Humanae Vitae: A prophetic and empowering document

[Joe Ronan]

Fifty years ago today saw the publication in 1968 of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (‘On human life’). That document went on to become one of the most controversial Papal Encyclicals of the twentieth century.  It was contentious not because it changed the teaching of the Church in any way, but because it restated the same position on contraception that the Church had held for centuries when many had expected this to change.

Compared with many recent Papal documents, Humanae Vitae is notably short, just 31 paragraphs, and a surprisingly easy read. It is written in a very direct and warm style.  It describes the value of human life, and the proper enjoyment of the gift of sex.

Much of the commentary on its 50th Anniversary is centred on the furore surrounding its release. The real story of Humanae Vitae is however how relevant and empowering it is for today’s world.

Pope Paul starts with an explanation of the context of the document. The world was in the grip of the sexual revolution and he was under considerable pressure from within the Church and without to change the teaching on contraception, particularly due to the advent of hormonal methods (‘the Pill’).  He consulted widely, and in Humanae Vitaegave his considered response – that the teaching would stay in place.

In reaching this conclusion he says that:

… human procreation, like every other question which touches human life involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the mission to which he is called that must be considered. [HV7]

He then goes on to analyse the demands of married love and responsible parenthood.  He describes marriage as a wise and provident institution of God which in 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.  [HV8]

That description is sometimes summed up more succinctly as ‘bonding and babies’; or more formally as the unitive and procreative elements of marriage.

In discussing responsible parenthood, Pope Paul recognises that for many reasons people will decide to have children; these he calls ‘prudent and generous’.  He also acknowledges that there will be those who for “serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts” decide not to have children.  He goes on however to say that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life. They are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God.   It is here that the necessity for ‘being open to the possibility of life’ is established, and becomes the reason for rejecting the ‘contraceptive mentality’; the closing of the door to new life, and the essential selfishness of that state. [HV10].

Later in the encyclical he talks of the natural methods of controlling conception, such as use of infertile parts of the woman’s cycle which he describes as a faculty provided by nature.   This gave rise at the time to a more rigorous exploration of such cycles (e.g. the Billings Method) and the natural family planning movement.   These methods have seen a resurgence in recent years, with continued research developing methods of natural fertility control that not only help with spacing children but also provide young women with a far better understanding of their bodies and their fertility, and so enable them to live without becoming dependent on medication or devices to control their fertility.  These methods may also provide women with fertility problems a real and effective alternative to the IVF treatments now almost exclusively offered to them.

In paragraph 17 Pope Paul made what is widely regarded as a prophetic statement.  He talks of the consequences of using artificial methods of preventing conception.  He lists these as:

  • The increase of marital infidelity;
  • A lowering of moral standards;
  • Reduced respect and care for the woman, and reducing her to a “mere instrument for satisfaction”;
  • The eventual intervention of governments in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

The remainder of the document addresses in turn married couples, their priests and bishops, scientists, public authorities and doctors and nurses. It asks them to realise the value of self-discipline and the promotion of chastity.  It also emphasises the importance of support and guidance, rather than admonition, and that the teaching should be given with confidence, but also with compassion.

At the time although the document was seen as counter-cultural – an attempt to hold back the tide of modern thought – it had its strong supporters. The great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in  a famous 1972 paper called Contraception and Chastity makes a spirited defence of the long established Christian approach, and this makes excellent complementary reading to Humanae Vitae.  Her rather pithy style of expression includes the following description of the contraceptive mentality:

Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.

Fifty years on someone who had not read the document, but had ‘heard all about it’ might have in their minds the caricature of the out-of-touch church wagging its collective finger at the new and liberated generation.  In fact reading the document the surprise is in how understanding Pope Paul VI was of human nature and its failings.  He draws a wonderful picture of the value of marriage, and the importance of the couple to each other as a counterpart of the relationship between God and his Church.   He understands the difficult task he is asking people to undertake in being faithful to Church teaching but also assures them of the love and the grace of God that makes it possible.

It is not often one would recommend a Papal document as an introduction to the more complex parts of Catholic doctrine, but Humanae Vitae is, along with Rerum Novarum, one of those pieces of writing that everyone should read at least once.

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