By: Pope Paul VI
Date: July 25, 1968
Source: Pope Paul VI. Humanae Vitae: Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth. Rome, July 25, 1968. Available online at http://www.vatican.va (accessed February 5, 2003).
About the Author: Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) was born in Concesio, Italy, as Giovanni Battista Montini. He was ordained as a priest in 1920 and assigned to the Vatican diplomatic service until 1944. He became an archbishop in 1954 and a cardinal in 1958. Elected pope in 1963 after the death of Pope John XXIII, he served until he died in 1978. Pope Paul VI was known for his support of Christian unity and social reform.
Roman Catholic Church encyclicals had always expressed the belief that abortion and artificial means of birth control (for example, sterilization, birth control pills, and other contraceptive devices) were serious sins, violations of the natural law and the will of God. Before Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, some Catholics and others expected that the encyclical might include some liberalization of the church's teachings. This expectation was based on the work of a commission of theologians and laymen formed by Pope John XXIII to study the issue. This commission, continued by Pope Paul VI, was to report back to the pope. A year before the encyclical was released, the press reported that most members of the commission were in favor of liberalizing the church's stance on birth control.
The encyclical, however, rejected the commission's recommendations. Pope Paul VI reasoned that because God intended the sexual act to be the means for procreation, it must always be open to the transmission of life. Birth control and abortion interfere with this natural process, although the encyclical does permit married people to take advantage of the "natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile." Controlling birth in that manner, the pope said, does not in any way offend the moral principles established by God because there was no interference with the possibility, even though remote, that a life would be conceived.
Humanae Vitae turned out to be possibly the most controversial papal encyclical of the twentieth century. To many Catholics, the encyclical was very personal because it directly addressed the behaviors of Catholics rather than abstract theological issues.
As many Catholics and observers outside the church had predicted, Catholics reacted to the encyclical in one of three ways. Some wholeheartedly endorsed the pronouncement by the pope and would follow all the church's teachings on abortion and birth control without any objections. Others decided to abide by the abortion prohibition but left their decision about birth control methods up to their own conscience or their own interpretation of Christian morality. Many of these people remained true to the church's teachings in all other respects and continued to practice Catholicism by attending weekly mass. Critics of this second group called them "cafeteria Catholics," choosing which teachings they would accept and which they would reject. A third group rejected the encyclical's pronouncements about both abortion and birth control. They believed that abortion and birth control were private decisions and not open to scrutiny by the church. Some of these people continued to identify themselves as Catholics, but others gradually drifted away from the church.
Opinion polls and observations by the Roman Catholic clergy in local churches in the 1980s and 1990s found that many Catholics in America continued to disagree with the church's prohibition on artificial birth control and continued to use these methods.
Primary Source: Humanae Vitae: Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Regulation of Birth [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: This famous and controversial encyclical reinforced the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and "artificial means of birth control," which the church defined as immoral and opposed to natural law and the will of God. Pope Paul VI explained the distinction between "unlawful birth control methods" and "lawful therapeutic means." The encyclical consisted of thirty-one statements; statements 7 to 16 are included here.
7. The question of human procreation, like every other question which touches human life, involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects. And since in the attempt to justify artificial methods of birth control many appeal to the demands of married love or of responsible parenthood, these two important realities of married life must be accurately defined and analyzed. This is what We mean to do, with special reference to what the Second Vatican Council taught with the highest authority in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today.
God's Loving Design
8. Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who "is love," the Father "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named."
Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.
The marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church.
9. In the light of these facts the characteristic features and exigencies of married love are clearly indicated, and it is of the highest importance to evaluate them exactly.
This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.
It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner's own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.
Married love is also faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death. This is how husband and wife understood it on the day on which, fully aware of what they were doing, they freely vowed themselves to one another in marriage. Though this fidelity of husband and wife sometimes presents difficulties, no one has the right to assert that it is impossible; it is, on the contrary, always honorable and meritorious. The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage, but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.
Finally, this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. "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."
10. Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood. Thus, we do well to consider responsible parenthood in the light of its varied legitimate and interrelated aspects.
With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.
With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.
Observing the Natural Law
11. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy." It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
Union and Procreation
12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.
Faithfulness to God's Design
13. Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact," Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. "From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God."
Unlawful Birth Control Methods
14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it"—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
Lawful Therapeutic Means
15. On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.
Recourse to Infertile Periods
16. Now as We noted earlier (no. 3), some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the moral laws governing marriage, that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man. Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born. To this question We must give a clear reply. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.
Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.
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Sullivan, Robert E. "Paul VI: The First Modern Pope." America, May 1, 1993, 18.
Jensen, Tom. "Birth Control." Available online at (accessed February 5, 2003). This site contains links to numerous articles about church history and doctrine.
McManus, Mike. "Pope Paul VI Was Right on Contraception." Available online at http://www.lifecorner.org/contraception3.html; website home page: http://www.lifecorner.org/index.html (accessed February 5, 2003).
O'Malley, Martin, Owen Wood, and Amy Foulkes. "The Pill and Us." Backgrounder: CBC News Indepth. Available online at http://cbc.ca/news/indepth/background/birthcontrol_pill.html; website home page: http://www.cbc.ca/ (accessed February 5, 2003).