Action Alert!
Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae

by Most Rev. Robert James Carlson


Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, SD, wrote this pastoral letter to explain the beauty of conjugal love and openness to life, as well as the perils of contraception.

Publisher & Date

Diocese of Sioux Falls, July 1998

About six months ago a young married woman, the mother of four young children, wrote to me after a visit with her parish priest. She and her husband had been experiencing tension in their relationship on the issue of birth control. All her friends used it and went to Communion every Sunday—what should they be doing?

The priest seemed irritated by the question and simply said, "Birth control is okay—don't worry about it!" She felt put off and told the priest: "Look, I know how not to get pregnant. My husband and I were sexually active in college. I just thought God might be asking more of us."

The question was sincere, and obviously the young couple wanted to know how to truthfully live out their vocation of common life and love. The woman had turned to her parish priest for spiritual insight and respectful advice about the vocation of marriage. St. Paul declares that marriage is a "great mystery" (Eph. 5:32). Its greatness demands we understand and revere it as God intended.

This young mother received little pastoral care and was, in effect, told to live her vocation in our secular world without the teaching of the Church to guide her. I wonder if she could have expected more? I wonder if the priest had ever read Humanae Vitae or received solid training in seminary on the rich message of this encyclical and how it explains the clear and consistent teaching of the Church.

Today more than ever, it is important for us as pastors to restate the Church's teaching on birth control, sterilization, and abortion, and at the same time articulate the reasons behind them. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI teaches: "[T]he direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth. "Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (no. 14).

An Expression of God's Love

The kind of love we are called to live in the Christian Sacrament of Marriage must imitate God's own love for us. God's compassion for us is most fully demonstrated in the taking of human flesh by His eternal Son. By emptying Himself, Christ in His eternal sovereignty took the form of a slave that we might partake in His kingship. Still more, however, did God manifest His love for us: Willingly, Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be hung upon the Cross and sacrificed for His bride, the Church.

There is no greater act of love than emptying one's self for another. Growing and journeying together in marriage means nothing other than being Christ to one another, for the sake of one another's eternal life. Only when each and every expression of conjugal love is situated within the vision of Christian vocation is the promise of fidelity concretely lived. Only when the intimacy of husband and wife is an expression of a unity of heart rooted in selfless and holy desire does the physical exchange between partners reflect the outpouring of Christ's spiritual gifts upon the Church.

Marriage signifies the union of Christ with His Church. Therefore, the relationship between Christ and His Church reveals the kind of relationship that ought to exist between every husband and wife: "The fundamental responsibility of a husband is to reveal to his wife God's image and likeness within her. . . to listen in prayer and . . . she must do the same for him."[1]

Imagine the blessings the young married woman might have received if her pastor had taken the time to explain that conjugal love involves the whole person and brings together every human element—the bodily, the emotional, the affective, and the spiritual. More than a unity of flesh, conjugal love seeks a unity of mind and heart, a total and joyful oneness in body and soul. It implies the complete gift of one's self, the unconditional sharing of all that one is and has.

Moreover, this mutual gift of self takes place on the spiritual level. In fact, it is the spiritual that gives shape and meaning to the physical and emotional union: "Sexuality is raised up to God and acquires a new dimension of eternity . . . it is not circumscribed to unlasting acts that time wipes away and wears out, because it is elevated from the very source of love."[2]

Unpacking the Riches of the Church

One of the most valuable gifts a pastor can bring to his people is the gift of time. How rich the dialogue could have been if the priest, in dealing with this young married woman, had prayerfully reflected on Church teaching as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How sad that he failed to transmit the positive values that the Church desires to share. The woman was trying to understand the good of chastity in marriage. Having struggled with chastity before marriage, she already knew that it was possible to engage in sexual union apart from the obligations of marriage. Without help from her parish priest, she now had to look for spiritual guidance elsewhere. How many like her just give up and give in to the ways of the world?

Today's society is virtually enslaved to lust. Only by mastery of self and respect for the moral order can we enjoy true freedom. Sexual license and moral indifference can never deliver it. Marital chastity, and not the choice for abortion or birth control, is the way of responsible decision-making. This, and not selfish calculation and the violence of sin, affirms human dignity and freedom. The Church's teachings on sexual morality, as with all her teachings, stem from her divine mission to promote humanity's enduring and supernatural well-being. Her "authority" to teach comes from Jesus Christ Himself (cf. Lk. 10:16). To Peter and the apostles, Christ conferred the power to authentically interpret and preserve throughout time all that He had taught. For the Lord would not have left the truths of the Gospel—which are necessary for salvation—in jeopardy of being perverted or threatened by the vagary and inevitable division resulting from differences of human opinion.

The apostles' successors who continue Jesus' mission through the centuries are thus empowered to ensure the integrity of the Gospel message in a fallen world (cf. Mt. 28:18-20). This is why the Church alone is the trustworthy guardian of the faith and moral law, and this is also why we can know with confidence that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is a marvelous reflection of the work of God Himself.

Gift of Self

Love, the mutual giving between two persons, is the heart of human sexuality. Thus man and woman give themselves to one another in a dynamic relationship that finds its most excellent expression in procreation and constitutes the image of the New Covenant established between God and man.

"He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind" (Eccles. 3:11). We are only completed in beauty and happiness when we embrace and experience the eternity of spiritual love which knows no bounds, a love which is brought to perfection by the reception and pouring forth of God's love.

Man is a spiritual creature differentiated from every other living creature by the capacity to know and love. In this we reflect the infinite operations of the Creator. We mirror God primarily as persons, that is, insofar as we possess an intellect and will and exercise self-mastery through choice. Our very thoughts and choices are part of being truly human. They express the spiritual dimension by which each of us is a reflection of God. But man is at once body and soul, spirit and matter united in an intimate way. The human body is just that, human; it is a body enlivened by a spiritual soul, while the soul is the source of a bodily life. This is the marvelous mystery of human life, where the material and immaterial come together to form a single being.

The human body thus participates in man's spiritual dignity and is the visible manifestation of the person. It is a living and outward sign of human interiority, and it becomes a physical image of the God of love when we act as God Himself acts. Therefore, any separation of bodily behavior from our lofty vocation to share in divine life amounts to a disintegration of the truth about human nature. Our bodies must be visible reflections of our souls, just as Christ's humanity is the visible sign of God's love for every person. If it is a symbol of lust, we mock the sublime mystery of the Incarnation and slight the instrument of our salvation. If it is a symbol of selfless surrender to others, we glorify the Lord and join in bringing creation to its heavenly repose.

Sexuality, by means of which a man and woman give themselves to one another as an expression of total love, implies the complete gift of the human person, of all that is interior and exterior. This union is authentic only when a man and woman commit themselves to each other for life. If such a commitment is not present, then the sexual act is a lie; the outward expression of the body contradicts the inner intention of the soul, which reserves the possibility of withdrawing love at a later time. The only place where the total gift of self can be realized in its integrity is in the covenant of marriage. There spouses become a sign of God's faithful and limitless love for man.

What is more, while the love of the Father and Son produces the Holy Spirit, and Christ's love for His Church unfolds in the beginning of new life through Baptism and the renewal of hearts through the gift of grace, so the love between spouses must open itself to the gift of life, which is the crowning expression of a flourishing and abounding love. Conjugal love, like God's love, is total, faithful, and fecund.

"By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory" (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 50; Catechism, no. 1652). A complete and authentic love between spouses implies the promise of children. By transmitting the divine image through procreation, couples become true ministers of life, and by caring for and educating children they become servants of life.

Life-Giving Love

In His wisdom, the Father designed human sexuality such that it would both draw man and woman together in the joy of living union, and also bring new life into existence. Thus, the Church affirms that sexual intercourse has two inseparable meanings: unitive and procreative. By the first, a couple's love is symbolized, sustained, and strengthened; by the second, they stand open to the possibility of cooperating with God in the creation of a new person. The procreative end of the sexual act, because it is intrinsic to the very nature of the act, cannot be separated from the unitive without injuring God's design for human sexuality. For this reason, any deliberate interference in the integrity of the sexual act which precludes the possibility of procreation is contrary to the moral law.

Their inseparability, however, does not mean that both aspects will necessarily be achieved in each and every conjugal act, only that neither may be deliberately acted against. To do so would be to violate the nature of the act and irreverently call into question the divine Wisdom according to which nature was arranged.

An internal connection exists between the love-giving and life-giving aspects of a husband's and wife's interpersonal sharing. While contraceptive practices violate it, natural means of birth regulation respect it. When spouses make use of the God-given phases of fertility and infertility, "they are acting as ministers of God's plan, and benefit from their sexuality according to the original dynamism of total self-giving, without manipulation or alteration" (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 32).

Contraceptive practice is often justified as a means to ensure sexual "spontaneity." But, far from adding to the sexual relationship, this practice actually robs from it. By backing out of the Christian call to a greater gift of self-involving sacrifice, couples evade the healthy development of the virtues necessary for genuine love. What about courage and hope? What about self-mastery and detachment? Rather than interfering in a manipulative manner, the true response to the legitimate concern over child-bearing consists in loving cooperation. A truly developed and fulfilling sexuality is one that knows the fruits of sexual restraint and the person-building value of temporary abstinence. Contraception is opposed to the mature development of conjugal love, for it is contrary to its very unitive essence as well as its life-giving aim. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "the conjugal act, deprived of its inner truth, because it is deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love."[3]

This is an often overlooked point. It is not simply that we should not separate the unitive and the procreative. We cannot separate them! When we purposely deaden the procreative, we deaden the unitive as well. The selfish desire for more sex leads to contraception which leads to less love and, ironically, less sex. In his 30th anniversary statement on Humanae Vitae, the Holy Father emphasized "that the person can never be considered a means to reach an end; especially, never a means for pleasure. The person is and should be solely the end of every act."

When the divine gift of sexuality is misused, the couple contradicts the very nature of what it means to be a man and a woman called to intimate and total unity. Married couples who practice natural family planning methods, however, remain open to the divine gift of life and express an authentic conception of the person and human sexuality. The Church makes no contradiction in affirming the legitimacy of natural means of regulating birth while excluding those means directly opposed to procreation. While natural family planning involves cooperation with human nature, contraception impedes the very function of nature. The latter is never acceptable— even where serious reasons exist to postpone pregnancy—because "it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom" (Humanae Vitae, no. 14; cf. Rom. 3:8). In virtue of the objective nature of the acts themselves, contraception is intrinsically evil and contrary to the good of man and the dignity of the human person. Good intentions and motives cannot make this evil into a good.

The Lie of Contraception

The great deceiver speaks in our day in a variety of ways, all too readily absorbed by the undiscerning and indifferent mentality of our time. Writings of all sorts, frivolous television programs, and vividly portrayed advertisements and motion pictures trample on the sanctity of marriage and warp the meaning of love. Rather than promote lasting human values, they depict divorce, adultery, and every sort of sexual perversion in such a way as to make them seem unobjectionable and normal.

The negative consequences of the contraceptive mentality are frightening: abortion, unwed pregnancy, the raising of children without a parent, the breakdown of marriage, promiscuous activity, and the basest of vices[4] In sum, contraceptive practices attack the very good of human nature. They are opposed to the essential dignity of man because they separate him from the natural order in which he was constituted, of which he forms a part, and by which he is blessed according to the divine plan. They reduce the value of his person to the purely materialistic order.

Couples who deliberately separate the unitive and procreative ends of conjugal love share this societal irresponsibility. Once openness to life is divorced from sexual activity, the very criterion by which we commonly judge homosexual "marriages," child pornography, masturbation, and other deviant forms of sexual behavior as morally unacceptable falls apart. Sex becomes a free-for-all; we can do whatever we want!

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life. This rules out perverted sexuality and, to a lesser degree, promiscuity and to condoning if not endorsing natural vice."[5] Sigmund Freud affirms: "It is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction is put aside as an aim. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse—if it departs from reproduction as its aim and pursues the attainment of gratification independently."[6] Neither of these authors were inspired by specifically Christian principles, but by a simple observation of human nature.[7]

"The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt. 26:41)

Out of our weakness, we sometimes fail to choose what is truly good for us. Such a yielding is called sin, and amounts to a willful disregard for the voice of God within us. The effects can be devastating. Not only does it dull our sensitivity and weaken our discernment, but the guilt which follows from it, if neither acknowledged nor expiated, can sink deep into the core of our being to the destruction of our inner peace and tranquility.

Fortunately, for the Christian, the call to perfection is graciously coupled with the assurance of compassion. The Church never ceases to proclaim the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. She gently encourages every sinner to confidently approach the Lord in the Sacrament of Penance, that he may be lifted up and renewed in his struggle on the pilgrimage to happiness (cf. I Jn. 1:8-9).

The parish priest who takes time to work with discerning couples should help them see that by cooperating with the free gift of grace, they enter into a deeper participation in the divine life, are raised above their very nature, are offered the joys and marvels of divine love and understanding, and contribute to God's plan for the restoration of the world. We become true collaborators with our Creator only when we respect our created nature. By practicing natural methods of family regulation, couples experience the freedom and uplifting vigor of cooperating with the will of God. Besides the advantage of being healthier than artificial means of birth control, natural family planning entails a holistic approach to sexuality and fosters a greater awareness of each other's bodies, the development of intimate communication, the amplification of ways of expressing affection, and growth in virtue. As the two draw closer in mutual understanding and cultivate that discipline necessary for true freedom, they learn to better cope with the challenges of life and more deeply enjoy an authentic love. Conjugal love is not hindered, but elevated: enriched with spiritual values, couples and their families discover the gift of true peace and happiness.

Challenge to Pastors

After 30 years, the Church continues to proclaim the truth of Humanae Vitae to all Christians to help them fulfill their call to holiness in Christ. When evaluating the moral dimensions of human sexuality, the Church does not lose sight of the vast complexity of its stages of development—psychological, physical, social, and cultural. Dedicated pastors must help the faithful understand that one of the great contemporary moral difficulties of the day is our all-too-pervasive contraceptive mentality. The priest must help couples recognize and find their way through it. The teachings of the Church shed light on the fact that the marital act possesses a dual integrity: openness to life and loving union. Since both of these aspects are essential to each conjugal act, if there is a serious reason to forego procreation for a time, then the couple must make recourse to the natural periods of infertility.

Humanae Vitae challenges every priest to be a spiritual guide for the people of our day. First, we are to give "the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church" (no. 28). This is a call for faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church and a living out of the words of the Apostle Paul: "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (I Cor. 1:10).

This is the truly loving thing to do, providing the gift of real food for the spiritually hungry. As stated by Pope Paul VI and repeated by Pope John Paul II, "to diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls." At the same time, the parish priest must reach out to those who continue to live a contraceptive way of life and patiently draw them closer to Christ. Pope Paul VI enjoined pastors to "teach married couples the indispensable way of prayer; prepare them to have recourse often and with faith to the Sacraments of Eucharist and of Penance, without ever allowing themselves to be discouraged by their own weakness" (Humanae Vitae, no. 29).

It is a challenge to help married couples develop their conscience through clear and patient preaching, through thoughtful response to questions, and prayer for the married couples we serve, but it is a challenge we must accept (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-2).

The priest has a unique opportunity in his catechesis and preparation of couples for marriage to share the message of Humanae Vitae. The couples he serves are called to strive for holiness notwithstanding our contraceptive culture.

It is important to present our Catholic faith from a positive point of view. Only in the larger vision of the Christian vocation can limitations to sexual pleasure and expression assume their true meaning. Christian marriage is a divine institution, and conjugal love is at once personal, fully human (both bodily and spiritual), total (entailing a friendship of selfless giving), faithful and exclusive unto death, fruitful (mutually edifying through personal communion and parenting), social, and divine (finding in God both its source and final goal).

The loving will of God, expressed in the teachings of the Catholic Church, does not exclude sexual pleasure, but contextualizes and relativizes it, ultimately raising the appreciation of human sexuality to greater and more sacred heights. Married Christian chastity does not obstruct human freedom, but rather places sexual pleasure and passion in the fuller, more dignified context of a complete married love. It brings not less freedom to married couples, but more of it: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn. 8:31-32).


1 Faithful to Each Other Forever, Bishops' Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices, U.S. Catholic Conference, Washington, DC, 1989, p. 114.

2 Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, The Family, Gift and Commitment, Hope for Humanity, Citta Nuova, Rome 1997, p. 13. 3

Pope John Paul II, Uomo e donna lo creo—Catechesi sull amore umano, Citta Nuova—Libreria Editrice Vaticano, 1995, p. 468.

4 For a statistical report on these evils, see P.F. Lawler, "The Price of Virtue," Catholic World Report, July 1997, pp. 56-57.

5 Ibid., p. 55.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

The Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson serves as the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls. He was named Ordinary of the Diocese of Sioux Falls on March 21, 1995.

He currently serves as president of the National Evangelization Teams, Episcopal moderator for the Serra International-USA/Canada Council, and member of the Canon Law Society of America.

Pope John Paul II appointed Carlson as Bishop on November 22, 1983. He was ordained in 1984 and served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis from 1984-1994.

Bishop Carlson has written several publications including Going All Out : An Invitation to Belong. He has conducted workshops for priests, youth retreats, vocation retreats and has served as visiting instructor at the University of St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine.

Bishop Carlson has served as president of the National Foundation for Catholic Youth Ministry, chair of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Vocations, chair of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Youth, member of the Bishops' Committee on Vocations, Laity, Pastoral Practice and moderator of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (1993-1997).

In his spare time. Bishop Carlson enjoys raising Golden Retrievers and hunting. He completed the Twin Cities Marathon in 1985 and 1986.

This item 717 digitally provided courtesy of