The Life-Giving Message of Humanae Vitae20 July, 2021
In 1968, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), focusing on the issues of contraception and reproductive ethics. Written in the light of a study commissioned by the Vatican on modern human reproductive issues, its timing coincided with the sudden prevalence of artificial contraception and concerns about overpopulation in society at large. Of concern was how new methods of artificial contraception in the decade before 1968 had become both accessible and popular with many people embracing these methods without fully considering the physical, relational, and psychological challenges they would bring.
It was in this context that Pope Paul VI gave us Humanae Vitae. It is mostly remembered for reaffirming the Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception and the controversy that step caused. However for the Church, Humanae Vitae remains a landmark document because of its explanation and affirmation of the Catholic teaching that the marital embrace should always be about both love and life: unitive and open to new life. That is its central message, and it still draws us to so many good and positive things about human sexuality and its relationship to God’s gift of life. Humanae Vitae explains how God’s wisdom can be applied in a contemporary cultural context in which thinking on human sexuality has shifted so far from the God-given purpose underlying it. Two key points are central to understanding Humanae Vitae and its relevance for our world today.
- Married Love is Sacred; Children are a gift from God. In Humanae VitaePope Paul VI reflects upon how God designed the nature of married love. Firstly, he draws from one of the building blocks of our faith lives found in Sacred Scripture at Gen 1:26-28, that we are made in the image of God and how God calls husband and wife to take up a sacred stewardship over the powers of life that God shares with them. Human beings created in God’s own image, are made for communion with God and each other in sharing life-giving love. The marital union is a unique expression of that communion. Pope Paul VI notes how in the “very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything” children are seen as a gift from God. Openly receiving children lovingly and then seeking to nurture them is part of God’s plan for the human family and the marital union. And so Humanae Vitae draws together the sacredness of married love and the vocation of procreation and places them at the heart of the marital union.
- Family Planning is desirable: Humanae vitae raises up the question of planning births in a family. The Church has always taught that it is reasonable for husband and wife to space and even limit births in their marriage for just reasons through natural family planning. Such planning supports rather than reflects God’s design for human sexuality. Humanae Vitae points to how authentic family planning honours God’s design through an understanding of fertility cycles and the need for abstinence during those times. It is not like artificial contraception that separates the unitive and life-giving purposes of marital intimacy.
Towards the end of Human Vitae, Pope Paul VI made some predictions. He warned of four trends that could emerge from a rejection of God’s design for human sexuality in which natural family planning plays an important part: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments. These predictions found in Humanae Vitae resonate with us today, and highlight the need to reconsider and understand better the positive message of this important document of the Church.
Fr Don White