Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) is Pope Paul VI’s famed 1968 encyclical on contraception and reproductive ethics. Written in light of a study commissioned by the Vatican on modern reproductive issues, its timing coincided with the sudden prevalence of contraception and concerns about overpopulation in society at large. Pope Paul VI’s writings reaffirmed long-held Church teachings about human nature and new life, but also explained how this wisdom was to be applied in a modern cultural context. Here is a Humanae Vitae summary with the basic points of the Church’s message:
#1. God is the Author of Life, and the Lives He Creates are Sacred
God wills into existence every life brought into the world as part of His plan for creation. We are made in His image and likeness and as the Supreme Creator, it is He who has mastery over life and death. To interfere with life between conception and natural death is in essence usurping God’s ultimate authority.
We are made to know, love and serve Him, and our reproductive capacity mirrors this relationship. Our creative potential is united with God’s in the marital act. Any attempt to end a life through abortion or contraception (which is an abortifacient) defies God’s will for His creation, and is strongly condemned by the Church.
#2. Procreation is the Heart of Marriage
Married love is a holy institution designed by God to reflect the love that exists between Christ and His Church. In marriage, the totality of the human person is a mutual giving of oneself is first an exchange of loving the other unselfishly with body, soul, and will. By sharing everything and uniting themselves heart and soul, husband and wife perfect each other and reach a deeper state of human fulfillment.
Moreover, this relationship of complete love is privileged to be the instrument God uses to bring new lives into the world. Marriage is designed for procreation on both the spiritual and physical levels, and children are the “supreme gift” of marriage. All married couples are called to be open to this gift; to do otherwise is to deny the spiritual and physical premise of marriage.
#3. Openness to Procreation Affirms the Dignity of Woman
In its explanation of the social effects of contraception, Humanae Vitae points out that when a woman’s sacred ability to give life is taken away, her role in a sexual encounter will often be that of an object of pleasure. This role is beneath the dignity of woman and contrary to the meaning of conjugal love, which is meant to be a mutual gift of self, in which the other is loved and appreciated for their individuality, and never used as a means to an end.
When the life-giving aspect of such love is preserved, its implications are too great to be undertaken lightly for selfish reasons. A woman in this scenario is not an object of pleasure, but has inside of her a miracle of creative potential, and must be honored, respected and loved. The same could also work in reverse, for if pleasure is the only aim of sexuality, this works against mutual respect of the spouses, love for children and ultimately, love for the Creator as part of the process.
#4. This Does Not Mean It Is Always God’s Will for a Couple to Conceive
While married couples must always be open to procreation, it is acknowledged that they have a great many other obligations and are expected to make prudent decisions, especially regarding the enormous privilege and responsibility of raising children. The Church understands the difficulties placed upon families by the modern world, and certainly allows couples to limit marital relations to infertile periods if external circumstances, or the physical or psychological condition of the spouses are unfavorable for procreation.
So, while not to be taken lightly, certain factors sometimes create legitimate circumstances in which a couple, by use of a well-formed conscience and prayerful discernment, may determine that it is not the will of God that they should conceive at that time.
#5. Couples May Take Advantage of Infertile Periods Provided by God to Temporarily Avoid Conception
In the order of nature established by God, there is a way to enrich a marriage through conjugal love while avoiding conception by limiting intercourse to the infertile periods of the reproductive cycle. The moral implications of this natural kind of birth control are completely different; it honors the divine wisdom evident in God’s creation and works within the boundaries laid out for us, rather than overruling God by disrupting the natural order. The practice of periodic self-denial also helps to strengthen the marriage by converting selfish love into charity, bringing husband and wife to a greater awareness of their responsibilities, and improving the discipline that will protect their chastity and help them overcome other difficulties. The spouses will be blessed with tranquility and peace.
#6. Artificial Birth Control Is a Recipe for Cultural Disaster
Use of contraception or sterilization denies the true nature of marriage and the dignity of man, and the consequences of this denial are far reaching. One must consider Pope Saint Paul VI’s prophetic words on what would follow the separation of procreation from the marital act. In Humanae Vitae, he said:
- Moral standards would be lowered.
- Marital infidelity would increase.
- Disrespect for womanhood would follow.
Also to be considered is the general principle that what is acceptable for private use, later becomes acceptable for public use. Artificial birth control has enormous potential for misuse by civil authorities trying to address problems of the modern era. (If that sounds far-fetched, consider the one child policy in China, and the sterilization programs put in place by the Third Reich).
NB: If infertility is not the purpose, but an unintended side effect of a necessary therapeutic measure, it is not considered an act of opposition to God’s design of humanity and marriage (for instance, if a spouse is treated for cancer and the treatments cause infertility). There are many separate aspects to therapeutic treatment, however, which cannot all be covered within this article. For instance, contraception prescribed for health reasons would still preclude marital relations during fertile periods. When in doubt, check with a good pro-life priest for further guidance.
#7. Change the Culture, Instead of Ignoring the Moral Law That “Doesn’t Fit” Our Culture
The circumstances that make artificial birth control seem like a necessary evil must be changed. Fertility is not a disease; it is a gift. Nor is any solution permissible if it violates the dignity of man, made in God’s image. The Pope asserts that it is never acceptable to do evil in order to avoid a bad outcome. Social and economic progress must take the entire person into account.
As an antidote, Humanae Vitae calls for societal promotion of “true human values,” such as encouraging commitment in marriage which leads to stable families, which will in turn enable more families to welcome children into a loving, more economically sound unit. He also calls for all unchaste and indecent images to be removed from the media, which promote an unhealthy and sinful view of sexuality, promiscuity and objectification of the other person, and many other evils.
Summary of Humanae Vitae: this encyclical, issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, gives the Church’s answer to questions of love and child rearing between married couples, specifically questions that have arisen from the conditions of the modern world.
Please see our Humanae Vitae Resources Page for more Catholic resources on marriage and contraception.