Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In March, 1963, shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII formed a special commission of experts and married couples to examine questions of the correct regulation of births by married couples, prompted by such developments as the invention of the contraceptive pill. Taking into account the opinions of this commission and of bishops, experts, and others from throughout the world, Pope Paul VI wrote this encyclical. Addressed not only to Catholic clergy but also to all people, Humanae Vitae was meant to give a definitive answer to questions of married love and human procreation.

Humanae Vitae, although dealing with profound and controversial questions, is a succinct and serene document, organized into three sections. The first section introduces the questions of birth control raised by modern times and the competency of the Catholic Church and the pope to answer them. The second section presents these answers in a doctrinal fashion, drawing on sacred Scripture and Catholic tradition, especially the recently completed Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965). The third and final section consists of the pope’s pastoral directives to scientists, public authorities, married couples, bishops, priests, and others.

Pope Paul begins this encyclical by asserting the authority of the Catholic Church and his authority as pope to interpret the moral teaching on marriage based on natural reason and divine revelation. By the natural law, Paul is referring to the whole moral law, which God has inscribed in the human heart, and which can be ascertained by reason. It is illumined and deepened by the Gospel but remains binding on all peoples and cultures. The question of transmission of life depends on a correct understanding of this natural law as it relates to married love. Marriage is divinely instituted and between Christians constitutes a sacramental sign of grace. Love within marriage is total, faithful, exclusive, and constituted until death. It is also fruitful in...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hebblewaite, Peter. Paul VI: The First Modern Pope. New York: Paulist Press, 1993. This lengthy biography of Pope Paul argues that the promulgation of Humanae Vitae was counterproductive and created divisiveness in the Catholic Church.

Hildebrand, Dietrich von. Love, Marriage, and the Catholic Conscience: Understanding the Church’s Teachings on Birth Control. Translated by Damien Fedoryka and John Crosby. Manchester, England: Sophia Institute Press, 1998. Originally published in 1969 as The Encyclical “Humanae Vitae”: A Sign of Contradiction, this logical and thoughtful explanation and defense of Humanae Vitae was written by a well-known professor of philosophy.

John Paul II. Reflections on “Humanae Vitae.” Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1984. In this collection of Pope John Paul II’s general audiences from July 11 to November 28, 1989, John Paul reflects profoundly on Humanae Vitae to present his theology of married love in God’s design and to conclude his four-year catechesis on the sacramentality of marriage (now often referred to as John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”).

McClory, Robert. Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal British Control Commission and How “Humanae Vitae” Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1995. A professor of journalism recounts the story of the papal commission on birth control formed by Pope John XXIII and continued by Pope Paul VI, claiming that its pro-contraception report was sabotaged by Vatican conservatives and rigid ideologues.

Smith, Janet. “Humanae Vitae”: A Generation Later. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991. A comprehensive history, exposition, and analysis of Humanae Vitae by one of its most persuasive Catholic defenders.

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

It is important to note that while Humanae Vitae, issued by the highest teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is an explicitly Christian document, it is based on principles of the natural moral law and is thus addressed to all married couples. Pope Paul VI refers throughout the encyclical to the New Testament and the two-thousand-year teaching of the Catholic Church. Humanae Vitae can be seen as the final note to a theme of papal teaching that began with the encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI in 1930. The theme of this teaching is the question raised by modern methods of contraception and whether married couples can employ these methods or indeed any methods of birth control at all. Although Paul answers these questions, at its heart, Humanae Vitae is a meditation on the Christian ideal of marriage. As such, it discusses God’s design for married love, the faithfulness and exclusivity demanded by authentic marriage and its indissolubility, and the sacramental nature of marriage for Christians. Responsible parenthood is presented in this context and taken to mean a full awareness of the moral dimensions of the transmission of life: God has ordered the act of mutual love of spouses toward the generation of new life, an order that humankind may not frustrate.

It is crucial to understand, however, that Paul bases his teachings on the universal moral principles of the natural law, which can be known through the dictates of reason. There is a certain connection to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, which Paul describes as the authentic interpreter of both the Gospel and the natural law. However, the teaching against contraception is addressed to all people of good will and presents a commandment against artificial birth control that is meant for all people. The reasoning and conclusions of Humanae Vitae constitute then not only what would become a demanding and even controversial teaching on birth control but also a clear example of Christian belief in universal moral commands.