Pope Paul VI secured his niche in ecclesiastical and secular history more by his promulgation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, than his presiding over the Second Vatican Council.
Up until 1930, all Christian denominations held contraception to be immoral. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI held fast to this perennial and constant teaching of Christianity. There was, however, a new spirit abroad, a spirit of rebellion and, Humanae Vitae, like no other magisterial teaching before it, met not only with ridicule and hostility but even outright dissent that led to confusion if not complete indifference. Amidst this unprecedented rejection of Church teaching, few have actually read, let alone studied Humanae Vitae.
The encyclical opens with a general recognition that rapid population growth, the changed social status of women and the stupendous scientific and technological advances have changed society and the world but not man’s moral nature. §§2,3 The Pope therefore begins by affirming the Church’s competency to “interpret the natural moral law”. This competency is grounded in the fact that Christ constituted St. Peter and the other Apostles and, therefore, the Church, as “authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law.” §4.
Humanae Vitae was written to address conjugal love in the modern world and so the Pope begins by identifying conjugal love’s character and purpose. Its character, he notes, far from being the “effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces”, is actually revealed in all its nobility “when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love’”. Its purpose, however, is for spouses, through a reciprocal self-giving, to unite themselves with the “goal of helping each other, to personal perfection in order to collaborate with God in the begetting and rearing of new lives.” §8.
As delineated by Pope Paul, conjugal love has four aspects: that of being as fully human, total, faithful and exclusive and fruitful. §9 The aspect of being fully human indicates that conjugal love is simultaneously both physical and spiritual. In the spiritual realm, conjugal love is principally an act of the free will, which, rising above natural instincts and feelings, embraces the joys and sorrows of daily life, endures through thick and thin and grows so that “husband and wife become one heart and one soul and, together attain their human perfection.”
From the aspect of being total, conjugal love springs from a “very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations.” Here true love is less concerned with what one receives from the beloved rather; it perpetually seeks to enrich the beloved with the gift of oneself.
Conjugal love is faithful and exclusive until death; as indeed, the “bride and groom conceive(d) it to be on the day when they freely and with full awareness assumed the commitment of the marriage bond.” Fidelity to one’s commitment, especially when difficulties are encountered, is not only generally admired but, being noble and meritorious in itself, becomes a source of profound and lasting happiness.
The loving embrace of husband and wife does not exhaust conjugal love. Instead, it aspires to fruitfulness or the desire to perpetuate itself by bringing new life into existence. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”
Humanae Vitae was written to address the question of what constitutes responsible parenthood. Responsible parenthood requires not only that spouses know, understand and respect the “biological laws that are part of the human person” but also that they subject their instincts and passions to their reason and will. In this there is the full exercise of human freedom, which liberates from slavish or addictive self indulgence. Responsible parenthood also includes both the generous decision to raise a large family and, for grave reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, to avoid having more children either for a certain time or even for an indefinite period of time. It also entails that the spouses embrace the “objective moral order established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter”, so as to fulfil their duty toward God, themselves, their families and human society in a correct hierarchy of values. Thus, spouses ought to ensure that their actions conform to the “creative intention of God expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church”. §10
Built on the fact that God Himself has established the “inseparable connection … between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act”, Humanae Vitae’s central teaching holds that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life”. §11 Where the integrity of these two significances or sign values are protected, the Pope explained, the fullness of the sense of true mutual love is preserved. §12 Thus, in regard to the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae is rooted in Gospel and natural law principles.
There are actions that are contrary to responsible parenthood and indeed intrinsically evil, such as “directly willed and procured abortion”, sterilization and “every action that either in anticipation of the conjugal act or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, would have as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” §14 The Pope does, however, affirm the lawfulness of what today is called Natural Fertility Regulation, which is free, without any medical side effects and conducive to happy marriages. The divorce rate among NFR users is 2% compared with the 50% of contracepting couples. §14
Fully aware that Humanae Vitae would not be palatable to the modern world, the Pope, with remarkable foresight, warned of the consequences of rejecting its teaching and his warnings have proved accurate. §17. The Church, as the interpreter and not the author of the moral law, must “proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both the natural and the law of the Gospel”, even if she appears, like her divine Founder, a “sign of contradiction”. §18
In closing Humanae Vitae, the Pope addresses pastoral concerns, which require two things: a striving for self mastery and an environment favourable to chastity. To these ends, he called for the cooperation of public authorities, of scientists, Christian households, the medical profession, priests and bishops in a truly great work, without which “man cannot find true happiness, for which he yearns with his whole being, unless he respects the laws inscribed in his nature by God, laws which he ought to observe with understanding and love.” §§19-31
The tragedy of Humanae Vitae is that, although its doctrine is both true and good, it has been rejected without being read. God expects us to accept it in faith and to live it in the knowledge that, with the help of His grace, any perceived difficulties are stillborn.