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Humanae Vitae Today

by Randal D. Noller


Randy Noller briefly reviews the history of artificial contraception and demonstrates that today's moral climate is a realization of the warnings of Pope Paul VI in Humane Vitae.

Publisher & Date

Catholic Public Square, 1999?

Humanae Vitae is Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth. It is perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood document ever released from the Roman Catholic Church.

In order to understand Humanae Vitae and today's environment in regards to the encyclical and artificial contraception, it is first necessary to briefly review some historical context and events.

History of Birth Control

Contraception, or "birth control" as it has been often called, apparently seeking to connote "responsibility," reaches back in human history to ancient times. Some studies in anthropology indicate that as far back as 2700 B.C. contraception existed, as evidenced by discovered remnants of papyri, an ancient Egyptian precursor to paper. A Greek physician, Soranos (98-139 A.D.) also described several methods of contraception. During this time, it is noted that abortion and even infanticide were common within the Roman Empire.

Genesis 38: 1-11 describes what is often called the story of Onan, noting that "…he spilled his semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother."

We can readily see that contraception is neither new nor a result of modern development.

Christian Teachings

Throughout history, until the twentieth century, Christian teaching has uniformly condemned artificial contraception. The story of Onan states, "And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also." In this case, Onan's sinful method of birth control warranted the death penalty.

St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) was the first to actually teach within the Church on sexual morality, noting that the procreation of children was the primary purpose of marriage and sex.

Thomas Aquinas taught as a scholastic that sexual pleasure was good, but must not be separated from reason. Again, the primary purpose of marriage and sex was procreation. During the Renaissance, St. Alphonsus Liguori once again affirmed procreation as the primary end of marriage and sexuality.

Our separated brethren in the Protestant traditions often quoted the story of Onan in order to condemn contraception. Martin Luther called Onan's action a "sin greater than adultery or incest." Calvin called it, "a monstrous thing." Both condemned practices which destroyed procreation as a part of the marital act.

God obviously favors both the unitive and procreative elements of marriage. Among His blessings was His promise than none should be barren.

And because you hearken to these ordinances and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, our grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock in the land which he swore to your father to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle.

It was not until 1930 during the Anglican Bishops' Lambeth Conference that any Christian denomination or tradition broke ranks with this historically universal position. In Resolution 15, plenty of room was given to those who chose to use contraceptive methods as a means of controlling pregnancy and birth. It states:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

The Constant Teachings of the Roman Catholic Church

In continuing Christian teaching and in response to the Anglican Lambeth Conference's implied approval of contraception, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical in December 1930, entitled, "Casti Connubi." In it, after describing the holiness and origins of marriage as being from the Creator, he wrote:

And now, Venerable Brethren, we shall explain in detail the evils opposed to each of the benefits of matrimony. First, consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances.

But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against the nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed whish is shameful and intrinsically vicious.

He goes on to call contraception a "foul stain" and says that those who exercise it are "branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

Again in 1951, Pope Pius XII condemned the use of contraceptives in his "Address to Midwives." A slight "stall" of sorts occurred in 1965 during the Second Vatican Council when Pope Paul VI determined that no teachings on sexuality be formed until he received results from a commission on birth control previously established by Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI's 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, addresses problems related to artificial contraception by saying, "But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered."

In 1966, the commission presented its findings to the Pope. However, the commission members had agreed that there would be no majority or minority report. The commission had essentially determined that the previous teaching forbidding contraception had not been infallible and that contraception was not intrinsically evil, paving the way for married couples to determine for themselves whether to use contraception. Some members, outside that agreement, wrote what is known as a "minority report" and disagreed with the findings of the commission. They asked Pope Paul VI to continue to uphold the traditional teachings of the Church.

Humanae Vitae was Pope Paul VI's 1968 response to the commission and to the issue itself. He reaffirmed the Church's traditional teaching, and affirmed equal status and inseparability of both the procreative and unitive aspects of marital sex. He went on to emphasize the teaching authority of the Church, based on natural law and illuminated by divine Revelation. Regarding marital union and procreation, he states:

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life – and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.

In his writing on the consequences of artificial contraception, Pope Paul VI offers us warnings. These warnings, in light of our present social circumstances, seem prophetic. He warns us that the consequences include a general lowering of moral standards; a reduction of women to the status of mere instruments for the satisfaction of one's own desires, and a general lowering of standards of the affection and partnership of marriage. Further, he warns that public authorities may impose contraception on its populace without regard to moral law.

Familiaris Consortio, by Pope John Paul II, in 1981 stressed that contraception is contradictory to total and reciprocal self-giving love. He says that those who use it are not really capable of giving themselves fully to one another.

Pope John Paul II's Veritatis Spendor in 1993 stresses moral absolutes and that even when attempting to choose artificial contraception as a "lesser evil," it remains intrinsically evil and sinful.

The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the regulation of procreation and warns that spouses must act "in conformity with the objective criteria of morality," and continuing on to address periodic continence. Today, we learn proper methods of this in the Natural Family Planning program.


Many have disagreed with the tenets of Humanae Vitae, most often quoting "following one's conscience" as justification for disagreeing with this Church teaching. The Catechism however, admonishes us to remember that our conscience can make erroneous judgments and that it is our duty to properly form our conscience if it is to be of use to us.

In 1968, a group of Catholic theologians headed by Fr. Charles Curran of Catholic University, met to discuss Humanae Vitae. The result was that 87 theologians signed a statement disagreeing with the encyclical. This occurred only five days after the official release of the document. Later, over 600 additional theologians signed the statement. Some of these theologians were later sanctioned and no longer allowed to officially teach Catholic theology. Some, after much review and study, recanted, withdrawing from the dissenting statement. Dr. William E. May, a professor at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College, was one of these. In a statement in 1988, twenty years after Humanae Vitae was written, he said,

I was beginning to see that if contraception is justifiable, then perhaps artificial insemination, test-tube reproduction, and similar modes of generating life outside the marital embrace are morally justifiable too. I began to realize that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed. I saw that it was a consequentialist, utilitarian kind of argument, that it was a theory which repudiated the notion of intrinsically evil acts. I began to realize how truly prophetic the Pope had been, and how providential it was that he had bee given the strength to resist tremendous pressures brought to bear on him."

Meanwhile, the 1960's and the sociological movements of the so-called "sexual revolution" were in full bloom. "Freedom" was nearly idolized as a human's most precious right. Freedom in this sense however, meant to do as one chose, without regard to morality, tradition, or other "restrictions."

Dissent from the teachings of the Church seemed to take on a new meaning, and grew in scope and social acceptance. This trend continues in many ways today, as evidenced by statements made during the recent Presidential campaign. Again, "following one's conscience" was noted as the reason justifying dissent from the holy and traditional teachings of the Church. Dissidents rarely seem to include the word "informed" when discussing conscience. Scripture tells us that the law of God is written on our hearts and that even our conscience may accuse us before God's judgment. This is reiterated by the Church, telling us that conscience is not one's feelings or emotional impulses, but rather a sense of the voice of God's Law, which tells us to, "do this, shun that." Conscience instead is, "a reflective moral judgment that serves to bring to a conclusion a process of moral deliberation." Simply deciding for ourselves based on how we "feel" is not sufficient.

Today's Environment

Today's environment is truly a realization of Pope Paul VI's warnings, and more. As he indicated, marriage is disintegrating, with nearly fifty percent ending in divorce. Marital infidelity is almost expected. Sex, no longer a symbol of marital love, is now used to promote products and as "entertainment." It has become a selfish, self-centered pleasure overwhelming God's intent that it be an integral and inseparable part of the sacrament of marriage. The unitive and procreative elements of marriage have been separated – forced apart by many. His warning that man would lose respect for woman has been realized in more ways than he could likely have imagined, with women becoming mere instruments of personal, sexual enjoyment. His admonishment to be concerned about the use of contraception by public authorities, imposing it on their populations, has been evidenced in many developing nations, and most notably in China. Abortion has grown to be viewed by many as a "right to choose," or as a "reproductive health" issue. Even marriage itself is under attack by many, and in the courts of our nation and of many others. Homosexual "marriage" is now increasingly viewed as a right and as a legitimate lifestyle choice. Our society today is permeated with immorality including promiscuity, pornography, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, Internet-based pornography and other illicit activities just a mouse-click away. Nor are the results solely based on sex. Along with these so-called "choices" have come actions varying from widespread violent crime and a growth of glorified violence, to dishonesty in business, other immoral behaviors, and even the growth of simple rudeness with the view that one can do what he likes instead of what he ought. "Road rage" is an example of this rudeness carried to a dangerous extreme. Abortion on demand has grown not only in scope, but also acceptance to the point where many view it as a "right." It is called by many euphemisms, "reproductive rights," "reproductive health," "personal choice," and others. One can hope that this is an indicator that at least some are still uncomfortable with the bare facts and that there might be hope in working to change the situation towards God's divine will.


The Church's teachings on contraception are as true and infallible today as they have historically been. We are reaping the results of dissent and immorality in the disintegration of moral norms "across the board." Our "culture of death" no longer fosters respect for life or for each other as human beings. Families and marriages are collapsing before our eyes.

We, as Catholic lay people must maintain our discipline and strive to adhere to Truth if we are to lead the way for others to find and rekindle a desire to do God's will and to fulfill His divine and loving plan for humanity.


1 Fr. William P. Saunders, former president, Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles parish, Alexandria, Va. From an article entitled The History of Contraception Teachings, a six-part series, first appearing in The Arlington Catholic Herald, Nov. 2, 1995
2 Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, Ca., 1966
3 Ibid
4 A Short History of Catholic Teaching on Birth Control
5 Commentary on Genesis, Latin ed. 1554, First English ed. 1578. Edited and Translated by John King, M.D. This edition reprinted from Calvin Translation Society edition of 1847, 1965;
6 Saunders, Para 5-6
7 Deuteronomy 7: 12-14, RSV
8 Archive of Resolutions from 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops,
9 Casti Connubii, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage, Dec. 31, 1930, Nos. 53-54
10 Ibid, No. 56
11 Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI, Dec. 7, 1965
12 Humanae Vitae, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth, July 25, 1968, No. 12
13 Ibid, No. 16
14 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, English Translation copyright 1994 by United States Catholic Conference, Inc., No. 2370
15 Ibid, Nos. 1790-94
16 Saunders, Part 6, Contraceptives Show Grave Consequences
17 Romans 2:15-16, RSV
18 Gaudium et Spes, No. 16
19 An Introduction to Moral Theology, 2nd Ed., Dr. William E. May, pp. 58


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