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Humanæ Vitæ, the Way to Holiness

on Tuesday, 01 January 2019. Posted in Encyclical letters & Other documents of the Magisterium

Pope Paul VI was one of seven new saints canonized by Pope Francis on Sunday, October 14, 2018, during a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Pope St. Paul VI had been beatified in 2014.

Born on September 26, 1987, Giovanni Battista Montini took the name of Paul VI after his election on June 21, 1963, and remained in the role of Vicar of Christ until his death on August 6, 1978. He led the Church during difficult times and successfully headed the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion in 1965. Notwithstanding the social climate of rebellion and revolt during the 1960’s, he remained faithful to the Church’s teaching and tradition, reiterating its earliest teachings on the transmission of life and opposition to artificial birth control in his encyclical, Humanæ Vitæ, written in 1968.

We published large excerpts of Humanæ Vitæ in the August/September 2018 issue of MICHAEL. Following are excerpts from a magisterial conference given on August 4, 2018 by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, at the Abbey of St. Ann of Kergonan, in France. The occasion was the 50th Anniversary of Humanæ Vitæ. The title of the conference was Humanæ Vitæ, the Way to Holiness:

by Robert Cardinal Sarah

Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI signed his last and most important encyclical, Humanæ Vitæ, on July 25, 1968. If we place Blessed Paul VI’s teaching in its historical context, we can measure the courage, great faith in God and docility to the Holy Spirit that the Pontiff possessed. At a time when many theologians, and even bishops, would have preferred he adapt the Church according to the world and media, the Pope reminded everyone that the Church can only teach the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ. This is man’s only way to happiness and holiness.

Despite the storm sparked by Humanæ Vitæ, we can now see that the Holy Spirit was a mighty assistant to Paul VI in the “Office of Peter”. In a world dominated and enslaved by the sexual revolution, and abandoned by many cardinals, bishops and theologians, Paul VI remained steadfast in fidelity to the teachings of Mother Church.

Not only did Paul VI reaffirm the historic and apostolic doctrines on the transmission of life, but he proved to be prophetic. Fifty years after its publication, this magisterial teaching manifests an unchanging truth and reveals the lucidity with which the problem was tackled. Did the encyclical letter somehow foresee the sexual perversions to which we are now witnesses? Did Paul VI understand the dictatorship of liberal North European governmental authorities who want to deconstruct and destroy the family, and who have legalized and promoted contraception and abortion?

A Prophetic Gesture

By resisting worldly pressures and the media, Paul VI made a prophetic gesture. Not only did Humanæ Vitæ anticipate the current scientific understanding concerning the harms done to human health by chemical contraceptives, but he went further and indicated a path toward holiness by shining God’s light on conjugal life. (...)

We must realize that Humanae Vitæ is not a mere disciplinary letter condemning contraception. More profoundly, Humanae Vitae is an invitation to conjugal holiness; to a way of living married life and parental responsibility designed by God. In this, Paul VI was akin to a prophet inviting God’s people to conversion; to a communion with Him.

The rejection of Humanæ Vitæ, and mistrust of its teachings, was generally the result of errors in perspective. We often hear that “the Church’s ruling is harsh”, or that “the Church is not merciful” or else that “the rules cannot possibly be followed in real life.”

In condemning contraception, Paul VI did not arbitrarily declare that some actions are allowed and others not. This is a basic mistake. The pontiff did not decide one day, by whim or wilfully, to prohibit contraception. He took four years to study, reflect, consult with others and read scientific documents on the matter. He prayed much and submitted fully to the Holy Spirit before articulating the Church’s unwavering teachings. He was motivated by the ardent sentiments of a father and shepherd before God, his Church and his people. He was entirely obedient to his Catholic faith and to the Church’s Magisterium. (...)

Dear friends, dear spouses if, as Christians, you reject contraception, it is not primarily “because the Church forbids it.” But rather because you know, through the Church’s teaching, that contraception is intrinsically evil. It destroys the truth of love of the human couple. It reduces a woman to a mere object of pleasure and enjoyment, available to answer men’s sexual drives, at all times and in all circumstances.

This seems most important to me. Christian morality is not based on external fidelity to which one submits passively. Instead, morality rests on the love of what is good and truthful.

In Humanæ Vitæ, Paul VI sought to contemplate the truth regarding sexuality and the married couple. He sought to discover God’s plan inscribed in the nature of men and women. Paul VI sought to make us discover the good toward which our inner nature leads us. He sought to make us desire the supernatural good, that is, the sanctity to which God calls married couples through their conjugal life. (...)

Through Humanæ Vitæ, the Church transmits what she has received from God Himself. It does not, nor will ever, possess the authority to change natural law. Humanæ Vitæ’s teachings belong not only to nature’s moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by God. God’s revelation to us can only remain as it has been handed down by Tradition and the Magisterium1.

Embracing the teachings in Humanæ Vitæ is not a matter of submitting obediently to the Pope, but rather to welcoming God’s word. God reveals our nature to us and we have the opportunity to respond to His love. What is at stake is our theological life, that is, our life in relation to God. Any cardinals, bishops and theologians who have rejected Humanæ Vitæ, and who have encouraged the faithful to rebel against the Church’s teaching, have placed themselves deliberately and publicly against God himself. The worst of this betrayal is that therein the faithful have been invited to oppose God.

Three Errors

My remarks will allow us to set aside three errors concerning Humanæ Vitæ.

The first error lies with the faithful and, in particular, with spouses. Some may believe that the Church is placing upon them an unbearable burden; a burden so heavy that it weighs upon their freedom.

Dear friends, such an idea is false! The Church only transmits the truth it receives from God and which is known by reason. Only truth sets us free! Dear friends and dear couples who endorse this truth, you must bear witness to others! You too must be prophets! Let it be known that rejecting contraception sets couples free from the burden of selfishness. A life based upon the truth of human sexuality releases one from fear, and harnesses love’s energy. It leads to happiness! You who live these truths, say so! Write it! Be witnesses to it! This is your mission as lay people! The Church counts on you and gives you this mission!

You will thereby bear witness to the fact that Humanæ Vitæ need not be received with blind obedience. Allow the intellect and reason to form and appreciate its truth with a heartfelt assent. Our heart must desire the good.

Embracing Humanæ Vitæ does not mean you must have many children. No! It simply means you must generously be opened to life and welcome as many children as your health, your love and your means will allow in a profound spirit of gratitude to God.

Humanæ Vitæ asks us to embrace the profound nature of human love and to thus enter into responsible fatherhood and motherhood while refusing all contraceptive measures. It leads a couple to a generous and intelligent openness to life, not at all cost, but according to each couple’s capacity. If circumstances requires, the couple can space out the family by avoiding periods of fertility. This can be done for the purpose of better protecting conjugal and family love.

The second error to be avoided rests with theologians and moralists. Let me repeat Jesus’ words: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7: 15) Saint Paul calls these people false apostles: “For such false apostles are deceitful workmen, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no wonder: for Satan transforms himself into an angel of light… But their end shall be according to their works.” (2 Cor 11: 13-15)

Beware of those who say that as long as the couple’s intentions are good, circumstances could justify recourse to contraceptive means. Dear friends, such words are lies! And they who “adulterate the word of God” (2 Cor 4: 2) do not speak in the name of God. They speak against God and against the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are like the fiery serpents in the Book of Numbers whose bite kills.

Pay attention to none of their words. And all of those who have been bitten by the serpents of doctrinal and moral confusion have only one recourse. They must imitate the people of Israel and run toward their salvation with their eyes fixed upon the brazen serpent, Jesus Christ, crucified, so as to remain alive (cf Numbers 21:4-9). Yes, look at Jesus, listen to Him and obey Him alone! He is the only Master!

When you are told there are situations that can justify the use of contraceptives, you are being told a lie! You are hearing an “adulterated”’ doctrine (2 Cor 4:2). More so, you are being taken on a path that leads neither to happiness nor to holiness.

This led Pope St. John Paul II to say that when we oppose “concrete situations with the precepts of the moral law, it is no longer maintained that the law of God is always the one true good of man.2

How can one pretend that circumstances that contradict the profound truth of human love could become good or necessary? This is impossible! Yet, there are those who dare put forward dishonest solutions to these problems and who will not stop at murder.

The Church reminds us that there can be no contradiction between the divine law that governs the transmission of life and those that promote authentic conjugal love (Gaudium et Spes, 51, §2). Yes! The plenitude of conjugal happiness always depends on the respect of the profound nature of sexuality, and thus on sexuality being opened to life. Contraception is always morally wrong because it always destroys the spouses’ love! It does them wrong and leads them to do evil.

There can be no conflict of duty. The good of the couple depends on their living according to their profound nature; a nature given by God. Circumstances, or good intentions, can never transform an act that is intrinsically dishonest into an act that is subjectively honest or defendable.

Therefore, there exists no situation where natural law cannot govern. The contrary would imply that the Creator contradicts Himself and asks us to go against the wise order He has inscribed in Creation.

Pope St. John Paul II said about contraception: “No circumstances, whether personal or social, have ever or may ever be able to justify such an act [as contraception]… This doctrine was not invented by man. It was inscribed by God’s creative hand in the very nature of the human being and revealed by Him in Revelation3.”

The third error to be avoided rests with the pastors: the priests and bishops.

Dear brother priests, we are at times accused of placing on others’ shoulders burdens that we ourselves do not bear. Do not be intimidated: obey God, not men. If Humanæ Vitæ is truly the charter of conjugal life, shaped according to the profound truth of human sexuality, then we impose no burden! To the contrary, by preaching Humanæ Vitæ, we are endorsing the Good News! We are announcing conjugal holiness! How could our priestly hearts deprive souls of this royal way to conjugal sanctity? How could we offer a second rate holiness, an incomplete holiness?

As Blessed Paul VI said: “It is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ” (H.V., par. 29). Addressing the bishops, he added: “We implore you to devote yourselves with all zeal and without delay to safeguarding the holiness of marriage, in order to guide married life to its full human and Christian perfection. Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time” (H.V., par. 30).

A Way to Holiness for Couples

As the three errors have been herein addressed, we can further consider the path toward sanctity described in Humanæ Vitæ.

I would like to first point out that all holiness is based on the love of God. He who loves desires what is desired by the loved one. To love God means wanting what He wants. At the highest level of mysticism this is called the union of the wills or the communion of wills. We must therefore begin by seeking God’s will. We must decipher the plan God has inscribed in our nature as man and woman, in the nature of the couple and in the conjugal relationship. (...)

We must not be satisfied with physically respecting a biological order; we must conform our entire lives to the order of Creation. Biological order and fecundity is “the expression of the order of nature which is the providential plan of the Creator, in the faithful execution of which the true good of the human person consists.”

But the Creator’s plan is not limited to biological regularity and fidelity to Creation. His plan surpasses this aspect. Fidelity to God’s plan implies the practice of responsible fatherhood and motherhood that expresses itself through an intelligent use of fecundity’s rhythms. It requires communication and collaboration between spouses, a freely and consciously entered into mutuality, inspired by the grace of persevering prayer and based on a fundamental generosity to decide whether to give life or, for just reasons, to put off doing so until a later time. It implies true conjugal charity, true chastity and control of self, particularly if spouses must limit their conjugal union to infertile periods. In short, this is quite an art of living, a spiritual and conjugal way to holiness!

As noted previously by Paul VI:

“This discipline… brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities” (Humanæ Vitæ, par 21).

The Royal Way of the Cross

St. Pope John Paul II added: “To reject Humanæ Vitæ would render Christ’s cross fruitless. God, through His incarnation, fully entered our daily lives. Christ died for our sins. He has given us a new life, one of original sanctity that we must express in our daily activities.” Yes, it is through the cross that we are cleansed of our sins. The cross is the way to the sanctity of God, our Creator.

It is no surprise, then, that the sacrament of marriage should lead the spouses on a road that takes them to the cross. Your spousal love must resemble the love of Jesus, and His love is one that leads to dying on the cross. Going to the ‘end of love’ means we die for those we love. It is not possible to enter into love without entering into suffering; without dying as did Christ. We are predestined by God to reproduce the image of his Son, Jesus, ‘that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren (Rom 8:29).

Dear Christian spouses, the Church entrusts you with an immense treasure: it asks you to be witnesses to the love with which Christ loved mankind. Love each other “as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it” (Eph 5: 25). This is your mission, your vocation: to love as did Christ until death on the cross! You have a beautiful mission! Thank you for being in our midst! Thank you, dear families, for the testimony you give by your joy and happiness! The smiles on your childrens’ faces are the best way to give witness to your happiness. You are the most beautiful flowers in the crown of the Church! You are the future of the Church and of your country! The Church loves you!

I thank you for your attention and patience in listening to me. Together with you, I thank God the Father almighty for giving us Blessed Pope Paul VI at a most crucial time in history, and for having enlightened and sustained him. God remains faithful even when a large part of his Church’s hierarchy is unfaithful and excels in confusion and disorder in their search for human advantages. Let me quote Benedict XVI’s remarks on the 40th Anniversary of Humanæ Vitæ: “What was true yesterday remains true today. The truth expressed in Humanæ Vitæ does not change.” May God protect the Church, and may the Church protect families and the world!

+ Robert Cardinal Sarah


1) Saint John Paul II, General Audience, July 18, 1984

2) St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1984

3) Pope John Paul II, address to the International Congress of Theologians and Moralists on November 12, 1988.

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