean. Paul Vl recognized the growth of world population during the 50’s as one of the issues that prompted consideration of the Church’s prohibition of artificial methods of birth control. We refer to this growth as the Baby Boom because of the prominence of large families. Yet, it was only in the 70’s that the demographers had sufficiently developed and validated the theory of demographic transition. This theory stated that population growth results from a decline in mortality rates and concurrent high birth rates, which then tend to decline and the growth tapers off. At the same time, the demographers were able to see that the Baby Boom had resulted from a larger overall proportion of families with three to four children, not from the families with six to ten. So too with the Pill. It was originally looked on as a sterilizing agent; later data showed its abortifacient aspects, as well as the serious dangers to a woman’s health inherent in its use.

One might think that by the 1970’s, the hostile reaction to Humanae Vitae would have subsided and we would have reexamined the teaching and perceived its truth and value. Such was not the case. The encyclical remained isolated and, to a larger extent, rejected. Paul Vl reaffirmed the teaching on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably on his last major public appearance before his death (1978).

More recently there has been scholarly and thoughtful reexamination and John Paul II has constantly reaffirmed and explained in detail the teaching of Humanae Vitae. It is highly important to study John Paul’s II teaching on marriage and family life to gain new insight into Humanae Vitae.

Let us turn now to the document itself. The teaching of the encyclical is based on four basic 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

1. A total vision of the human person.

To begin with, Paul Vl 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 Jesus Christ 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. Each of us is an individual person gifted with intellect and free will. We can make free and conscious decisions about our actions, and we must weigh each decision in terms of its consistency with God’s plan and God’s law. Our union with God begins here on earth in the life of grace and reaches its fulfillment after death when the life of grace becomes eternal glory.
2. The sacrament of marriage.

Within the overall vocation to union with God, we fulfill other vocations during our earthly lives. God calls us not only to eternal union with Him, but He calls us to share His life here on earth. God is love and we are called to love one another as God loves us. For most people, the call to love is lived out and perfected in marriage and family life. As Pope Paul Vl 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 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 friends and to the entire world.
3. Conjugal love and responsible parenthood.

Following closely the lines of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Pope Paul Vl 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” (from the Marriage Ritual). The intimacy of marriage and marital love cannot be adequately measured by anyone but the couple. Pope Paul Vl went on to explain the Council’s description of conjugal love — it has its origin in “God, who is love.”

As John Paul 11 further explained, “God is love…Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation…of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” (Familiaris Consortio).

Paul Vl went on to speak of conjugal love as “fully human,” total — that is to say, a very special form of personal friendship, “faithful and exclusive” and “fecund”, directed toward the begetting and educating of children.

Again John Paul II, in describing the plan of God for marriage and the family in Familiaris Consortio, expanded on these concepts and emphasized that 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 understand 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, pornography — all 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 demands and fosters a deep, personal intimacy. Intimacy requires communication, self–disclosure and a willingness to forego some personal privacy. At the same time it satisfies the human need for companionship and community and gives each partner a heightened sense of self–worth and security.

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. At the same time, it creates a special unity and fidelity between the spouses that is able to withstand the tendency to selfishness or the attraction of power, material goods or personal advancement that might otherwise erode their relationship. In effect, as the dynamic element in their relationship, conjugal love gives an unbreakable quality to their union and their partnership.

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, communication, mutual patience, understanding and encouragement are indications of and powerful sustainers of conjugal love. So too is sexual love, in which the couple engage in a deep and specially reserved interpersonal sharing and through which they become cocreators with God by bringing children into the world and building their own family.

The companion principle that Pope Paul Vl drew from Vatican 11 and affirmed in Humanae Vitae is responsible parenthood. Unfortunately, this term has often been misinterpreted and seen primarily as a justification for avoiding or rejecting childbearing. At the recent World Summit on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro, a family planning expert said that responsible parenthood and access to all methods of family planning mean the same thing: the avoidance of births. However, as described by Paul Vl, by the Second Vatican Council and by John Paul II, the concept of responsible parenthood involves the following elements:

  • a free, informed, mutual decision by the couple…
  • regarding the frequency–of births and size of the family…
  • based on their conscientious assessment of their responsibilities…
  • to God, themselves, their children and family and the society of which they are a part…
  • and enlightened by the authentic teaching of the Church’s magisterium regarding the objective moral order and the licit methods of spacing or limiting pregnancies.

Decisions regarding child–bearing and child–rearing are certainly in the forefront of the fundamental choices that couples make in marriage. But it is a mistake to think that such decisions are fraught with tension, lacking in mutual agreement, or threatening to conjugal love and family well–being. More realistically and more commonly, such decisions reflect the couple’s values and attitudes and are reached in relative calm. When couples are secure in their love, when they value parenting and enjoy their children, when they are convinced that material advantages are but one aspect of family life, and when they see childbearing as a special sharing in God’s plan of creation and redemption, there is an openness to life and a genuine willingness to share their life and love with others, particularly their own offspring.

An important aspect of Humanae Vitae is the positive emphasis on children. Paul Vl noted that marriage is important because it takes the couple beyond themselves-it teaches out to the bearing and educating of children. Referring again to Vatican II, Pope Paul emphasized that “children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.” The Council teaching to which he referred is one that treats child–bearing as a privilege and gift and as a participation in the creative plan of God. It intended to counter the mindset that sees children as a burden or interference in the private lives of their parents. Thus, it gives special mention to those couples “who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family” (Gaudium et Spes).

Responsible parenthood then, involves mutual decision making by the couple and a shared commitment to family values and goals. It goes far beyond access to contraceptive technology and is far more important in enabling couples to understand their duties and make the appropriate sacrifices to realize their commitment. As described above, responsible parenthood respects the couple as persons who can make decisions that benefit themselves and society without losing their sense of dignity and worth or their appreciation of sexual love.
4. The Church’s moral teaching on sexuality.

Having reviewed the Church’s teaching, particularly as set forth by the Second Vatican Council, Paul Vl then applied the principles to the act of marital intercourse and to the means of family planning. Paul Vl affirmed as 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 life.” This is the central teaching of Humanae Vitae and it is the precise point of confrontation for the encyclical. But the important advance made by Paul Vl was that he did not limit his teaching simply to the inherent biological capabilities of the marriage act. Instead, he spoke of the meanings of the act, that is, building marital unity and transmitting life. There is an inseparable connection, willed by God, between these two meanings — a connection that human persons can perceive and understand but which they are not free to reject or contravene. It is contrary to God’s law to have intercourse solely to procreate, as is the case, for instance, in those societies where frequent reproduction is seen as a proof of virility. It is also wrong to totally reject childbearing and to have intercourse solely as a means for achieving sexual pleasure, as is often the case in societies where sexual pleasure is seen as the dominant reason for intercourse. The unitive and procreative elements are meant by God to be balanced.

Paul Vl 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 Vl gave strong endorsement to natural family planning, not as an escape hatch, but as part of the responsible dynamic of marriage and family life.

Pope Paul recognized that his 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. Indeed, Paul Vl noted that “the honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family and that they tend towards securing perfect self–mastery.” Achieving solid conviction and self–restraint is extremely difficult in a society that is premised on individualism, sexual permissiveness, lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions, material comfort and hedonism. Such is the prevailing atmosphere of the Western world. That is why Paul Vl urged efforts to create an atmosphere favorable to chaste living.

At the same time, Pope Paul was very much the pastor who understood difficulties facing married couples and their failures in achieving moral ideals. He urged prayer, reception of the sacraments and encouraged couples, even when failing, not to lose heart, but to call on the mercy of God in the sacrament of penance. Correspondingly, Paul Vl urged priests to present the Church’s teaching clearly and convincingly, to support and encourage couples and to insure that those facing difficulties find, “in the words and in the heart of a priest, the echo of the voice and the love of the Redeemer.”

In his final major public appearance before his death, at a Mass on June 29, 1978 (the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul), commemorating the 15th anniversary of his election as pope, Paul Vl reviewed what he considered the high points of his pontificate. The two dominant themes of the homily were the fulfillment of the Petrine office of proclaiming and preserving the faith and his efforts in defense of human life. In this regard, Pope Paul spoke of his encyclical on the development of peoples as promoting the sustenance of life for developing nations. He pointed to other addresses and encyclicals that opposed abortion and divorce. He said that he was encouraged by the response of young people, whom he saw as the victims of the materialism and permissiveness of modern society.

But his central concern and source of peace was Humanae Vitae. His own words best sum up his final recollections on the importance of the encyclical:

This document was inspired by the immutable teaching of the Bible and the Gospel, which confirms the norms of the natural law and the irrepressible dictates of conscience regarding respect for life and its transmission by fathers and mothers who practice a responsible parenthood. The document has acquired new and urgent relevance in view of the wounds now being inflicted by civil laws on the holiness of the indissoluble marriage bond and the sacredness of human life even in the maternal womb.

We have opened Our heart to you in a panoramic view, rapid though it has been, of the important aspects of Our pontifical magisterium in regard to human life, so that the hearts of us all may cry from their depths to the Redeemer. In face of the dangers We have outlined, as in the face of saddening defections in the Church and society, We, like Peter, feel compelled to go to Him as the only source of salvation and cry out to Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He alone is the truth, He alone is our strength, He alone is our salvation.

There is no doubt that the reactions to Humanae Vitae startled and in some ways saddened Paul Vl. Certainly the organized dissent was unexpected, as was the continuing rejection of the encyclical. Paul Vl however, never lost his compassion, his pastoral concern for the family or his conviction that he fulfilled his responsibility as teacher and successor of St. Peter.


Back to: Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life)