Humanae Vitae

views updated Jun 11 2018


Encyclical letter of Pope paul vi, on the regulation of birth, issued July 29, 1968.

Background. In acknowledgment of a growing sentiment both within and outside the Church, John XXIII appointed a commission (March 1963) to restudy the morality of using anovulant pills as a precoital measure of birth prevention; such use had once been characterized by pius xii (1958) as a direct temporary sterilization and therefore as immoral. Paul VI twice reconstituted Pope John's commission and, in response to mounting public agitation, invited it to evaluate the Church's overall ban on contraception rather than simply the application of that ban to the anovulant pill.

The commission majority's report (June 1966) favored leaving the method of birth regulation to the consciences of individual married couples, provided that selfishness were excluded and the conjugal life taken as a whole were open to procreation. The pope, however, undertook an independent study and eventually, in Humanae Vitae, rejected the commission's recommendations for a relaxation of the Church's traditional teaching.

Doctrine. After reviewing the controversy that occasioned its issuance and reasserting the Church's competence to interpret the natural law, Humanae Vitae articulates fundamental principles concerning conjugal love and responsible parenthood. Conjugal love, like marriage itself, is described as a good instituted by God "to realize in mankind his design of love" and to enable spouses "to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives" (No. 8). Responsible parenthood involves understanding and respecting the biological laws "which are part of the human person," mastering instinct and passion by rational control, deciding prudently about family size in concrete circumstances, and adhering to "the objective moral order established by God"(10).

While he did not assign an order of priority between the procreative and unitive goods of marriage, Pope Paul did insist that both values taken together are essential to the integrity of the conjugal act. Accordingly, he reiterated the requirement of natural law that "each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus ) must remain open to the transmission of life" (11). This entails rejection of the following birth control techniques: (1) direct abortion under all circumstances; (2) direct sterilization of either spouse, whether permanent or temporary; (3) any procedure "which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (14). The italicized words in the last quoted phrase refer to the anovulant pill.

In an apparent response to the papal commission's majority, Pope Paul emphasized that deliberate violence to the integrity of even a single conjugal act constitutes an evil which cannot be rectified either by a good ulterior motive or by other conjugal acts left open to procreation (14). The pope further sought to counter the consequentialist reasoning of contraception advocates by observing that contraception, in addition to its intrinsic evil, can have disastrous consequences, such as encouraging promiscuity and marital infidelity, degrading women into objects of sexual satisfaction, and furnishing unscrupulous governments with the means of violating the procreative freedom of their subjects (17).

While rejecting contraception, the pope reaffirmed the legitimacy of conjugal acts foreseen to be infecund "for causes independent of the will of husband and wife"(11). It is therefore allowable to use therapeutic measures necessary for health which are not calculated to suppress procreation, even if an obstacle to procreation will arise as a side effect (15). Moreover, for "serious motives," spouses may regulate births by utilizing "the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions" (16). Acknowledging that the observance of rhythm necessitates self-discipline and restraint, the pope affirmed that this can contribute significantly to developing the mutual unselfishness that is essential to a happy and stable marriage.

In the lengthy pastoral section that concludes Humanae Vitae (1930), Pope Paul admonished public authorities to promote a social climate favorable to chastity and to refrain from either supporting or imposing unnatural birth-control techniques to solve demographic problems. Scientists are asked to search out a way of furnishing "a sufficiently secure basis" for birth regulation through the observance of rhythm (24). Married couples are exhorted to pursue the positive value of conjugal chastity aided by prayer and the Sacraments, without being discouraged by natural weakness. Priests and bishops, finally, are urged to propose the Pope's teaching faithfully and to encourage spouses to adhere to it.

Authority. The encyclical was released to the press by Msgr. (later Archbishop) Ferdinando Lambruschini, with the comment that the document did not propose its teaching as infallible and irreformable although it did reflect the serious judgment of the Church's highest magisterial authority. Barely a month later, writing to an assembly of German Catholics, Pope Paul himself expressed hope that "the lively debate aroused by our encyclical will lead to a better understanding of God's will" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 60 [1968] 575). The authoritative status of Humanae vitae has itself become the subject of lively debate. Some scholars, notably John C. Ford and Germain Grisez, have argued that the teaching against contraception bespeaks a long unbroken tradition of the ordinary magisterium and, therefore, was already infallible before Pope Paul issued his encyclical (Theological Studies 39 [1978] 258312). In 1984 Pope John Paul II claimed that this teaching "belongs not only to the natural moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by God: also from this point of view, it could not be different, but solely what is handed down by Tradition and the Magisterium and, in our days, the Encyclical Humanae vitae as a modern document of this Magisterium" (General Audience, July 18, 1984; L'osservatore Romano [Eng. ed.], July 23, 1984, 1; italics original). This papal statement, however, is not itself a definitive declaration; and the anti-contraception teaching is not included in a more recent list of moral and dogmatic teachings characterized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as infallible even though not formally defined (L'osservatore Romano, June 30July 1, 1998, 5). Theologians such as Francis A. Sullivan have meanwhile contested the arguments of Ford and Grisez (Sullivan, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church [1983] 119152). Grisez has published several additional articles replying to Sullivan and other critics, thus keeping "the lively debate" going in scholarly circles. Among Catholic believers generally, it is apparent that the teaching of Humanae vitae has not been effectively received or widely practiced. Many dioceses in the United States and elsewhere, however, refer married and engaged couples to the Natural Family Planning services which are increasingly available. Some proponents of the encyclical's teaching suggest hopefully that further advances in the development of reliable natural methods of monitoring fertility, combined with greater apprehensions about the safety of much contraceptive technology (including the anovulant pill), will eventually foster a more favorable climate for the wider reception of papal teaching about responsible birth regulation.

Bibliography: paul vi, Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968), Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 60 (1968) 481503; Eng. tr. Humanae Vitae (Washington, D.C. 1968), also Pope Speaks 13 (196869) 305316 and Catholic Mind 66 (Sept. 1968) 3548; address to obstetricans and gynecologists (Oct. 29, 1966), Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 58 (1966) 116670; Eng. tr. Pope Speaks 11 (1966) 401402. Human Life in Our Day, pastoral letter of U.S. bishops (Washington, D.C.1968). j. costanzo, "Papal Magisterium, Natural Law and Humanae Vitae, " American Journal of Jurisprudence 16 (1971) 259289. c. curran, ed., Contraception: Authority and Dissent (New York 1969). j.a. komonchak, "Humanae vitae and its Reception: Ecclesiological Reflections," Theological Studies 39 (1978) 221257. r.a. mccormick, "Notes on Moral Theology, 1978: Humanae vitae and the Magisterium," Theological Studies 40 (1979) 8097. r. dennehy, ed., Christian Married Love (San Francisco, 1981). r. malone, "Humanae Vitae Revisited," Communio (US) 15 (Winter 1988) 517520. j. e. smith, Humanae vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, DC, 1991). c.e. curran and r.a. mccormick, eds., Dialogue about Catholic Sexual Teaching (New York 1993). p. bristow, "Dualism: The Obstacle to Understanding Humanae Vitae," Downside Review 113 (1995) 104111. d. s. crawford, "Humanae Vitae and the Perfection of Love," Communio (US) 25 (Fall 1998) 414438.

[b. a. williams]

Humanae Vitae

views updated May 14 2018

Humanae Vitae

On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" ("On Human Life"), which reaffirmed the traditional teaching that artificial contraception opposed not only church law but also conflicted with reason and experience. Roman Catholic identity involves hierarchical authority, authoritative teaching, and organic continuity, including the foundations of Catholic moral reflection philosophically known as "natural law." However, Paul VI's teaching met with unprecedented public dissent from theologians and practical rejection by most married Catholics in the Western nations. The various national and regional conferences of Catholic bishops typically noted that the pope's teaching here, while authoritative, was not "infallible"—that is, required by faith alone. They taught that Catholics should follow the pope's teaching that "natural family planning" (ovulation, basal body temperature, or symptothermal methods) rather than artificial contraception was an ideal that made more transparent the complete gift of self that constituted the sacrament of marriage.

The reader of Humanae Vitae will find a rich and lyrical appreciation of the beauty of committed human love, highly influenced by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), though the encyclical's public importance has been reduced to its ban on artificial contraception. Humanae Vitae immediately crystallized post–Vatican II debates about the interrelationships among papal and episcopal authority and the place of dissent in the church. The encyclical has also affected in complicated ways the church's post–Vatican II aspiration to contribute to the complex global dialogue about human rights, justice and poverty, and abortion.

In the Second Vatican Council the bishops abandoned the terms "primary end" (procreation) and "secondary end" (spousal unity) of marriage but left a review of the traditional teaching about contraception to a special commission that Pope Paul VI announced on June 23, 1964. In the context of media reports about the birth control pill and international conferences on population, there emerged a broad expectation that, as other dimensions of Catholic life were changing, so, too, would the magisterium's moral prohibition of any use of artificial contraception within marriage. The commission's majority finally came to agree with the conclusion that past teaching did not have to be read or interpreted in a way requiring an absolute prohibition of artificial contraception. Even its minority report, which Pope Paul VI finally adopted, conceded that moral reasoning alone could not sustain the ban. Contemporary defenders of Humanae Vitae as a litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy point to a contemporary "contraceptive mentality" of recreational sex leading to high rates of divorce, wife and child abuse, and increased abortion rates.

While the Catholic Church no longer directly impedes worldwide efforts at promoting contraception, many inside and even more outside the church contend, first, that Humanae Vitae detracts from the church's challenge to political elites who out of self-interest construe contraceptive ignorance, rather than extreme poverty, as the major cause of high fertility rates in poor nations; and second, that the encyclical blurs the church's more widely shared witness against characterizing abortion as a morally unproblematic means of birth control.

See alsoAbortion; Birth; Birth Control; Dogmatism; Encyclical; Papacy; Religious Studies; Roman Catholicism; Sexuality; Vatican; Vatican II.


R. B. Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and Religion. 1985.

J. R. Kelly, "Catholic Sexual Ethics Since Vatican II" in Religion and the Social Order, edited by H. Ebaugh. 1991.

J. C. Schwarz, Global Population from a Catholic Perspective. 1998.

James R. Kelly

Humanae vitae

views updated Jun 11 2018

Humanae vitae. An encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1968 addressing the question of birth control, following the report of the commission set up by Paul's predecessor, John XXIII, to study the question of artificial contraception, principally the recently developed contraceptive pill.

Paul repeats the traditional view that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life’ (§ 11). This is so because of the inseparable connection willed by God between the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act, which not only closely unites husband and wife but also enables them to generate new life ‘according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman’ (§ 12).

The encyclical ends with an appeal to Catholics to follow and support its teaching on artificial contraception. However, its publication, while welcomed by some, was greeted with dismay and open dissent by many Roman Catholics, and its teaching on contraception has remained a matter of controversy, to the neglect of Paul's outline of the values of marriage and responsible parenthood.

Humanae Vitae

views updated May 23 2018

Humanae Vitae encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, condemning artificial means of birth control.

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