Helen Weir
Anniversary of Humanae Vitae
By Helen Weir
July 28, 2011

Seventeenth Sunday in ordinary time, Year A

"Humanae Vitae: of human life"

By Father Joseph Redfern

In today's first reading from the First Book of Kings, we heard that Solomon asked for the gift of understanding. In humility, he admitted his need for God's help:

"I am a mere youth, not knowing how to act. ... Give your servant... an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong."

Solomon could have asked for a long life, for riches, or for fame. Instead, he asked for the gift of understanding. He was known for his wisdom, and people would travel from afar to seek his counsel.

The Gift of Understanding

Understanding is a great gift. It is an intimate knowledge that penetrates to the essence of that which is known. In other words, 'understanding' goes beyond merely knowing something about a given reality; it is a profound knowledge of the object.

The Church presents to us a hierarchy of truths in the areas of faith and morals. Through prayer, study and practice of our faith, we are invited not only to give our assent to the teachings of the Church, but to come to a deeper knowledge of the Catholic faith.

Humanae Vitae

This Sunday falls one day short of the 43rd anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Encylical Letter, Humanae Vitae, which was issued on the Feast of St James, July 25, 1968. This letter, written to all 'the faithful and to all men of good will' concerns 'The most serious duty of transmitting human life, for which married persons are the free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator.' [1]

Humanae Vitae has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. Like Solomon, each one of us needs to pray for 'an understanding heart' to accept God's plan for the transmission of human life.

The scope of Humanae Vitae is the transmission of human life within the context of marriage. In other words, it deals with the one flesh union of husband and wife: a union that must always be open to the possibility of new life. The unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act between husband and wife are inseparable for an act to be an authentic conjugal act.

Humanae Vitae presented nothing new in the teaching of the Catholic Church on sexual morality. In fact, it upheld the Church's constant teaching that human sexuality is sacred, that it is to be honored within the context of marriage, and that it is to be life-giving.

Historical Context

Humanae Vitae was written during a time of societal unrest:

  • From the very early years of the 20th century, Margaret Sanger founded the American Eugenics League, popularizing abortion, contraception and sterilization in the United States and beyond. Sanger's goal, 'eugenics', was the production of a 'good gene' pool. 'After Adolf Hitler showed the world what eugenics was really about, Sanger's "birth control movement had to take a quick step away from its overt eugenical language," and it became Planned Parenthood.' [2] [N.B. I recently saw a banner which read: 'Human life begins at conception and ends at Planned Parenthood!" Unfortunately, how true this is!]

  • The Anglican Church broke from the longstanding Christian teaching by indicating that the use of contraceptives within marriage may be justified in limited circumstances.

  • Growing unfounded concerns about overpopulation of the world and the lack of resources to support huge population growth.

  • The sexual revolution of the 1960s and increased promiscuity.

  • The advent of the contraceptive pill in the early 1960s was perhaps the single most important event of the 20th century which has led to a general decline in sexual morality.

The Church's Constant Teaching on Sexual Morality

In the turbulent years following the Second Vatican Council, many were expecting Paul VI to overturn the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the evil of contraception. But he did not. Instead, he reiterated the longstanding moral teaching of the Church. Here are a few highlights from the document:

  • A total vision of man — "Marriage is not... the effect of chance or the product of evolution on unconscious forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love. By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives." (H.V., n. 8)

  • Instead of 'Planned Parenthood,' 'Responsible Parenthood'- "In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth." (H.V., n. 10)

  • Respect for the Nature and Purpose of the Marriage Act - "as experience bears witness, not every conjugal act is followed by a new life. God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythm of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births. Nonetheless, the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." (H.V., n. 11)

  • Two Inseparable Aspects: Union and Procreation — "By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's most high calling to parenthood." (H.V., n. 12)

  • Fidelity to God's Design — "to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator." (H.V., n. 13)

  • Prohibition of Abortion — "directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, [is] to be excluded as [a] licit means of regulating birth." (H.V., n. 14)

  • Prohibition of Direct Sterilization — "Equally to be excluded... is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. (H.V., n. 14)

  • Prohibition of Contraception — "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."

  • Licitness of Recourse to Infecund Periods — "If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only." (H.V., n. 16)

Acceptance of Humanae Vitae

How has the teaching on Humanae Vitae been accepted? Not well at all. Conservative estimates would suggest that around 85% of married couples resort to the use of contraceptives at some stage in their marriages. As Catholics, we need to be always vigilant that we conform ourselves to God's plan for married love.

The Contraceptive Pill

The early 1960s saw a revolution, brought about by the advent of the contraceptive Pill. Women were thought to be empowered by the Pill, but just the opposite took place. There are a number of adverse affects of the contraceptive Pill:

  • The Pill and Cancer. There is a strong link between the use of the contraceptive pill and the increase in the incidence of breast cancer. One surgeon referred to the birth control Pill as a 'molotov cocktail' for breast cancer. [3]

  • The Pill and STDs. The contraceptive pill fails to offer protection for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

  • The Pill can act as an Abortifacient. In any given cycle, a woman on the Pill cannot know for sure if pregnancy has been prevented, or if an unborn child has been eliminated from her womb.

  • Destabilization of Marriages. Contraception in general is one of the most important underlying factors leading to the breakdown of the family and sexual morality. [4]

  • Pill and Abortion. When contraceptives fail (and they do!), then people so often resort to abortion.

  • What can we do to be part of God's plan for marital love?

  • Pray that more couples will be open to God's plan for the marital union: a union that brings holy communion, a union that is life-giving to the spouses and open to the possibility of new life.

  • Have a genuine spirit of repentance for past (confessed) sins.

  • Support those who are blessed to have a number of children. Fertility is a sign of blessing. It is not a curse!

  • When appropriate, teach your children about the sanctity of married life. Be good witnesses to them as Christian parents.

  • If you have good reason to space out births, learn about Natural Family Planning and the Theology of the Body. There are many resources out there to help you.

  • If you need it, don't be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone.

  • We should all adopt a spirit of generosity, gratitude and self-sacrifice.

Let's all ask for wisdom and an understanding heart. And let's support God's plan for a culture of life in our families!


[1]  Encyclical Letter of His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968, St Paul Books and Media.

[2]  Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions, Vol. II, Co-edited by Leon J. Suprenant, Jr., and Philip C.L. Gray, (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2004), p. 86.

[3]  Lifesitenews.com, Archives: Contraception, Dec. 6, 2010: "Surgeon: birth control Pill a 'molotov cocktail' for breast cancer."

[4]  Lifesitenews.com, contraception archive, March 25, 2011. "Contraception Underlying Cause of Breakdown of Family, Sexual Morality, says expert," by Rebecca Millette.

© Helen Weir


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