The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: Charter of Life and Love. Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary


This was written in Rome in 1978. It elicited thanks from the Substitute Secretary of State, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Giuseppe Caprio, who called me to his office to express appreciation. It was printed in the July-August, 1978, issue of the Keys of Peter, an English bimonthly, under the editorship of Ronald King. It also appeared in translation in the German priests’ review Regnum in October 1978. On the fifteenth anniversary of Humanae Vitae it was published again in the Keys of Peter. In reprint form it was widely circulated by Human Life International (Reprint 12) and by the St. Joseph’s Workers for Life and Family.

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae:  Charter of Life and Love.  Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary

By Msgr. Vincent N. Foy

The most embattled document in Church history is perhaps the encyclical Humanae Vitae, signed on the feast of St. James the Apostle, July 25th, 1968, by Pope Paul VI. Ten years later it remains under constant attack by pen and tongue and conduct.

It was an answer to new questions (cf. par. 3). Unfortunately, by some it was regarded as only so much “in-put” into the solution of great problems and not the definitive answer it was intended to be. Others had already given their own answers to their own questions and what is worse, had claimed these answers to be definitive. When the Pope spoke they were neither prepared to listen nor to humble themselves before the Church. Others attempted to nullify by human reason what was declared with the authority of Christ.

The teaching of the encyclical is normative and binding. Bishops and priests are bound to uphold it. It is an exercise of the supreme magisterium to which is owed religious assent of mind and will. (cf. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, par. 25.). Above all it is a proclamation of divine love and gives to those who accept it the certitude and peace which come from accepting God’s will

Humanae Vitae: A Testimonial to God’s Love

All through the encyclical, like a golden thread, there is reference to the accomplishment of God’s law and will through proper respect for human life and proper regard for its transmission. Married couples, in the most serious duty of transmitting human life, are the free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator (cf. par.1). The encyclical is an exercise of the magisterial competency coming from Christ himself (par.4). The natural law, which it rightly interprets, is an expression of the will of God (ibid.). The encyclical provides its answers to the grave questions raised, by virtue of the mandate of Christ (cf. par.6). Conjugal love reveals its true nature and nobility when considered in its supreme origin, God, who is love (cf. par.8). For baptized persons the marriage union is a symbol of the union and therefore the love between Christ and His Church (ibid.). Responsible parenthood implies that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties toward God (cf. par.10). They must conform their activity to the creative intention of God (ibid.).

The above are only some of the earlier references by which the pope identifies the teaching of the encyclical by text and context with the law and love of God. Not a single page of the encyclical omits to forge more strongly this linkage. It is a testimonial to God’s love in what it commands and what it forbids. This is not only for married persons but also for those who shepherd them and teach them and guide them and relate to them.

Humanae Vitae: Testimonial to the Church’s Love

The encyclical is another manifestation of the love of the Church for her children. It would be quite incredible if the living voice of God were not to speak out clearly in what is among the most important of moral issues: that of human life and its transmission. We deal here with matters affecting countless millions of lives either in fact or in potency, in matters by which God has allowed free will to touch eternal destinies. They are matters over which God jealously fixed His laws and lovingly gave their interpretation to His Church so that she could speak in His name: “The Lord puts to death and gives life” (1 Samuel, II, 6).

It is of prime importance to realize that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not that of a man; it is not an informal statement of a Pope. It is not “Pope Paul’s encyclical” except in a restricted historical context. It is the teaching of the Church. The pope has the right to speak in the name of the Church as its Head and Vicar of Christ by his own authority (cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, par. 22). The encyclical makes clear that it enshrines the Church’s teaching. So we note, for example: “The Church … teaches … that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (par. 11).

Some have tried to isolate the doctrine of the encyclical in time and describe it as a new tyranny. In fact it is upheld by a thousand pillars. At the annual colloquium last November of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Arlington, Virginia, Bishop Austin Vaughan remarked that when professor John Noonan wrote his book in 1966 on the history of the teaching of theologians and the Church on contraception, he expected that he might trace this teaching to the mid eighteenth century. He found the doctrine against artificial contraception taught by Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. The encyclical itself rightly refers to the “constant teaching of the Church” (par. 10).

The Church has not left us to the mercy of merely human disciplines or unaided reason. Neither demographers nor agronomers nor biologists nor philosophers can give certain answers to questions outside their fields. It is right and proper for the Church to weigh their arguments but never right to allow them to step outside the circles of their own competencies. Nor can unguided reason reach to the order of revelation. So Scripture warns us: “On your own intelligence rely not … Be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs III, 5, 7). The questions treated in the encyclical required from the Church a teaching “founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation” (par. 4).

Nor has the Church left us at the mercy of theological opinion. Essential and noble as the science of theology is, theological opinion can be a great mixture of good and bad, of true and false, of wise and foolish things from which only the Church by her right of discernment can pick out what is good and true. After the Church has spoken definitively, all contrary theological opinions become non-normative. Unfortunately some theologians still hold as normative theories already authoritatively condemned: wrong concepts of the natural law, the concept that the ban on artificial birth control is historically conditioned, wrong notions of the “principle of totality,” a confusion of the terms abnormal and pathological, false doctrine in the area of private morality vs. public policy. Others refer to “accepted principles of moral theology” which are not acceptable.

The Church did not leave us to the mercy of our own uninformed or unformed consciences. The late Rev. David Knowles, writing from a vast knowledge of history and referring to the case of King Henry VIII and St Thomas More, remarked: “The word conscience has a terrible ambiguity, which cannot be by-passed by a kind of blind assumption that we are all acting with clear minds and pure motives” (“The Encyclical Without Ambiguity,” The Tablet, Oct. 5, 1968). In the encyclical the Church warns married people that “they must conform their activity 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” (par.10). One of the greatest theologians of our time wrote: “It is nonsense for a Catholic to set up in opposition to the authority of the Encyclical the authority of his own personal conscience” (“The Light of the Encyclical” by Cardinal C. Journet, L’Osservatore Romano, Oct. 10, 1968, p.10). It is nonsense, but nonsense still repeated far and wide; it is the nonsensical reply of depravity to love.

Humane Vitae: Guardian of Married Life and Love

The church reaffirms in Humanae Vitae that marriage is “the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love” (par. 8). She discerns clearly the threat to marriage and married love in illicit contraception, direct sterilization and abortion. She sees the grave spin-off effects of these practices in the areas of human sexuality, civil legislation and society in general.

The teaching of the encyclical is a necessary support of the three essential goods of marriage: fidelity, permanence, and openness to new human life. These goods are under attack when illicit contraception is practiced. The more easily and more certainly effective are the illicit means, the stronger are the temptations to use them. So the Church says, regarding the natural law: “man … must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance” (par. 17). When the barriers are down, fidelity is endangered, infidelity often leads to separation and divorce and those who give free rein to their lusts recoil before the responsibilities of parenthood. The encyclical warns that all methods of contraception lead to loss of respect for woman, so that she is looked upon as “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as the respected and beloved companion” (par. 17).

It is a truism that no law can stand without sanctions (Nulla sanctio, nulla lex). The Church in her role as guardian life and love reaffirms that the gravest of all sanctions are attached to practices condemned in the encyclical: the consequences of grave sin.

Another point is often forgotten and its importance cannot be over-emphasized. This is a threat to the validity of marriage posed by the contraceptive mentality. Very few theorists or immured theologians, however well meaning, see the concrete results of their speculations mirrored in the lives of men, women and children. The more the teaching of Humanae Vitae is rejected, the greater the number of invalid or illicit marriages with all the resulting tears, unhappiness and shattered lives. More and more young people, without having even read the encyclical or the Church’s teaching, have been victimized. They come now in ever increasing numbers, boldly asserting, on the basis of a newspaper article, or panel discussion, or a sermon, that they have the right over their own bodies and will decide when and whether to have children and what means they are going to use. They do not know or understand or accept what the Church affirms: “One must necessarily recognize insurmountable limits to the possibility of man’s domination over his own body and its functions’ (par. 17). More and more do not transfer the essential rights of marriage, and so their marriages are invalid from the beginning. This is compounded if due care is not taken in the prenuptial investigation or preparation course.

So couples often walk from the altar and out of the church and to their own ruin. It is further compounded when the intention of one party is good and the other bad or invalidating, and one party becomes the victim of the other.

It is no coincidence that books, articles and talks which attack the doctrine of Humanae Vitae nearly always promote a human sexuality contrary to God’s law. Once sex is completely divorced from the transmission of life by deliberate act, a whole brood of moral monsters is hatched, the offspring of unbridled erotic love. The contraceptive mentality has led and leads to pre-marital sex and extra-marital sex. When sex is so radically debased, the moral order gives way. Self-indulgence without restraint becomes an end in itself. “Free love,” “swinging,” orgies, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality and every abomination are justified. Paradoxically, illegitimate births increase because illegitimacy becomes “respectable,” while at the same time what was called the great threat of over-population becomes the threat of genocide and even economies are unbalanced.

No less an evil resulting from the defiance of divine and natural law is the reflection of the defiance in civil legislation. “Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem?” (par. 17.) To many the morality of civil legislation is equated with a proper moral code. Often spiritual leaders discover this too late. Often too, legislation takes a leap when the spiritual leaders, for the sake of civil liberties, thought they were acquiescing only to a step.

In the final analysis, moral corruption in society can be traced back to moral corruption in its fundamental cell, the family. Where human life is not respected in its beginnings, neither will it be respected in its course or in its end. And so there is verified the solid basis of the Church’s teaching: “In defending conjugal morals in their integral wholeness, the Church knows that she contributes towards the establishment of a truly human civilization” (par. 18).

Humanae Vitae: A Charter of Pastoral Love

The doctrine of Humanae Vitae gives guidance to more than husbands and wives. Willy-nilly all are caught up in the consequences of right doctrine on human life. So in the pastoral section the Church as Teacher and Mother guides those who must guide others. There are specific instructions for public authorities (par. 23), men of science (par. 24), doctors and medical personnel (par. 27), priests (par.28) and Bishops (par. 30). While the tone of the pastoral section is full of understanding and compassion, it is uncompromising in doctrine. The teaching of the Church is to be expounded without ambiguity (par. 28). God’s grace is always sufficient. All the means of grace are to be used.

Pastoral concern does not and never did justify doctrinal accommodations to suit individual preferences. That would effectively be not an act of charity but of grave moral injury. It would be a denial of the graces of matrimony, prayer, Penance and the Eucharist. “And if sin should still keep its hold over them, let them not be discouraged, but rather have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is poured forth in the sacrament of Penance” (par. 25). The sacrament of Penance is the specific and supreme remedy for those who have fallen. Immediately after the encyclical was promulgated, some held that a new doctrine of Penance was taught in that an effective purpose of amendment was not required. It would be sufficient if the persons agreed to reconsider their conduct in “the light of the encyclical.” This attack on the doctrine of the Council of Trent is more absurd than quoting one General Council against another, and more insidious. It is also a betrayal of pastoral love. One can never protect the divine law surrounding life and love if one holds that there are two different doctrines: one to be taught and one to be lived. That is the double-talk which reduces the teaching on human life to an ideal which is equated with a counsel.

Humanae Vitae Under Attack

Despite the beauty and truth and binding force of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, that teaching has been distorted and often nullified. In the U.S. a recent presentation of statistics by Dr. Westoff, Director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, shows how Catholics are ignoring the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Dr. Westoff reported that by 1975, ninety percent of the nation’s Catholic women who were married less than five years were using contraceptive methods not approved by the Church. In 1955, eighty percent conformed to prohibition of any contraceptive method other than the rhythm method. His conclusion was that in this regard “there is very little remaining to differentiate American Catholics from those of other religious persuasions” (cf. International Herald Tribune, April 17 , 1978). One might contest the statistics, but hardly the general conclusion. The U.S. is far from unique.

What are the causes? Certainly constant hammering against the Catholic position in the public media has been a factor. But Catholics have withstood such attacks before. Certainly there has been a general decay in moral behavior. Catholics have withstood such encompassing decay before.

It is incontestable that there has been a betrayal from within, and from high places as well as low. Bishops were asked to keep silent on the question of the Church’s impending declaration. This silence did not imply they were to be silent in the face of attacks on the constant teaching of the Church. The great majority respected this caution, but some few did not and this caused widespread confusion. Even after the caution of 1966 (“The thought and the norms of the Church have not changed”), a few Bishops issued confidential confessional directives not to be published or preached, which were not in accord with the Church’s teaching. Inevitably, some such directives were published. The gist often was: “Catholics must be reassured that decisions made in good conscience should not make them fearful or prevent them from receiving the sacraments.” After the encyclical, these same few Bishops did not retract. This unwarranted subjectivism spread like wildfire.

Just before the official release of the encyclical, the bishops were asked through Cardinal Cicognani, Secretary of State, to stand firm with the Pope in his presentation of the Church’s teaching, and “to explain and justify the reasons for it.” This explains a large number of statements of national hierarchies. Unfortunately and tragically, many of these statements–some prepared with incredible haste-communicated dissent and confusion rather than full assent.

Immediately after the encyclical many theologians decried its teaching and maintained the rights of individuals to dissent. Many Bishops of these theologians were silent.

In some places Seminary professors openly dissented and while some were removed or disciplined, others were not; and so the infection of dissent was spread to a new generation of priests. Some professors asked to leave one Seminary were taken into another.

Confessors and preachers began to contradict one another in pulpit and confessional. As this became known and confusion spread, fewer and fewer Catholics confessed the sins of artificial contraception or direct sterilization or the crime of abortion with its attendant excommunication, while the evils themselves multiplied.

Ethical boards in some Catholic hospitals, often with the knowledge or consent of Bishops, permitted direct sterilizations. Catholic surgeons were assured in some places that they could proceed with direct sterilizations when the majority on a board voted for it. Chaplains have been assured by some Bishops that if they cast their vote against sterilization they had done their duty, even when the majority were habitually in favor.

Legislators even in Catholic countries, or countries with large Catholic populations, were given advice by Bishops’ Committees and theologians contrary to the pastoral section of Humanae Vitae. That is a very sorry story indeed. In many cases the things that are God’s were given into the hands of a pagan Caesar when the divine law could have been easily upheld.

High school texts, codes of hospital ethics, pre-marital instruction texts and other books were given the “Imprimatur” when they attacked, distorted or compromised the teaching of the encyclical.

There have been, sad to say, even insinuations that the Holy Father was unsure of himself and in this sense was guilty of the Ultimate Dissent: dissent from himself. These insinuations have been circulated in the most contemptible way, despite his repeated affirmation of the doctrine of the encyclical and his own declaration to the world: “After imploring the light of the Holy Spirit, we placed our conscience at the free and full disposal of the voice of truth … until we had no doubt about our duty to give our decision in terms expressed in the present encyclical” (Pope Paul VI, address “We Had No Doubt about Our Decision,” July 31, 1968).

The above is only a part of the way in which the teaching of the encyclical and therefore of the Church was subverted. All of the above points can be documented. They are not mentioned to scandalize, but to help provide necessary insights into the remedies needed to defend the Church’s great charter of human life and love.

Humanae Vitae: How Can Its Teaching Be Upheld?

We come to the key question, a question of incalculable importance for the Church, for the people of God, for all mankind: How can the teaching of Humanae Vitae be upheld? Everyone can do something. Everyone should do something. The suggestions given here are only indicators and what applies to one may not apply to another. The basic predisposition to any positive action is, of course, full assent of mind and will to the teaching of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law and will.

1. All the spiritual means should be given pre-eminence. The encyclical outlines these first for married couples, then for others.

2. Right pre-marital instructions are of the greatest importance. Many young people are the victims of slogan morality. They sometimes parrot phrases: “We have the right over our own bodies”; “We have the right to follow our own consciences”; “We have the right to decide the means best for us to determine when and if we are to have a family.” Very often they have no insight into how the Church’s teaching is one of God’s love for them and the key to the stability and happines of their own marriage.

3. For those who are teaching or preaching or writing, study is important. Tertullian tells us that any kind of heresy must be understood in terms of its origin. This is true of all false teaching. Study will reinforce one’s faith in the Church as Mother and Teacher.

4. Encouragement should be continually given to all who uphold the Church’s teaching in their lives, their writing, in their work and by their sacrificial efforts.

5. Some will be able to make use of the communications media in the struggle for human.

6. Some can take an active part in pro life -life groups which are faithful to the Church’s teaching. Some so-called pro-life groups or “Peace and Development” groups live the lie to their titles and should not be supported.

7. Special groups: physicians, psychologists, nurses, hospital administrators, marriage counsellors, social workers and others should make certain that their own ethical standards are in conformity with the Church’s teaching and not some evasion of it.

8. The laity have a basic right to expect that the Church’s teaching be upheld by their ‘Bishops and priests. All ought to pray for their Bishops and priests and make respectful presentations to them if there are failures to uphold the totality of the Church’s teaching.

9. Seminarians, students in Catholic colleges and schools have the right to expect that the Church’s teaching on issues touching human life be upheld without dilution. They have a right to expect that textbooks do the same.

Concluding Thoughts

In the final analysis, the questions raised and answered by Humanae Vitae are those of the roles of conscience and authority. In this matter, where millions of lives and souls are at stake the Catholic must opt for authority. He accepts the Church as his sure guide in matters of faith and morals. He sees in the Pope him who holds the keys of Peter. It is true that the last resort in dealing with a person aff1icted with an invincibly erroneous conscience is the advice: “You must act logically in accordance with your error.” But the advice must also be given: “You cannot logically try to compel others to act in accordance with your error: not your spouse, not your confessor, not your teacher, not your doctor, not your Bishop, not your Church, not the Holy Father who stands in the place of Christ.”

We need in this age, at this time of the tenth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, a greater confidence in the God-given role of the Church. Perhaps it would help to reflect on the words of Cardinal Newman:

Trust the Church of God implicitly even when your natural judgement would take a different course from hers and would induce you to question her prudence or correctness. Recollect what a hard task she has; how she is sure to be criticized and spoken against, whatever she does; recollect how much she needs your loyal and tender devotion; recollect, too, how long is the experience gained in 1900 years; and what a right she has to claim your assent to principles which have had so extended and triumphant a trial. Thank her that she has kept the faith safe for so many generations and do your part in helping her to transmit it to generations after you.

Also see:  Catholics Against Contraception

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