Humanae Vitae as an Answer to Our Culture

The first part of this series examined the historical context of Humanae vitae, Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life and sexuality, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.  The immediate motivation for the encyclical was a report compiled by the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate that called for a reexamination of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marital love.  Paul VI, who embraced Our Lord’s words to Peter to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32), would not let these “new questions,” as he described them, go unanswered.  His response to the Commission forms the heart of the encyclical, as he noted in an address given a couple days after the encyclical’s publication.

Key to understanding the encyclical, then, are the “new questions” the pope sought to answer.  We will present each question and provide Paul VI’s responses.

“With the Gravest Difficulty”

Paul VI words the first question thus:

Granted the conditions of life today and taking into account the relevance of married love to the harmony and mutual fidelity of husband and wife, would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is felt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort? (HV, 3)

The question boils down to a familiar objection: the Church’s moral teachings on this, that, or the other topic are too hard, impossible to follow in today’s world (an argument which resurfaced in light of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia).  Marriage is a challenge in the modern world, and the perspective put forward by this question seems to indicate that only those with superior, heroic virtue can succeed without using artificial contraceptives.  What did Paul VI say in response?

Paul VI acknowledges the difficulty of living the married life.  However, the couple need not face these difficulties alone.  As Fulton Sheen put it, it takes three to get married: the man, the woman, and God.  Therefore, in response to the worry of “grave difficulty,” Paul VI holds up the sacramental graces of matrimony.  This law against contraception, or in favor of authentic marital love, “demands from individual men and women, from families and from human society, a resolute purpose and great endurance.”  The Christian married life “cannot be observed unless God comes to their help with the grace by which the goodwill of men is sustained and strengthened” (HV, 20).

Yes, Christian marriage is hard, but it is not impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

“Principle of Totality”

Paul VI next examines the “principle of totality” in regards to morality.  The “principle of totality” is actually a phrase in medical ethics stating that medical treatments must take into account the wellbeing of the whole patient (psychologically and spiritually, not just physically).  What some commentators proposed, and what Paul VI addresses in Humanae vitae, is applying that medical principle to the morality of a marriage.  Paul VI phrases it thus: “Could it not be admitted . . . that procreative finality [‘the goal of having children,’ as Janet Smith translates] applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act” (HV, 3)?

Should we not judge the morality of a couple’s marital love by the scope of their marriage, or should we judge each act of married love individually?  Can we say that a couple has a moral marriage if they occasionally violate the moral law by using contraception?  That is the question up for debate.

There are a couple ways that Paul VI answers this point.  He reiterates the Church’s condemnation of abortion, direct sterilization, and “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (HV, 14).  He also condemns what John Paul II referred to as “consequentialism,” that is, the idea that the purpose of an act justifies the immoral means to arriving at that end.  “It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it” (Ibid.).  Because artificial contraception is never a morally acceptable action, a couple’s openness to life in some acts does not justify rejecting life in others.

How, then, can a married couple practice “responsible parenthood”?  The answer comes in light of Pope Paul’s response to the last question.

“Regulated by their Intelligence and Will”

The final question Pope Paul VI poses is, “whether . . . the transmission of life should be regulated by their [the couple’s] intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies” (HV, 3).  In the past, the question seems to say, we were slaves to uncontrollable periods of sexual fertility or infertility.  With more advanced technology (artificial contraceptives, sterilizing surgeries, etc.), we could control our bodies and our fertile cycles.

Why not?

Paul VI’s response begins by commending the use of our reason to solve life’s problems; however, the pope “affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God” (HV, 16).  We cannot attempt to attack our natural human processes, and thereby attack Him who created us.  Likewise, Paul VI comments 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” (HV, 17).  In other words, just because we can control fertility using technology does not mean we should.

The pope notes that there are “serious reasons” for spacing births “for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (HV, 10).  The method endorsed by Paul VI is not artificial contraception, but rather one that uses the intelligence and will natural to man to “take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system” (HV, 16).  This is Natural Family Planning (NFP).

There has been plenty of controversy over what Paul VI meant by “serious reasons.”  That is a matter of personal discernment for the individual couple.  The pope, rather, was more concerned with explaining why this form of birth regulation is acceptable while artificial contraception is not.

Marital love has four aspects to it: freedom, totality, faithfulness, and fruitfulness (HV, 9); it has two purposes: the union of the spouses and the procreation of children (HV, 12).  Rejecting one of those aspects or purposes, as artificial contraception does, violates the marital act, and is unacceptable; “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV, 11).  However, engaging in marital lovemaking during a naturally infertile time does not violate these aspects and purposes.

Why?  “In reality,” Paul VI explains, “these two cases are completely different.”  The couple using NFP “rightly use a faculty provided them by nature” (HV, 16); they use their better understanding of their bodies to work within God’s plan for them (see HV, 21).  The couple using artificial contraception “obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV, 16).  They go against their nature, turning what should be an act of self-gift into one of selfishness (see HV, 6), and what should be a time of unity between the spouses and the Creator into one of division (HV, 13).[*]

Paul VI notes that “It could never be right for [the Church] to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful” (HV, 18); in that vein, he defended the Church’s perennial teaching on human life and sexuality.  By drawing upon natural and divine law, this saintly pontiff provided guidelines for an entire generation of believers on how to live a Christian marriage.

Yet many still ignore this timeless message.  Paul VI warned that disregarding this teaching would bring devastation for families and society.  It is those warnings that we will examine in the next essay.


[*]There are plenty of resources differentiating between NFP and artificial contraception.  Examples include the work of Jason Evert and the Chastity Project, especially his booklet Pure Intimacy, and Dr. Janet Smith’s legendary talk “Contraception: Why Not?”  For a more personal reflection on the differences, read Jenny Uebbing’s “Isn’t NFP Just Catholic “Birth Control?”

Avatar photo


Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage