Reflections on Humanae Vitae Part I – What it Says


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The Church is about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of its most famous encyclicals in the modern world: Humanae Vitae.

Of course if you have read most of the press coverage, the word “celebrate” may seem a bit odd.

For those who may not know, Humanae Vitae was written in 1968. At that time, a number of Christian denominations had stated that using artificial contraceptives like condoms and the birth control pill were morally permitted for their congregations. Pope St. John XXIII ordered a commission made up of non-theologians to look into the question for the Catholic Church and make recommendations to him. After John died, Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope Paul VI added members of the clergy and theologians to the commission. When the commission reached its conclusion, the majority stated that there was nothing morally wrong with using artificial contraceptives and recommended Paul make the change to Church teaching. Instead, the pope re-affirmed the Church’s prohibition. To this day, using an artificial means to intentionally contract is a mortal sin.

For many Catholics, even among the clergy, Humanae Vitae is a document of great personal embarrassment. They want to talk about the “higher” things like God’s infinity love and His personal relationship with you. And to be sure these are the higher goals of our calling. But if someone brings up the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, there are many who demure and deflect. A priest once said to my wife and I “The official teaching is that it is wrong, but just remember that confessions can take care of that.”

A theologian friend of mine once said, “This one encyclical is responsible for more people leaving the Church than almost anything else. And most of the people who left never bothered reading it.”

So what does the document actually say?

I highly encourage you to read the entire thing. You can click the link here to see it on the Vatican’s website. It is not that long. While books have been written about this encyclical, I will focus on two things that it says.

1. Marriage is willed by God.

Paul writes, “Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives. The marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church.” (Humanae Vitae, p. 8)

It is important to remember that marriage between one man and one woman is not an accident of evolution nor is it merely an ancient social construct. It is something that is written into our very nature by our Creator. It is part of how we are built. Natural happiness is geared toward this specific relationship. It is one of the reasons why Jewish culture to this day places such a strong emphasis on finding a good spouse and raising children. Supernatural happiness may forgo this for something higher, hence the Christian tradition of celibacy. But most human beings seek the natural happiness of marriage because of our God-given nature.

2. Sex has two intrinsic meanings.

Because of our God-given design, sex means more to us than it does to the beasts. Your pet dog will copulate with anything: another dog, a cat, a pillow, your neighbor’s leg… whatever. It will share it’s body with anything whenever the urge hits. But humans are more than just bodies. We are bodies and souls. Our bodies are sacred and when we share them, we are sharing not just physical objects, but in some ways, my entire person.

Paul writes, “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.” (HV, p. 12)

In other words, sex has two meanings. The first is the unitive. This means that sex bonds the man and the woman in mutual love. This is not surprising since the marital act is often called “making love.” The second is the procreative. This means that the natural end of sex is conception of a child. Again, this shouldn’t be news to any adult.

Paul makes clear that an impediment to either of these meanings is wrong.

Be clear: you must be open to both. If you are making love purely for procreative purposes but are not open to drawing closer in love, then you violating the act’s intrinsic meaning. That doesn’t mean that you have to have a perfect and pure intention during the act. Marital relationships are complicated and there is often an ebb and flow of affections. But your spouse cannot simply be a means to an end. They must always be viewed as a person with whom you are sharing your person.

But while that problem is more one of degree, blocking the procreative with artificial contraception is a different kind of problem. Once you introduce condoms or the pill, you completely close yourself off to the second intrinsic meaning.

Because this is in our nature and part of the Natural Law, the use of artificial contraception, according to Humanae Vitae, is not simply a church prohibition.

Artificial contraception is morally wrong for all people, Catholics and non-Catholics.

That is the briefest summaries of what Humanae Vitae tells us. It is simple and it is clear. The Church has other controversial teachings, so why did this one lead to so many problems that stay with us today?

We will explore that in Part II.

Copyright 2018, WL Grayson

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W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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