The Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae”

On July 25, 1968, Bl. Pope Paul VI promulgated his encyclical Humanae Vitae – in English, Of Human Life – reaffirming the Church’s stance on numerous critical issues relating to human life and love. Given the subtitle “On the Regulation of Birth,” this landmark document continues to serve as a crucial source of Catholic teaching on everything from responsible parenthood to, most famously, the use of artificial contraceptives.

The document emerged out of a developing debate within the Church on the status of its position on these topics in relation to the changing modern world. Having been condemned since ancient times by Church Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, opposition to the use of any form of artificial contraception had been reiterated by Pope Pius IX in his encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930.

However, as Bl. Paul VI notes in the first section of Humanae Vitae, this traditional understanding had come under challenge by “man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life— …even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.”

Out of this context of mounting pressure to revise the ancient teaching, St. John XXIII convened a commission, which “included married couples as well as many experts in the various fields pertinent to these questions,” in order to “examine views and opinions concerning married life, and especially on the correct regulation of births,” Bl. Paul VI explains. This commission, though, in its majority-approved report to the Holy See, supported permitting some forms of contraceptives for married couples. Therefore, Bl. Paul VI began drafting his momentous response.

He then addresses the most pressing and controversial question: the bounds of licit regulation of conception. Bl. Paul VI addresses the nature of divinely-ordained matrimonial love as “an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.”

He bases his position in the Church’s unchanging-interpretation of the natural law, which “teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” This is because each person must recognize that he or she “is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator,” Bl. Paul VI explains. Instead, he quotes the words of St. John XXIII, in affirming that “human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact… [and] from its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.”

These facts led Bl. Paul VI to declare, drawing upon the ordinary magisterium of the Church in confirming this doctrine that had been taught for nearly two millennia, that any use of artificial contraception, sterilization, and “above all, all direct abortion… are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.”

He then turns his attention to several groups in society with special importance and relevance for this issue. First, Bl. Paul VI addresses those in public office, to whom “most of all is committed the responsibility of safeguarding the common good.” He calls on them, instead of enacting “any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God,” to introduce “laws which will assist families” to ease the difficulties of raising multiple children.

Indeed, Bl. Paul VI declares that the concern of overpopulation and the supporting of families “seems to be the result of misguided governmental policies, of an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children.”

Bl. Paul maintains that he has “no wish at all to pass over in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples.” On the contrary, he recalls that “it is precisely the hope of that life which, like a brightly burning torch, lights up their journey.”

He asks doctors and nurses to “endeavor to fulfill the demands of their Christian vocation before any merely human interest.” Especially, they must make themselves informed about this complex topic so that “when married couples ask for their advice, they may be in a position to give them right counsel and to point them in the proper direction,” he continues.

In the days following its pronouncement as in the fifty years since, Humanae Vitae has not failed to ignite controversy and meet criticism. Indeed, in the encyclical itself Bl. Paul VI acknowledges that “there is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church,… [which] is intensified by modern means of communication” for such a difficult teaching to be easily embraced.

But Bl. Paul VI’s call to “all men of good will” then still rings as critically for us today: to joyfully bear the “great… work of education, of progress and of charity to which We now summon all of you.”

Nicholas is a sophomore studying political science and history and lives in Keough Hall. He believes that the most critical philosophical question facing humanity today is whether The Office or Parks & Rec is objectively the best comedy ever produced.