The Teaching of the Prophetic Encyclical Humanae Vitae (Part XIII)

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In our previous article we mentioned that the only topic left for us to cover was the pastoral guidelines that Pope St. Paul VI offers in the last part of Humanae Vitae. These guidelines are absolutely necessary for putting the perennial teachings contained in this prophetic document into practice.

But before we comment on those pastoral guidelines we must clarify an important point. Due to widespread dissent, today the term “pastoral” is used to rationalize disobedience of Catholic doctrine through lax interpretation and application of the Church’s teaching. We have already seen this dissent camouflaged by priests in the confessional advising married couples to “follow their conscience” on birth control issues.

This is not a correct interpretation of pastoral guidelines or pastoral activity. The pastoral activity of the Church is the set of advices and actions designed to help the faithful put Catholic teaching into practice, not to rationalize it away. Thus, for example, part of the pastoral help that bishops and priests must offer to married couples is teaching them natural methods of fertility regulation when those married couples have serious reason to space their pregnancies. In other words, the pastoral activity of the Church must always be designed so as to help the faithful live out the fulness of Catholic truth.

Keeping in mind this correct understanding of pastoral guidelines, we proceed to examine the teachings of St. Paul VI in the last part of Humanae Vitae, nos. 19–31.


1) The Duty of Spouses

Spouses must practice self-discipline and help other couples live out the teachings of Humanae Vitae (21, 25–26).

This self-discipline, far from hindering the expression of conjugal love, actually enhances it. What gives the emotional strength and motivation to the spouses to practice this self-discipline is their recognition of the values and blessings of family life, which they should cherish in their hearts; the grace that comes from the sacraments and prayer; and the support and encouragement of priests and other couples.

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

Self-discipline helps couples not only in their practice of periodic continence when they are using NFP for serious reasons. It also helps them to purify and enhance their conjugal love and their conjugal acts. The spouses, especially husbands, learn how to control their drives and emotions, not by repressing them but by channeling them correctly so as to put them at the service of love and life. It is also undeniable that self-control will also help the spouses to remain faithful for life by conquering any temptation. It will also increase mutual trust, which is crucial for all other areas of conjugal life.

As husbands and wives become parents in this climate of true love, they will come to appreciate their children and the God-given gift of procreation ever more deeply. They will learn to practice sacrificial love as they go about caring for and educating their children in the ways of the Lord. This sacrificial love will then enhance and elevate their eros-love, making it more joyful, deep and lasting. Eros-love, which is right in itself, needs to be purified by agape love (sacrificial love, the love Christ has for us) so that it can conquer selfishness and become ever more self-giving.

As husbands and wives mature in their eros and agape-love, they become ever more able to share, by way of example, their authentic conjugal love. They will also become capable of teaching NFP to those other married couples who need to space their pregnancies for serious reasons. Therefore, their mature conjugal love becomes a mission to spread the true Christian values of conjugal and family life to other married couples and families.


2) The Duty of Cultural Elites

Educators, people in the media, and public authorities should help create an atmosphere that facilitates the practice of chastity and the rejection of licentiousness (22–23).

Cultural elites (teachers, people in the media, and politicians) bear a serious responsibility to the common good. But the common good cannot be realized if marriage and family are not promoted and protected from sin and vice, especially in the area of love and life.

We have already seen that self-discipline helps spouses to enhance and protect their conjugal and family life. The virtue of chastity is the successful ordering of human sexuality in the person’s interior life. This implies the need for self-discipline of emotions and drives in all members of society.

This is why the Holy Father asks social leaders to create and protect an atmosphere conducive to chastity. Chastity is also a social virtue, for it strengthens marriages, families, and society at large. As a result, many costly social problems are prevented: single-parent families, fatherless children, sexual disorder, sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, abortions, drug abuse, violent gangs, and so on. There cannot be a culture of life and solidarity if there isn’t first, at its foundation, a culture of chastity.

This social task involves the prohibition of movies, publications and other means of mass communication that foster unchastity and licentiousness. It also demands that educators, media people and civil authorities foster authentic beauty and other values in the arts, in the ways of speaking and writing and in the respect shown to both sexes in the marketplace, the workplace, educational centers, and, of course, centers of worship.


3) The Duty of Medical Professionals

Medical professionals should deepen their knowledge of NFP and help married couples practice it when the latter have serious reasons to do so (22–23).

The science of NFP has grown tremendously in the past few decades. Scientists and physicians have developed new methods and improved pre-existing ones. Pro-life biomedical engineers and technologists have designed computerized devices that track the fertile and infertile phases of the woman’s cycle with increasing precision. These advances make it easier for married couples to practice NFP when they have serious reasons to do so.

The Church completely supports these advances and asks physicians and other health professionals to make them available, especially to families in impoverished areas of the world. The people of those areas are the ones who suffer the most from population control programs that promote contraception, sterilization and abortion even among children.

The Church also asks Catholic physicians, healthcare providers, and lay leaders who master NFP methods to teach these methods to married couples who need them.

doctor and couple talking


4) The Duty of Moral Theologians

Priests, especially moral theologians, must not dissent in any way from this teaching but always be faithful to it when communicating it to the faithful (28).

Sadly, many priests and moral theologians have dissented from Humanae Vitae. They have misguided the faithful in their teaching, preaching, and publications. They have fostered a toxic atmosphere of unchastity and lust. The results have included broken marriages, more couples living together without the benefit of marriage, more fornicating teens, and more abortions among Catholics.

The Church is in a huge mess. The moral and spiritual fabric of the People of God has become weak and vulnerable to spiritual attacks from the anti-values of the world, the people’s own selfishness, and the devil.

We all need to work hard to correct this awful situation. Father Paul Marx, the founder of HLI, was absolutely right when he affirmed that abortion is the evil fruit of contraception, and that contracepting parents beget fornicating teenagers. We at HLI are committed to a holistic approach to the serious problems of abortion and euthanasia. We recognize that until we have priests who unanimously and lovingly teach against contraception and abortion and in favor of chastity and true love, we will not be able to usher in a culture of life nor a civilization of love. This why the primary target of the educational efforts of HLI are seminarians, young priests, and parents. Seminarians become priests, priests teach parents, and parents teach their children. No anti-life juggernaut will be able to topple that holy triad.

But in order to have good priests who come from good seminaries, we need good bishops, shepherds who uphold all areas of Catholic teaching, ordain good priests, and protect the flock from wolves in sheep’s clothing. This is why Humanae Vitae finishes with a very serious call to bishops.


5) The Duty of Bishops

Bishops must consider this teaching of the Church about Christian marriage one of their most urgent priorities.

And now as We come to the end of this encyclical letter, We turn Our mind to you, reverently and lovingly, beloved and venerable brothers in the episcopate, with whom We share more closely the care of the spiritual good of the People of God. For We invite all of you, We implore you, to give a lead to your priests who assist you in the sacred ministry, and to the faithful of your dioceses, and to devote yourselves with all zeal and without delay to safeguarding the holiness of marriage, in order to guide married life to its full human and Christian perfection.

Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time. As you well know, it calls for concerted pastoral action in every field of human diligence, economic, cultural and social. If simultaneous progress is made in these various fields, then the intimate life of parents and children in the family will be rendered not only more tolerable, but easier and more joyful. And life together in human society will be enriched with fraternal charity and made more stable with true peace when God’s design which He conceived for the world is faithfully followed. (Humanae Vitae 30, emphasis added)

We close this series on Humanae Vitae by joining our voice to that of St. Paul VI in making an urgent appeal to all the faithful, ordained and lay, to follow this teaching and to proclaim it with confidence and conviction to others.


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Adolfo is the Director of Education for Hispanic Outreach for Human Life International and of HLI's Hispanic outreach arm Vida Humana Internacional. He has a Masters in Theology from St. Vincent de Paul Regional (Major) Seminary and a License in Moral Theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

Adolfo has traveled frequently to VHI’s affiliates in Latin America to give talks, training sessions, and media interviews. He has authored and co-authored books, articles, reports, and a pro-life training course for Hispanics in the U.S. Adolfo has also participated in the production of two TV pro-life series in Spanish, which have been aired through EWTN en Español.

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