Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1968, His Holiness Pope Paul VI published his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, on the gift of human life and the regulation of birth. The encyclical reminds us that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life (HV, 11). In a statement on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of this encyclical, the Canadian Catholic Bishops wrote:
"Although many have misunderstood this encyclical by reducing its message to a "No" to contraception, we reaffirm that the message of Humanæ Vitæ should be seen as an emphatic "Yes!" to the fullness of life promised to us by Jesus Christ (John 10:10)… As Catholic Bishops, we have been entrusted with the task of proclaiming the truth about God and His plan for our lives, of which sexuality and marriage are an integral part. We invite all Catholics once again to read, study, and meditate on this important encyclical and to rediscover the beautiful truth contained within it."
Humanae Vitae remains timely, courageous and prophetic. It is a courageous document because it was written in the epicentre of the sexual revolution, the birth of the contraceptive pill, and the period of civil unrest in France, known as "May 68" that carried slogans such as: "It is forbidden to forbid". Moreover, in 1966, the majority of the members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control recommended to the pontiff that artificial contraception be permitted. Even so, Paul VI courageously adhered to "the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the Magisterium of the Church" (HV, 6). Humanae Vitae is prophetic, because Paul VI was already foreseeing, in 1968, the consequences of the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception (HV, 17).
Here are excerpts from the encyclical by Blessed Paul VI, who will be canonized on October 14, 2018. (Five other Blessed will be canonized with the pontiff, including Oscar Romero, the Bishop of El Salvador, martyred in 1980). The headings and numbers that follow are taken directly from the encyclical letter:
11. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy. » It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.
13. Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner, without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. (…)
14. Therefore we base our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when we are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.
Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation— whether as an end or as a means. (…)
17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control.
Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Consequently, 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. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions, in the light of the principles we stated earlier, and in accordance with a correct understanding of the "principle of totality" enunciated by our predecessor Pope Pius XII.
18. It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a "sign of contradiction". She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter — only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man. (End of excerpts from Humanae Vitae.)
This teaching of Blessed Paul VI is still valid, and has been endorsed by each of his three successors: St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. St. John Paul II presented the biblical and ethical foundations of his teaching at the Vatican in 129 Wednesday catechesis sessions held from 1979 to 1984. These teachings are known collectively as the "Theology of the Body".
St. John Paul II said to participants at a study session on responsible procreation, held at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart's Faculty of Medicine in Rome, on June 5, 1987:
"The first, and in a certain sense the most serious difficulty, is that also in the Christian community, voices have been heard and are heard that call into question the truth of the Church's teaching. This teaching was expressed forcefully by Vatican II, by the encyclical Humanae Vitae, by the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, and by the recent instruction "The Gift of Life." In this regard, a serious responsibility emerges: those who place themselves in open contrast with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide spouses on a wrong path. What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary is tantamount to inducing the moral conscience of the spouses into error.
"The second difficulty is constituted by the fact that many think that the Christian teaching, although true, is nonetheless unfeasible, at least in some circumstances. As the Tradition of the Church has constantly taught, God does not command the impossible, but every commandment also entails a gift of grace which helps human freedom to fulfill it."
In an address on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, on May 10, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated:
"The Magisterium of the Church cannot be exonerated from reflecting in an ever new and deeper way on the fundamental principles that concern marriage and procreation. What was true yesterday is true also today. The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change; on the contrary, precisely in the light of the new scientific discoveries, its teaching becomes more timely and elicits reflection on the intrinsic value it possesses.
"The keyword to enter coherently into its content remains 'love'. As I wrote in my first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est: 'Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united.... Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves' (n. 5). If this unity is removed, the value of the person is lost and there is a serious risk of considering the body a commodity that can be bought or sold."
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, presented a lecture on August 4, 2018 at the abbey of St. Anne de Kergonan in France, entitled "Humanæ Vitæ, way of holiness". He said, among other things:
"While many theologians, and sometimes even bishops urged him to put the Church in tow of the world and the media, Pope Paul VI insisted that the Church cannot teach anything other than what she has received from Christ: the revealed truth, which is the only way of happiness and holiness for men… Paul VI could not remain silent; the grace of Peter's successor gave him the courage to speak with clarity and firmness. He could not do otherwise because it is about Revelation, the message of Christ. He could not remain silent because what is at stake in the encyclical Humanæ Vitæ is, in fact, the sanctity of Christian couples.
"Dear friends, dear spouses, if you, as Christians, refuse contraception, it is not first of all "because the Church forbids it". It is rather because you know, through the teaching of the Church, that contraception is inherently evil, that is, it destroys the truth of love and the human relationship. It reduces women to be only an object of pleasure and enjoyment always available at all times and in all circumstances to the sexual drive of men…
"Through the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, the Church only transmits what she has received from God himself. She does not [and] she will never have the power to change anything."
"As St. John Paul II said, in an address at the International Congress of Moral Theologians on November 12, 1988, regarding contraception: 'No personal or social circumstance has ever been able, can, and can ever justify such an act… It is not a doctrine invented by man: it has been inscribed by the creative hand of God in the very nature of the human person and has been confirmed by him in revelation'."