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The Genesis of Humanae Vitae

by Pope Saint Paul VI

Descriptive Title

The Genesis of Humanae Vitae


Address given by Pope Paul VI two days after the release of his encyclical On Human Life.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano

Publisher & Date

Vatican, August 1, 1968

The Genesis of Humanae Vitae

Le Nostre parole

Our words today concern a subject that We must take up because of the encyclical Humanae Vitae,[1] dealing with birth control, which We issued this week. We presume that you are acquainted with the text of this papal document, or at least its essential contents. It is not just a declaration about a negative moral law, which forbids any action aimed at making procreation impossible;[2] it is above all a positive presentation of conjugal morality in relation to its mission of love and fruitfulness "within the integral vision of man and of his supernatural and eternal, as well as natural and earthly, vocation."[3] It is a clarification of a basic point in the personal, conjugal, family and social life of man; but it isn't a complete treatment of everything regarding human existence in the sphere of marriage, the family and upright living. This is a vast field, to which the Church's magisterium could and perhaps should return with a ground plan that will be broader, more organized and more systematic. This encyclical provides the answer to questions, doubts and tendencies that have, as everyone knows, been eagerly discussed on a wide scale in recent times and that have attracted a great deal of interest from Us because of Our pastoral and doctrinal office. We will not speak to you now about this document, partly because the seriousness and delicacy of the subject seem to transcend the ordinary simplicity of this weekly talk, and partly because there are already and will be more publications on the encyclical available to those interested in the subject.[4]

We will say only a few words to you, not on the document itself but on some of the feelings that filled Our mind during the rather lengthy period of its preparation.

A grave responsibility

The first feeling was that of Our own very grave responsibility. It brought Us into and sustained Us in the heart and core of the question for the four years of study and planning that went into this encyclical. We will confide to you that this feeling caused Us, no small measure of mental anguish.

We never felt the weight of Our office as much as in this situation. We studied, read and discussed all We could; and We also prayed a great deal.

You are already aware of some of the circumstances surrounding this matter. We had to give an answer to the Church, to the whole of mankind. We had to evaluate a traditional doctrine that was not only age-old but also recent, having been reiterated by Our three immediate predecessors; and We had to do this with all of the sense of obligation and all of the liberty that go with Our apostolic duty. We had to make Our own the Council's teaching, which We Ourself had promulgated. Even though the conclusions of the commission established by Pope John, of venerable memory, and enlarged by Us, were only of a consultative nature, still We felt inclined to accept them, insofar as We thought We could; but at the same time We realized We had to act with all due prudence.

Discussions and opinions

We knew of the heated, passionate and authoritative discussions on this very important subject. We heard the loud voices of public opinion and of the press. We listened to the softer voices that penetrated into Our paternal, pastoral heart—the voices of many people, especially of highly respected women, who were distressed by this difficult problem and by their own even more difficult experience with it. We read the scientific reports on alarming population problems, often supported by the studies of experts and by government programs. We received publications from all directions, some of them based on a study of particular scientific aspects of the problem, others on a realistic consideration of many grave sociological conditions, and still others on the urgent demands arising from the changes that have burst forth in all areas of modern living.

Many times We felt as if We were being swamped by this wave of documents and many times, humanly speaking, We felt Our own humble inadequacy in the face of the formidable apostolic task of having to speak out on this matter. Many times We trembled before the dilemma of giving in easily to current opinions, or of making a decision that would be hard for modern society to accept, or that might be arbitrarily too burdensome for married life.

We consulted many people with high moral, scientific and pastoral qualifications. We invoked the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and put Our mind at the complete disposal of the voice of truth, striving to interpret the divine law that rises from the intrinsic requirements of genuine human love, from the essential structures of the institution of marriage, from the personal dignity of the spouses, from their mission in the service of life and from the holiness of Christian marriage. We reflected on the enduring elements of the traditional doctrine in force in the Church, and then in particular on the teachings of the recent Council. We pondered the consequences of one decision and the other; and We had no doubts about Our duty to set forth Our decision in the terms expressed in the present encyclical.

Charity and pastoral sensitivity

Another feeling that always guided Us in Our labors is that of charity, of pastoral sensitivity toward those who are called upon to integrate their individual personalities into conjugal and family life. We willingly followed the personalistic conception that was characteristic of the Council's teaching on conjugal society, thus giving love—which produces that society and nourishes it—the preeminent position that rightly belongs to it in a subjective evaluation of marriage. Then We accepted all the suggestions formulated within the bounds of what was licit, to facilitate observance of the norm which We reaffirmed. We wanted to add to the doctrinal explanation some practical directions of a pastoral nature.

We paid tribute to the role of scientists in pursuing their biological studies on birth, and in rightly applying therapeutic remedies and the moral law inherent in them. We recognized the responsibility and freedom of spouses as ministers of God's plan for human life, which is interpreted by the magisterium of the Church, for their own personal good and that of their children. And We stressed the lofty purpose running through the Church's teaching and practice: that of helping men, defending their dignity, understanding them and supporting them in their difficulties, training them to have a keen sense of responsibility, a strong and calm mastery over themselves, a courageous concept of the great and common duties of life and of the sacrifices inherent in practicing virtue and in building a fruitful and happy home.

Hopes for the encyclical

Finally, a feeling of hope accompanied the labor of editing this document. We hoped that it would be well received for its own merit and for its human truth, despite the variety of opinions spread far and wide at the present time, and despite the difficulty which the path traced out might present to those who intend to follow it faithfully, and also to those who must teach it frankly, with the help of the God of life, of course. We hoped that scholars in particular would be able to find in this document the genuine thread that connects it with the Christian concept of life, and that authorizes Us to take the words of the Apostle as Our own: Nos autem sensum Christi habemus.[5]

Lastly, We hoped that Christian married couples would understand that Our words, however severe and hard they may seem, are intended to express the genuineness of their love, which is called upon to transfigure itself in imitation of Christ's love for His mystical spouse, the Church; and that these couples would be the first to support every practical movement to help families in their needs, to make them flourish in their full integrity, and to infuse into the modern family a spirituality of its own to serve as a source of perfection for its individual members and of moral witness within society.[6]

As you can see, beloved sons, this is a very special question that has to do with an extremely delicate and serious aspect of human life. Just as We have tried to study and present it with the truth and charity that such a subject requires from Our magisterium and from Our ministry, so We ask all of you, whether you are directly concerned with the matter or not, to give it the attention it deserves, within the broad and radiant framework of Christian living. With Our apostolic blessing.


1 Scheduled to appear in The Pope Speaks XIII, no. 4.

2 Humanae Vitae, no. 14.

3 Ibid., no. 7.

4 See, for example: G. Martelet, Amour conjugal et renouveau conciliaire.

5 We have the mind of Christ. I Cor 2, 16.

6 See Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. II [TPS XI, 128-29]; Constitution on the Church in the World of Today, no. 48 [TPS XI, 290-91].

Taken from Vol. 13, No. 3 (1968) of The Pope Speaks.

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