Navigating the Faith: Humanae Vitae

by Fr. Matthew Long, Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Mansfield & St. Ann Church, Stonewall

Pope Paul VI  became pope in 1963 and continued the work of the Second Vatican Council. During his time, he issued one of the most famous papal encyclicals: Humanae Vitae.

This encyclical was a response to a number of changes in the world: the rapid increase in population; the economic difficulty of providing for a large family; a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, and; the progress of humanity in the domination and organization of nature. (HV 2)

The headline “The Pope says no to the Pill” was how this carefully crafted and compassionate letter was introduced to the world. As a result, most have never read it in its entirety, but most believe it is simply the Church’s answer to artificial contraception. To fully understand this document, one must consider the reason for this difficult decision and the consequences prophesied by Pope Paul VI. This teaching has often been described as oppressive towards women or patriarchal. In reality this teaching applies to married couples, so it is applicable to both men and women.

The document begins with “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.”  This reminds us that life comes from God and its transmission is a collaborative effort between a married couple and God.

It then moves on to the moral norms regulating married life. They discuss “totality,” wherein, you look at the procreative finality of the marriage and not at each individual act of conjugal love.  This would lead ultimately to regulating the transmission of life by the intelligence and will of the married persons rather than through the “specific rhythms of their own bodies.” (HV3)

In approaching the question of human procreation there were two aspects of married love that had to be considered since they were used as justification for artificial birth control: demands of married love and responsible parenthood.

Married love is defined in three parts. 1. It is total, in that husband and wife share generously of everything. 2. It is faithful and exclusive. 3. It is fertile, which means it is ordered toward parenthood.

Responsible parenthood was the other item. Many factors should be considered when deciding whether to welcome more children or “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts,” choose to postpone additional children.  This requires the husband and wife in “keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.” (HV10)  One of these duties is to respect the natural law, which shows the marital act to be both unitive, in that it strengthens the union between husband and wife, and procreative, which means that every act must be open to life. (HV11)

This doctrine of the natural law means that married people cannot by their own initiative break the unitive or procreative significance which are inherent to the marital act. Sexual intercourse between a husband and wife without the consent of both parties is not unitive and it offends the moral order.  In the same way sexual intercourse between a husband and wife that is not open to life, and therefore not procreative, also offends the moral order. (HV13)  Based on natural law and moral law, it was determined that artificial birth control, sterilization and abortion “are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means for regulating the number of children.”  (HV14) 

There is an exception to the Church’s position, and that is for the cure of bodily diseases even if it can impede procreation.  This exception should not be interpreted liberally, however.  It would be most applicable in situations where sterilization, such as a hysterectomy, would be necessary.  It is clear that this is only acceptable if the primary motivation is not to prevent children.  (HV15)  The use of natural methods of family planning is also allowed. (HV16)  This method is not offensive to the moral order because it relies upon the natural cycles of the body, the cooperation of both husband and wife and abstinence, which cultivates virtue .

One of the most compelling parts of the encyclical is Section 17 where the possible consequences of artificial methods are discussed. Looking back across 46 years helps us to see that many of the consequences feared have come to pass.

One of the first concerns is the effect artificial birth control will have on the faithful and exclusive aspects of married love. “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.” (HV17)

Because of the taint of Original Sin, human beings are weak when faced with temptation. When there are no consequences when breaking the moral law, it becomes easier to yield to temptation.  A second concern was that with the use of artificial contraceptives, men would, “forget the reverence due to a woman.” Instead of seeing a woman as a partner who should be shown affection and care, she would become an object to be used for sexual satisfaction.

The last concern was that the power to artificially control birth, once exercised between husband and wife, would be used by public authorities.  “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.” (HV17)  This fear was well founded based on the policies already in place by some world governments. There was recognition that governments could and would not necessarily adhere to the divine law and moral law.  If this was the case, then they could require artificial birth control, sterilization or even abortion without the consent of the people.  The Holy Father felt strongly that this “personal and intimate responsibility” should belong to a husband and wife and no one else.

One need only look at the data from the past 46 years to know the grave concerns expressed by Pope Paul VI have been realized in part.  Marital infidelity and the divorce rate have risen exponentially.  The number of those engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage has also gone up.  Pornography, which has at its center the objectification of women, has become a multimillion dollar industry.  Finally, the last concern regarding governments attempting to impose artificial methods on its citizens has become all too real in the last two decades.

Pope Paul VI knew that the teaching of the Church would not be easily accepted.  He reminded us that like her Founder, Jesus Christ, she was to be a “sign of contradiction.” Following Christ has never been easy, but He gives us the grace necessary to do so if only we will live in accord with His will as expressed in our hearts, from the Sacred Scripture and through His distinctive voice in the world, Holy Mother Church.  I urge all of you to take the time to read this document.  It can be found at

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