*This article was accepted for publication in the fall 2018 issue and posted online in the spring of 2022. With the canonization of Paul VI on October 14, 2018, all references to Blessed Pope Paul VI have been subsequently updated to Pope Saint Paul VI. 

The marking of Semicentennial Anniversary of Pope Saint Paul VI‘s landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae, on 25 July 2018, offers a momentous opportunity to reflect on the legacy of this crucial Magisterial document. It is dangerous to judge a book by its cover, and were one to superficially skim this barely seven-thousand-word document, it would be easy to underestimate its magnitude. Yet, in reality while Humanae Vitae ranks among the shortest of encyclicals, it stands as a firm bulwark against the cultural evils spawned by the sexual and cultural revolution of the mid-twentieth century. In it, Pope Saint Paul IV reiterates the Church’s consistent teaching regarding the significance of married love and the gift of the transmission of human life. Yet, to this day, Humanae Vitae remains as controversial as it is prophetic.

Above all Humanae Vitae is a recapitulation of the Church’s authoritative teaching on the beauty and function of married love and the transmission of human life – ancient doctrine which spans the millennia and is rooted in sound theological and philosophical principles.

“Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a 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.”[1]

Through Humanae Vitae, Pope Saint Paul VI reiterated with precision and clarity the consistent teaching of the Church on the nature of marriage, procreation and the regulation of births, while accurately predicting the dire consequences to Church, family, individuals and society if that teaching failed to be promulgated and obeyed.

History and Background

The 1960’s was a tumultuous decade, marked by social and political drama, change, civil-unrest, and rebellion. Revered institutions, values, and principles were ubiquitously challenged and subsequently replaced with unbridled acceptance of subjective autonomy. It was into this milieu that Humanae Vitae was promulgated on the Feast of St. James the Apostle, 25 July 1968.

While the Sexual Revolution and cultural chaos of the Sixties erupted in the secular society, inevitably the Church was confronted with the need to proclaim the truth of the Gospel amid the climate of rebellion and skepticism. It was within the context of seismic social upheaval that Pope Saint Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. Decades before, during the so-called “Progressive Era” which, among other evils, promoted pseudo-scientific predictions of global over-population and the notion of enlightened social cleansing via eugenic sterilization, the Magisterium had issued a similar encyclical, reaffirming the Church’s enduring teaching on the sacramental character of true Christian marriage and the dignity of the sanctity of human life.

Until the Seventh Decennial Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion of Bishops, held in July of 1930, every Christian denomination prohibited the use of contraception and the practice abortion. Though reasserting both its condemnation of the practice of abortion, and again denouncing fornication, the 1930 Lambeth Conference offered a reluctant acquiescence of the practice of contraception for limiting or avoiding parenthood for married couples. Thus, the Anglican Communion of Bishops were the first Christian Liturgical Body to openly promulgate a change in doctrine- one which, ignoring thousands of years of tradition and patristic teaching, permitted the rejection of God’s gift of human life. A mere five months later, on 31 December 1930, Pope Pius XI issued the Encyclical Casti Connubii [On Chaste Marriage], to reaffirm the Catholic moral teaching regarding the nature of marriage, marital love, and the transmission of human life.

In Section 5 of Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI references yet another Magisterial document, Arcanum divinae sapientiae, issued on 10 February 1880 by Pope Leo XIII, and traced the long and unbroken lineage of the doctrine concerning the proper foundation and origin of holy matrimony:

“And to begin with that same Encyclical, which is wholly concerned in vindicating the divine institution of matrimony, its sacramental dignity, and its perpetual stability, let it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves. This is the doctrine of Holy Scripture; this is the constant tradition of the Universal Church; this the solemn definition of the sacred Council of Trent, which declares and establishes from the words of Holy Writ itself that God is the Author of the perpetual stability of the marriage bond, its unity and its firmness.”[2]

Generation after generation, the Church’s teaching on marriage and the sanctity of the transmission of human life-rooted in its Divine Authorship-has remained firm, standing in contradiction to the ever changing mores of culture and individual appetite. Even so, the Church has consistently attempted to comprehend the unique challenges to family life that contemporary culture, technology, and individual circumstance provide. During the 1960’s principal among the new challenges was the development of an anovulatory oral contraceptive pill, the first of which- Enovid, hit the market in June of 1960. Chief among those responsible for invention of the birth control pill were Biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus, Ph.D., and Harvard Obstetrician-Gynecologist, John Rock, M.D. Funding for the development of “the Pill” came through an association with Margaret Sanger and the Planned Parenthood organization which she founded. Dr. John Rock, who was not only the principal physician to develop the progesterone hormone birth-control pill, but who also pioneered in vitro fertilization, was a self-described practicing Catholic. Much was made in the media of Dr. Rock’s “devout” Catholic Faith. Rock himself authored a book entitled: The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control to promote his oral hormonal contraceptive, and though a combination of scientific and theological assertions and to convince others that contraception was compatible with the Catholic Faith. Fueled by pseudo-scientific arguments, a disproportionate fear of a looming crisis of overpopulation, and sketchy theology, confusion spread among clergy and lay Catholics.

To this end, six months after the start of Vatican II, on 27 April 1963, Pope Saint John XIII convened a six-member commission of non-theologians, entitled: “The Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate,” to assist the Holy See with preparations for an up-coming World-Health Organization and United Nations’ sponsored conference, and to advise the Holy See regarding the marital concerns of lay Catholics.[3] After the death of Pope Saint John XXIII, the commission’s roster was expanded multiple times by Pope Saint Paul VI; restructured to include married couples, doctors, sociologists, bishops and cardinals; and was eventually comprised of over sixty individuals of diverse expertise and background. From its inception, the official role of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate was solely limited to an advisory capacity, and its proceedings were to be kept strictly confidential.[4] Yet, as public opinion and social mores changed, members of the commission increasingly aspired to extend its role. Thus, over time, the Holy See and the commission came to view the role of that body in conflicting ways: the Holy See envisioned the commission as a fact-finding advisory body while commission came to view itself as capable of effecting a change in Church in doctrine.

As a result of forces exterior to the commission as well as the personalities and personal aspirations among its members, a majority of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate, members grew to expect that they could influence the Holy See to change the Magisterium’s teaching on artificial birth control. The media, dissenting theologians, university professors, and outside pundits collectively began to act upon the assumption that the Church would follow the Anglican Communion of Bishops’ who issued the directive at the Seventh Lambeth Conference, and would radically alter Church doctrine to reflect the prevailing moral attitude toward marriage and artificial birth control. In an effort compel Pope Saint Paul VI to revise Church doctrine, a series of confidential commission documents (most of which were draft copies and working notes) were leaked by members of the commission to the American and French Press in the spring of 1967, and reported in the American Catholic Reporter, The Tablet, and Le Monde.[5] It became evident that there was a great deal of division and political posturing within the advisory commission. The pro-birth control faction, and the leaked notes which represented it, became known as the “Majority Report,” and “Majority Rebuttal;” while the leaked documents that referred to those who defended the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and which repudiated artificial birth control, became known as the “Minority Report.”[6] It is also important to note that a certain Archbishop Karol Wojtyla had been appointed to the commission – though prevented from traveling to attend the commission meetings in Rome by the Communist government of Poland – he had maintained written communication with Pope Saint Paul VI, and it is generally believed that he had a role in assisting Pope Saint Paul VI in the development of the encyclical, Humane Vitae.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1968 the media and prominent social commentators raised anticipation that the Holy Father would issue a statement supporting limited use of artificial birth control among married couples and would justify it with appeals to a Personalist Ethics, a broad conception of the Principle of Totality, and a Utilitarian notion of averting a perceived population crisis. Instead, Pope Saint Paul VI courageously issued Humanae Vitae, and succinctly, but firmly, reiterated the veracity of the Catholic Church’s immutable teaching on the sacramental nature of holy matrimony, and the transmission of the sacred gift of human life:

“In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society. From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.”[7]

Humanae Vitae-The Document and its Promulgation

From the introductory paragraphs of Humanae Vitae, Pope Saint Paul VI establishes a thorough comprehension of the scope and complexity of the contemporary issues which have led thoughtful men and women to question the Magisterium’s teaching regarding the nature of marriage and the gift of procreation. The Holy Father delineates three specific factors of which the Holy See is cognizant and compassionate: (1) the economic conditions of growing families in densely populated regions of developing counties, (2) the new appreciation of the dignity of women, and their unique but changing roles in society, and (3) the development of man’s rational and technological prowess, and his desire to exert autonomous control over his body and his world.[8]

Near the beginning of the encyclical, in Sections 5 through 7, Pope Saint Paul VI, articulates his appreciation for the deliberations of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate, and its expertise in elucidating and conveying concerns that were the source of serious study and prayer.[9] However, while the Holy Father expresses his gratitude to the commission for its role in examining and communicating the concerns specific to married love, he also clearly defines the role of the commission as advisory and reasserts the legitimate doctrinal authority of the Holy See:

“However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.”[10]

Humanae Vitae reveals the compassionate understanding of the Magisterium, fully cognizant of the struggles inherent to married life, the complexity of evolving social considerations, and the desire of married couples to regulate the conception and spacing of children. Indeed, the Holy Father states: “We have no wish at all to pass over in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples.”[11] However, Pope Saint Paul VI unequivocally rejects contraception as a solution, because it vitiates the natural law, and separates the procreative and unitive functions of marriage that were woven into the institution by its Divine Author. In Section 11 of Humanae Vitae the Holy Father emphatically states:

“The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”[12]

By specifying that “each and every marital act” must remain open to the possibility of the transmission of God’s gift of nascent human life, Pope Saint Paul VI highlights the Holy See’s absolute rejection of those who claim moral liceity by appealing to consideration of the totality of a span of marriage, and who claim that if at times the couple remains open to conception, then it would be morally justified to contracept sporadically. The Pontiff directly addresses this argument, elucidating that it rests upon a distorted and illegitimate appeal to the Principle of Totality. “Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”[13]

Thus, any action before, during, or after sexual relations which is “specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means,” is absolutely forbidden and condemned by the Church. These actions include, but are not limited to: direct abortion, permanent or temporary sterilization, and contraception. Such actions are below the dignity of the human person; they sequester the unitive and procreative elements of human marriage, and in so doing separate not only the spouses from one another and from the gift of life of their progeny, but such actions also separate married couples from a right relationship with God and His Church.

“. . . they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.”[14]

Pope Saint Paul VI acknowledges that married couples have legitimate reasons for desiring to space or limit pregnancies. He notes that such cogent reasons may be the result of physical or psychological conditions of the spouses or because of external issues. Recognizing that serious constraints do affect a couple’s ability to parent responsibly, the Pontiff reasserts the Church’s teaching regarding natural family planning (what has come to be known by the acronym NFP). Specifically, he reminds the reader that in previous addresses and Magisterial documents, it has been well established that that spouses may licitly time conjugal relations to coincide with naturally infertile intervals to avoid pregnancy; and that such activity does not equate in any way to contraception. Rather, in Section 16 of Humanae Vitae, Pope Saint Paul VI clarifies the distinction between the morally licit spacing of pregnancies, by abstinence from conjugal activity during fertile intervals, and morally illicit nature of contraception.

“Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.”[15]

In accord with the instruction imparted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, Humanae Vitae reminds the reader that because of the inherent dignity to which human persons – created in the Image and Likeness of God- are called, the gift of marriage and the unique calling to participate with God in the role of bringing forth new life, requires a fundamental respect. Amid the social upheaval and vogue repudiation of Christian morality rampant in the 1960’s, Pope Saint Paul VI attempts to remind the reader of the divine origin of the institution of holy matrimony; the inherent beauty of marriage lived in accord with the plan of God, and the subsequent good imparted to society: “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love,’ the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”[16]

Reception and Rebellion

Without the risk of hyperbole, one can safely assert that no other encyclical has been vilified, mocked and received with as much venom as has been Humanae Vitae. The outcry was swift and vicious, both from the popular secular media, and from dissenting elements within the Church as well. Those who had postulated that a post-Vatican II Church would behave democratically and would therefore be open to negotiation were bitterly disappointed. Pope Saint Paul VI was well aware that his faithful defense of the moral law regarding authentic Christian marriage and procreation stood in stark contradiction to prevailing relativistic modern moral sentiment. Yet, he understood duty of the Church to proclaim the truth – even if that truth were to be rejected by many. In Section 18, the Holy Father states:

“It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’ She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”[17]

Pope Saint Paul VI revered the immutable essence of the natural law and its Divine Author. Thus, he was cognizant of the Magisterium’s duty to faithfully transmit the totality of that moral law, without compromise or alteration. The responsibility to guard and protect the institution that is the basis of the human family by remaining loyal to and proclaiming the truth of the laws which govern it has been entrusted to the Church by her Divine Founder. It is to Him, and His law, alone that the Church is accountable. In Section 18, the Pontiff states: “Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.”[18]

Through Humanae Vitae, the Holy Father courageously proclaimed the truth, reiterating thousands of years of consistent Church teaching regarding the nature of limits of conjugal married love. His goal in so doing was to preserve the validity of the institution of holy matrimony, protecting it from the arrogant subjectivity of the times, and thus safeguarding its essence for all humanity. Pope Paul VI states:

“In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife.”[19]


Fifty years later, Humanae Vitae remains as polarizing as it was when issued in 1968. However, the intervening decades have done much to vindicate Pope Saint Paul VI and the document, by demonstrating the validity of his prognostications. As noted in the previous section, Pope Paul understood the significance of the era in which he was leading the Church, and this cognition necessitated a stalwart defense of the moral law governing the institution Christian marriage and the transmission of the gift of human life. He realized that it was the duty of the Church to proclaim the truth, and in so doing to attempt to safeguard humanity from the dire consequences of a post-abortive, post-contraceptive ethic. Throughout Humanae Vitae, the Pontiff attempts to alert readers to the ramifications of embracing contraception and cautions them of the hubris of playing God. For example, in Section 17, he states: “we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.”[20]

Pope Saint Paul VI warns of four specific repercussions to humankind if the moral law concerning marriage is to be abandoned and artificial contraception is condoned. He predicts: (1) a rise in infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards, (2) a loss of respect for women, (3) an abuse of governmental power regarding marriage and conception, and (4) an unbridled sense of human autonomy and dominion. Upon examination, it is evident that Pope Saint Paul’s presentiments were acutely accurate.

At both the time of the 1930 Lambeth Conference and the 1968 promulgation of Humanae Vitae, proponents of birth control, and especially proponents of the anovulatory hormonal oral contraceptive pill, argued that it was of course to be limited in use only to married couples who wished to deepen their traditional marital bond, while using their innate faculties of reason to weigh and consider the proper spacing of the births of their children. While never using the phrase “slippery slope”, the accuracy of the predictions made by the Pontiff demonstrate his awareness that “the Pill” represented the thin end of a wedge that would dissever the institution of marriage and the sanctity of the human family. Yet, as oracular as was Pope Saint Paul VI, it is doubtful that even he could have imagined that merely writing or preaching about the sanctity of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman could lead to prosecution for hate speech by civil authorities. Yet, fifty years, later, for those daring to take up the yoke of defending traditional marriage and the immutable moral laws which govern it, this concern is very real.

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you… (Deuteronomy 32: 7).”

The statistics regarding the contemporary family are alarming. The United States holds the distinction of having the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world.[21] According to the National Center for Health Statistics of the U. S. Center Disease Control (CDC), in 2016, the U.S. National Marriage Rate stood at 6.9 per 1,000; while the divorce rate stood at 3.2 per 1,000.[22] In the fifty years since Humanae Vitae was issued the divorce rate has approximately tripled. Not only is the rate of divorce increasing, the institution of marriage itself has been profoundly disrupted. The percentage of out-of-wedlock births has surged 600 percent in the three decades between 1960 and 1991.[23] The very nature of the relationship between men and women has been fundamentally altered, and the effect ripples through the family. In his 2009 book, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, David Popenoe reveals the impact of such a seismic cultural shift on the most vulnerable members of society:

“The trend can be captured in just a single telling statistic: in just three decades from 1960-1990, the percentage of children living apart from their biological father doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent. If this trend continues, by the turn of the century nearly 50% of American children will be going to sleep at night without being able to say good night to their dads.”[24]

Within a few years, of its initial marketing, “the Pill” became one of the most frequently prescribed drugs – first in the U.S., then throughout the entire world. Within five years after Enovid was marketed, 27% of American women of child-bearing age were using oral contraceptives; by 1973, the number of American women using the birth control pill had risen to 36%.[25] Parallel with the rise in hormonal contraception was the escalation in divorce rates and simultaneously the rise in single parent families. 1974 marked the first year that more marriages ended in divorce than in death.[26] Researchers have noted that the breakup of the institution of marriage and family since 1960 is of unprecedented scale – absolutely unmatched in two-thousand years.[27] As noted, the impact on children has been devastating. Children from one-parent families are statistically more likely to be disadvantaged economically, socially, and educationally. In 86% of single parent families, the custodial parent remains the mother.[28]

Pope Saint Paul VI stridently warned of the loss of respect for women that would inevitably occur with acceptance of the contraception.

 “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”[29]

One only needs to consider the insidious plague of pornography, the widespread crime of human trafficking, and the ever-rising statistics of domestic violence to appreciate the validity of the Holy Father’s prediction.

Hormonal contraceptive products (pills, implants, injections) are now common, with estimates that 80% of American women have used such products. As noted, along with the skyrocketing rise in contraceptive use has been a parallel rise in rates of divorce, sexually transmitted disease, single-parent households, depression and suicide. As Pope Saint Paul VI predicted, not only has the use of contraception resulted in marital infidelity and a lowering of moral standards, but also a host of other concomitant evils which have assailed society. For example, in November of 2016, the JAMA Psychiatry Journal reported conclusions from a study of over one million Danish women (ages 15-34) during a ten year cohort study regarding the correlation between hormonal contraception and psychiatric treatment for clinical depression.[30] The study found a significant increase in rates of clinical depression among users of hormonal contraception – the highest correlation (and increase of 80%) occurring among teenagers.

Likewise, Pope Paul VI forewarned that governments would use contraceptive technology for nefarious ends, even to the point of mandating citizens comply against their consciences. From China’s “One Child Policy” to recent history between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Obama Administration regarding the Administration’s mandated employer coverage of contraception and abortion as part of healthcare insurance, it is evident that Humanae Vitae offered an accurate warning. Section 17 states:

“Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.”[31]

Lastly, Pope Saint Paul VI addresses concerns of human hubris and the rejection of the God-given limits to sexuality and procreative powers. Section 13 of Humanae Vitae states:

“Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. “Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact,” Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. “From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.”[32]

As noted in the historical section of this paper, Dr. Jon Rock M.D. – via funding through association with Margaret Sanger and her Planned Parenthood organization, not only developed the first marketed hormonal oral contraceptive pill, but also pioneered In Vitro Fertilization and the cryopreservation of human gametes. The connection between the development of “the Pill” and the creation, manipulative experimentation and destruction of human life in a petri dish via In Vitro Fertilization is direct and unmistakable. More than five-million babies have been conceived and born through In Vitro Fertilization.[33] Data from a twenty-one year study by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in Britain demonstrated that of the 3.5 million human embryos created via IVF, less than 3% resulted in pregnancy – 1.7 million were simply destroyed, others stored in suspended in time in liquid nitrogen, and others given to researchers for human embryonic experimentation.[34] Currently there are approximately 4.4 million human embryos world-wide created by IVF and abandoned- frozen in liquid nitrogen. While Pope Saint Paul VI accurately predicted in Humanae Vitae, that contraception would induce man to push the limits of his dominion over life via technology, it is doubtful that he could have envisioned the scope of the human lives that have been created, manipulated and destroyed through such arrogance.

Pastoral Implications

The final third of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, encompassing Sections 19-31, is devoted to “Pastoral Directives;” and is only slightly shorter than the penultimate portion (Sections 7-20) which is devoted to “Doctrinal Principles.” In this segment, the Holy Father addresses concerns specific to a variety of stakeholders in the debate surrounding the institution of marriage, the transmission of life, and the ethical implications of using contraception and abortion to regulate birth. Among those whom the Holy Father expressly offers counsel are: Christian husbands and wives, scientists, physicians and medical personnel, public authorities, policy makers, educators, and those involved in lay apostolic service. To each of these diverse groups- all of which were represented on the “The Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birthrate,” advisory council, which had been convened in 1963, Pope Saint Paul VI both demonstrates an appreciation of their unique perspective and expertise, but also exhorts each to find solutions to the complex quandaries of contemporary life that remain faithful to the dignity of human persons created in the image and likeness of God, and to refrain from substituting the expedience of technological sophistication for established moral laws.

While the Pontiff focuses attention on the each of these precise areas of pastoral need, it is to the priests and bishops that Pope Saint Paul VI most directly appeals. Section 27 of Humanae Vitae states:

“And now, beloved sons, you who are priests, you who in virtue of your sacred office act as counselors and spiritual leaders both of individual men and women and of families—We turn to you filled with great confidence. For it is your principal duty—We are speaking especially to you who teach moral theology—to spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching on marriage.”[35]

Pastorally, this is not an easy task – it is however an absolutely essential one. As has been demonstrated throughout the course of this paper, the social milieu has not grown more accepting of the Magisterial teaching during the fifty years since Humanae Vitae was issued. Even though the radical changes in society’s concept of marriage, the intensifying dearth of respect for the sanctity of nascent human life and the mothers who conceive it in their wombs, the growing trend of governments to legislate in ways that discriminate against traditional families and their values, all bear witness to the veracity of Humanae Vitae; teaching about it from the ambo, in the classroom, or in the context of spiritual direction remains a daunting task. Yet, that bears witness to the fact that communicating the message of Humanae Vitae, and the immutable reality of the Magisterial teaching on the sanctity of marriage and family life is more crucial than ever. So many reject the Church’s teaching on marriage and family before ever truly hearing and understanding it. The emptiness of a society which has abandoned the authentic love and moral law upon which Christian marriage is constituted cries out for the beauty of truth. Though arduous, it is a pastoral task which is most necessary. Pope Saint Paul VI states:

“So speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness.”[36]

As the living Face of God’s Mercy, the Church is called to compassionately communicate the truth. The post-contraceptive, post-abortive society that has evolved throughout the intervening five decades needs courageous men and women who will reveal the merciful love of God, and His plan for marriage and procreation. This call to be the courageous Face of God’s Mercy, and to defend the moral law intrinsic to authentic Christian Marriage falls most directly upon those whose very vocation is to be In Persona Christi. The statistics cited in this paper reveal a high percentage of fatherless families as a byproduct of the sexual revolution- a trend that continues to escalate. This vacancy in the role of father leaves many searching, and thus offers a pastoral challenge to the clergy to reveal the Face of the Father’s Mercy to a generation of virtual orphans.

Directing his attention to the bishops, Pope Saint Paul VI communicates the preeminent urgency of the mission:

“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.”[37]

It has been five ominous decades since Humanae Vitae was promulgated, and when view against the backdrop of the two millennia of Christianity, five decades may seem negligible; however, this particular span of fifty-years has been one of cataclysmic cultural change. The Institution of Christian Marriage and the gift of family which is its natural fruit have been under attack in incomparable measure. The urgent mission to which Pope Saint Paul VI marshals the clergy is even more indispensable then when the Holy Father initially issued his plea. In a very real way, for Christian spouses and their progeny, who daily struggle against the culture of death, it has become a mission of search and rescue.

Yet there are a growing number of holy men who are answering the call with courage. Likewise, there are wise shepherds who are willing to lead by example. On 2 February 2018, Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, the Archbishop of Denver, Colorado, issued an exceptional Pastoral Letter, entitled: “The Splendor of Love,” in honor of the Semicentennial Anniversary of Humanae Vitae.[38] Through it, Archbishop Aquila expounds upon the significance of Humanae Vitae and provides a magnificent pedagogical instrument. The Splendor of Love is a rich document, one that proclaims the truth of the Church’s doctrine with clarity and compassion, linking Humanae Vitae to more recent Magisterial teaching including the work of Pope St. John Paul on the Theology of the Body, Pope Benedict XVI’s concept of the “Theology of Love,” and the most recent work regarding “conjugal charity” developed by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.[39]

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae offers a momentous opportunity to reflect on the value of this landmark Magisterial document. In retrospect, the validity of its portentous instruction is continually substantiated by examination of the contemporary culture. Thus, its message remains as vital as when it was first issued. Human Vitae is a demanding document, one that summons all who believe in the intrinsic beauty of Christian Marriage, and the inviolable dignity of the human family, to ardently proclaim the truth of the moral law which governs it. May the Lord strengthen all who are called to remain faithful to task which has been entrusted.

End Notes

[1] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 8.

[2] Pope Pius XI, Casti Connumbii, Section 5.

[3] William May, “The Key Role of John C. Ford, S.J. and Germain Grisez in the Composition of Humanae Vitae,” 22 July 2011, http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/key-roles.htm

[4] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, p. 11-12.

[5] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, p. 12.

[6] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, p. 13.

[7] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 10.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 1.

[9] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 5.

[10] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 6.

[11] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 25.

[12] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 11.

[13] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 14.

[14] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 13.

[15] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 16.

[16] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 8.

[17] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 18.

[18] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 18.

[19] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 18.

[20] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 17.

[21] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 5.

[22] Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, 2016 Marriage Statistics, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm.

[23] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 6.

[24] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 2.

[25] Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, “How the Pill Became a Lifestyle Drug: The Pharmaceutical Industry and Birth Control in the United States Since 1960, “ American Journal of Public Health, 2012 August; 102(8): 1462–1472

[26] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 21.

[27] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 22.

[28] David Popenoe, Families Without Fathers: Fathers, Marriage, and Children in American Society, (New Brunswick, N..J.: Transaction Publishers, 2009.) p. 22.

[29] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 17.

[30] Charlotte Wessel Skovlund, MSc1; Lina Steinrud Mørch, PhD1; Lars Vedel Kessing, MD, DMSc2; et al “Association of Hormonal Contraception with Depression,” in JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(11):1154-1162.

[31] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 17.

[32] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 17.

[33] Bonnie Rochman, “5 Million Babies Born Through IVF in Past 35 Years, Researchers Say,” NBC News, October 14, 2013.

[34] Andrew Hough, “1.7 Million Embryos Created for IVF Thrown Away,” The Telegraph, Dec 31, 2012.

[35] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 27.

[36] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 28.

[37] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Section 30.

[38] Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, “The Splendor of Love,” Archdiocese of Denver, 2 February 2018. http://archden.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/splendor-of-love_web.pdf.

[39] Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, “The Splendor of Love,” Sections 30-32.

Mary Anne Urlakis  M.A., Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Donum Vitae Institute, dedicated to Nascent Human Life. Dr. Urlakis holds graduate degrees in Bioethics, Philosophy, Applied Philosophical Ethics and Health Care Administration, as well as several graduate certificates, including a Joint Graduate Certificate in Catholic Social Doctrine from the Vatican Foundation  Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice and the Catholic University of America and another in Eastern Christian Studies from St. Cyril & Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary.  As a Bioethicist, Dr. Urlakis has taught at the graduate and undergraduate level, testified before subcommittees of the State Legislature, and engages in research and consultation.