Understanding Humanae Vitae
By John F. Kippley
“How can I help someone to understand Humanae Vitae?” I’ve seen that question a number of times, and this essay is my attempt to answer it. I think that almost everyone of open heart and mind can understand the message of the encyclical—if he or she wants to. The difficulty that stems from a closed mind and heart is something that is better addressed by meditation before a crucifix than by anything I can write.
Introduction. First, I would like to quote from an article that was published seventeen months before Humanae Vitae. In it I drew five comparisons between the Eucharistic and the marital communions. In the comparison of Covenant Renewal, I wrote as follows.
The mutual self-giving in the communion of intercourse can be seen likewise in a fourth similarity between it and Holy Communion, the aspect of the covenant. In the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, the New Covenant is constantly renewed. The person who worships devoutly at Mass and receives Holy Communion worthily is at least implicitly renewing on his part the covenant Jesus established at the Last Supper. On the part of Christ there is no need for renewal of this covenant because as God’s Son his sacrifice was perfect, and God’s love as expressed in this covenant remains constant.
Sexual intercourse in marriage should likewise be a renewal of the covenant the couple first made as they exchanged their promise to be faithful to each other under all circumstances. . . Thus, sexual intercourse that is at least an implicit renewal of the marriage covenant is likewise a simultaneous giving and receiving, just as is the Holy Communion of the Eucharist.
I wrote the above early in 1966 and it was published as “Holy Communion: Eucharistic and Marital” in Ave Maria magazine, February 25, 1967. It is currently on pages 77-78 of my book, Sex and the Marriage Covenant (Ignatius, 2005). I mention this only to make it clear that we talked about mutual self-giving before Humanae Vitae and obviously years before the Theology of the Body developed by Pope John Paul II between 1979 and 1984. I will be referring to Sex and the Marriage Covenant (SMC) more than once; this website essay amounts to an introduction, and SMC can fill in the details. I hope you will get a copy.
The heart and the head. When I first moved to San Francisco, I stayed in a “Guest House.” Mine was conservative compared to some that were known as party houses. Still, it was obvious that one young man was trying to seduce one of the young women who was not accustomed to the attention he lavished on her. I invited the young man, who was nominally Catholic, to accompany me to the beginning of an Inquiry Forum conducted by the Paulist Fathers downtown. The first session was excellent, but he refused to attend a second. Why? He was frankness personified. “If I believed what they are teaching I would have to change my lifestyle, and I have no intention of doing so.”
Here’s how his rejection looks in the terms of the marriage covenant: “If I believe that the sexual act is intended by God to be exclusively a marriage act, a renewal of the marriage covenant, I can’t engage in such acts outside of marriage. But I find that difficult. Therefore I will not believe such teaching.” That’s an act of a closed heart, not just the head.
Hardness of heart is described in Scripture. In explaining the parable of the Sower, Jesus quotes Isaiah about those who hear with their ears but not with their hearts, and the need for such people to “understand with their heart and turn for me to heal them” (Mt 13:15). In short, the problem with understanding the Christian teaching reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae is not just a matter of the head but also of the heart. Jesus heals those who open their hearts and turn to him; that’s what we call conversion.
The first step towards understanding Humanae Vitae is the most difficult. It is to open one’s heart to God in such a way as to accept all the consequences attached to believing and living the divine truth about human love. For many, that entails a real conversion. For all of us, it’s a matter of continued conversion all throughout our walk with the Lord because the divine truth about human love applies to every aspect of every human relationship.
Not a new doctrine. In the Bible, the teaching against contraception starts in Genesis. Onan engages in the contraceptive act of withdrawal and is slain by God (Gen 38:6-10). Some writers say that the sin for which Onan was slain was not his sin of contraception but only his violation of the ancient Near Eastern custom called the Law of the Levirate. In that tradition, if a husband died childless, his brother was bound to engage in the marriage act with his widow and take her as his wife in order to carry on the family of his brother. Onan didn’t want a son by the widow to be his brother’s, so he practiced contraception and was killed by God. It is obvious that Onan violated the Law of the Levirate, but the Levirate-only hypothesis doesn’t hold water. For one thing, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 describes the punishment for violating the Law of the Levirate, and it’s only an embarrassment, not the death penalty. Second, there are three people in this episode who violate the Levirate, but the only one who is punished by God is the one who practiced contraceptive behavior. There are also passages in the New Testament against pharmakeia, the mixing of birth control potions, that support the doctrine of marital non-contraception (see SMC, page 328).
St. Augustine (354-430) famously quoted the Onan account in his reaffirmation of this teaching. The theologians of the Reformation repeatedly reaffirmed this teaching, and Pope Pius XI in 1930 quoted St. Augustine. The introduction of the Pill in 1960 with its non-barrier method of birth control led some people to speculate whether the teaching could be changed. Some authors offered theories that encouraged Catholics to think that the Church actually would change its teaching, and not a few couples jumped the gun on what they thought was a sure thing. The Catholic pro-contraception writers invariably stated they would accept the decision of the Church, whatever it was, but such statements proved to be window dressing when orthodox teaching was reaffirmed.
When Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the biblical and historical Tradition against all unnatural forms of birth control, a handful of priests whipped up a huge dissent almost overnight without any discussion. That dissent had negative repercussions throughout the Church and was ultimately responsible for the Sexual Abuse Scandal made public in 2002.
There’s more on this in Sex and the Marriage Covenant. The point is that the Tradition of marital non-contraception goes back to Genesis and has been repeatedly reaffirmed throughout the history of the Church.
A basis in Faith. You can make an excellent pragmatic case for not using barrier methods of birth control (messy and less effective than systematic NFP), hormonal birth control (a number of health risks plus their abortifacient potential), and withdrawal (less effective). However, I am not aware of health or effectiveness problems associated with marital sodomy—masturbation and oral-genital copulation. (Anal copulation can be very unhealthy.) Is it sinful for married couples to engage in the same sort of anatomical behaviors as homosexual sodomites? The answer—Yes—is based on faith. Once you go beyond the pragmatic case for NFP, you are dealing with faith-based reasons. You are making an act of faith that God knew what he was doing when he inspired the Sacred Authors of the Bible to condemn homosexual behavior and Onanism, and you are combining faith and reason when you apply that teaching to the same sort of sterile behaviors between married heterosexuals today.
The faith basis has its own structure. Essentially, for someone to accept Humanae Vitae in faith, he has to say something like this:
I believe in God. I believe that God created us and has a plan for us, a plan that is good for us. I believe his plan includes such important things in life as love, marriage, and sexuality. I believe He has revealed his plan, especially in Christ Jesus. I believe that Jesus commanded us to love each other, thus giving us no reason to think that love is easy. I believe He founded his Church to keep his work alive, including his plan for love, marriage and sexuality. I believe that the Lord Jesus has kept his plan alive in the Scriptures and through the constant teaching of his Church. I believe that Humanae Vitae is another example of Jesus continuing to keep his truth alive in and through his Church.
Read it. Humanae Vitae is a short teaching. If you have heard negative things about its teaching, you may be surprised at its compassionate tone. A basic meaning of “compassion” is “to suffer with,” and it is clear that Pope Paul VI is suffering along with some of his fellow Catholics. He knows that some will reject this teaching, and he also knows that this is not good for them, for their loved ones, for the Church and for the culture. It certainly had to pain him to point out the effects that would follow from the widespread acceptance of unnatural forms of birth control.
At this point, let’s walk through the encyclical together. I assume you have a copy and will therefore limit my quotations. You can download Humanae Vitae from this website at Spiritual Resources, Catholic Church Documents.
The encyclical contains 31 numbered sections. In what follows, n. means a single section; nn. means several sections.
Part One. New Aspects of the Problem and the Competency of the Magisterium
nn. 1-6. In these introductory sections, the Pope reminds us that Christ gave to Peter and his successors both the authority and the command to teach the truth in his name. This includes the duty of teaching the truth about marriage and sexuality. He mentions the papal birth control commission but noted that it did not arrive at full agreement and that some of its proposals departed from long established teaching on marriage. I think it’s fairly clear that the Pope didn’t relish going against the commission proposals that had been widely publicized, but he knew he was obliged by the truth and by his office to do so.
Part Two. Doctrinal Principles
nn. 7-9. Here the Pope teaches that the problem of birth control has to be viewed in the light of a total vision of man and his relationship with God. Marriage and sexuality are gifts of God and are part of his plan for man. True married love has defining characteristics. Married love is fully human. That means that it is not just a matter of instinct and sensuality but is principally an act of the free will. Married love is total, a very special form of personal friendship. Marriage comes about through a commitment and the total gift of each self to the other. Married love is marked not so much by self-seeking as by rejoicing that each can enrich the other with the continuing gift of self.
Three more defining characteristics are that married love is faithful and exclusive and fruitful. All of these are acts of the free will. (Regarding unfruitfulness, Vatican II had in 1965 reaffirmed that if a marriage is not fruitful through no fault of the spouses, it is still a true marriage.)
n. 10. This is a key section because it explicitly addresses responsible parenthood in five separate ways.
10.2 “In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions…” So there’s an intellectual aspect.
10.3 “In relation to the tendencies of instinct or passion, responsible parenthood means that necessary dominion which reason and will must exercise over them.” Here the Pope lays the groundwork for teaching about conception control through self control. That’s the aspect that contraceptionists want to deny or ignore.
10.4 “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 serious reasons [Latin: seriis causis] and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.’
That one-sentence paragraph packs a lot of teaching. First of all, the Pope shows that he is fully aware that families exist in concrete environments with factors that affect parents’ abilities to raise their children. These factors include every condition you can imagine—physical, economic, psychological, and social. Some couples will have such a happy combination of those factors that they have no good reasons not to have a large family. Other couples may feel so burdened by their combination of circumstances that they believe that God is not calling them to seek to have another child. It will be easy for them to see that they have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, and they may do so provided they act within the limits of the moral law.
Other couples may really wrestle with the question, “Do we have a sufficiently serious reason to avoid pregnancy?” They will find further help in section 16 that uses some other terms that modify or help to interpret what “serious reasons” means. Still, it is important to realize that just before the Pope pronounces his famous teaching against unnatural forms of birth control (in n. 11), he teaches that using systematic natural family planning to avoid pregnancy becomes morally good only in the context of having sufficiently serious reasons.
10. 5 “Responsible parenthood also and above all implies a more profound relationship to the objective moral order established by God, of which a right conscience is the faithful interpreter.” Conscience does not make the moral law; it can only interpret it. That means that first of all one has to form a correct conscience. This will be based on the “constant teaching of the Church” regarding “the very nature of marriage and of its acts.” Following one’s conscience means nothing if one has not made a diligent effort to form one’s conscience according to the law of God as brought to us through the centuries by his Church.
n. 11. This is the paragraph that clearly reaffirms 20 centuries of Christian Tradition against contraception.
First the Pope reaffirms traditional Catholic teaching about the basic goodness of the marriage act. Then he noted that God in his wisdom created human nature with cyclic “rhythms of fertility which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births.” Strictly speaking, the only rhythm of fertility that of itself spaces babies is what we now call “ecological breastfeeding.” That’s the form of nursing in which the mother fulfills her baby’s needs for frequent suckling and her full-time presence and in which the child’s frequent suckling postpones the return of the mother’s fertility. There’s much more about that elsewhere in this website. Also, In a woman’s normal menstrual cycle, there is a rhythm of fertility and infertility in each cycle, but in order for this to cause a separation of births, the spouses need to become aware of the wife’s signs of fertility and to abstain during the fertile time. This is systematic NFP and is referred to in sections 10.2 and 10.3 above.
Then came the prophetic word:
Nonetheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural [moral] law, as interpreted by their constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life.
I inserted “[moral]” because that’s what the Pope meant; he was not talking about the law of gravity and such things.
At the end of that sentence, the Pope referenced the teaching of Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii in 1930. That left no doubt in the mind of any informed person that the teaching of the Catholic Church about the immorality of contraception had not changed and will not change.
The core teaching of Humanae Vitae is this: The teaching of Jesus, “What God has put together, let no one take apart,” applies to each and every marriage act as well as to the marriage itself. Each and every marriage act must be a true marriage act.
Another approach is to start with a statement of what the marriage act ought to be. Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant. That 17-word statement is the covenant theology of sexuality that I have explained and promoted since I formally proposed it in the article quoted at the start of this essay. In brief, God’s plan for man and woman includes his plan for love, marriage and sexuality. Sexual intercourse is exclusively a marriage act. Within marriage, it ought to be a renewal of the faith, love, and commitment the spouses pledged on their wedding day. That is, the marriage act really needs to be a true marriage act. It must be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant—unreserved gift of self, caring love, commitment, fidelity, not deliberately closed to fruitfulness, permanent, for better and for worse.
n. 12 In this short section the Pope offers the reason why marital contraception is sinful.
That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning… 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. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.
Let’s start with the last sentence, a statement of the Pope’s personal opinion. With the benefit of hindsight it seems that it detracted from the overall message and would have been better left unsaid. Considering the massive dissent, that sentence makes the Pope look somewhat unrealistic. He failed to judge how much disordered passion can influence judgment—and already had done so.
I suppose the Pope had to use the words “unitive” and “procreative,” but I think Latin terms sometimes go over our heads and thus never sink in. But almost everyone gets the point if you ask two simple questions. “Who put together in one act what we call ‘making love’ and ‘making babies’?” Anyone who believes in God has to answer, “God.” The next question is an easy follow-up: “What is contraception except the effort to take apart what God himself has put together in the marriage act?” I don’t see how any believer can answer anything except this: “Well, yes, that’s what marital contraception is all about.”
That is why I wrote in the previous section that the core teaching of Humanae Vitae is that the teaching of Jesus about the unbreakable character of true marriage applies also to the individual marriage act. “What God has put together, let no one take apart.” If an individual “marriage act” is to be virtuous and holy, it has to reaffirm, at least implicitly and without contradiction, the committed love that made them married in the first place. On the other hand, it is sinful to engage in the “marriage act” while at the same time trying to take apart what God himself has put together in that act.
Or consider it this way: We married for better and for worse. But the body language of contraception says very clearly, “We take each other for better but definitely not for the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.” Such behavior contradicts the “for better and for worse of the marriage covenant. Because marital contraception contradicts what God himself has put together in the marriage act, such acts are not true to the covenant of marriage pledged by the spouses, and therefore they are sinful.
Lastly in this section, when the Pope noted that the connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act cannot “be broken by man on his own initiative,” he was setting the stage for his reaffirmation of the validity of natural family planning, and that follows in the next section.
n. 13 In this section, Paul VI first argues that any decent person should recognize that a sex act imposed by a spouse on the other spouse “without regard for his or her condition and lawful desires is not a true act of love.” Perhaps there are wives who beat or threaten their husbands in order to have sex, but more frequently it is husbands who unduly pressure wives for sexual gratification even to the extreme of marital rape. The Pope might say, “Who among you is going to say that marital rape is an act of married love?” His argument then continues something like this. If you admit that a marital sex act can be a complete contradiction to the unitive aspect of the marriage act and therefore make the act sinful, then you must also admit that there can be actions against the procreative aspect that render the act contradictory to the marriage act and therefore sinful. Contraception is such an action. He concludes that to use marital contraception “is to contradict also the plan of God and his will.”
Second, he teaches that it is morally permissible to make use of our knowledge about fertility and to use natural family planning to avoid pregnancy. To use NFP rightly “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.” He then reaffirms traditional Catholic teaching that “man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general” and then applies that principle. So also “he has no such dominion over his generative faculties.”
n. 14 In the first two paragraphs of this section, the Pope lists activities that are sinful by reason of contradicting God’s plan for life and love. Abortion. Sterilization, whether temporary or permanent, male or female. So it’s not only the sterilization surgery that is sinful but also the continuing acts of sterilized intercourse. There’s much more on that in Chapter 12 of Sex and the Marriage Covenant. His last sentence is well constructed to include every form of contraceptive behavior.
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.
The third paragraph replies to two arguments. Some had argued that contraception was a lesser evil in some marriages, but the Pope replied that
it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom.
That is, the end does not justify the means. It also needs to be said that the end does not homogenize the means. That is, having the same overall purpose does not make all the “means” morally the same. We recognize that truth immediately in every other area of life; the newspapers are full of stories about people who chose immoral or unlawful ways to achieve their goals. Almost no one will say that selling illegal drugs and working honestly are morally equal ways to pay the mortgage, and the sample principle applies to the various means of birth control. (More on that in Sex and the Marriage Covenant.) To repeat, a common goal does not homogenize the ways and means to achieve it.
The Pope also is responding to an argument by the so-called majority position of the former papal birth control commission. They had argued for a most-of-the-time-morality position, theorizing that if the marriage as a whole was open to life, the acts of contraceptive behavior would take their morality from the morally good, open-to-life acts. That’s like spouses agreeing that fidelity means being faithful when they’re both home but that non-marital acts when one of the spouses is traveling are not adultery but take their morality from the good at-home acts. (There’s more on that and the rest of birth control commission in Chapter 15 of Sex and the Marriage Covenant.) Pope Paul VI responded beautifully in one of the most important but neglected passages of the encyclical:
Consequently it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund [unfruitful, sterile] and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right by the ensemble of a fecund [fruitful] conjugal life.
The phrase “intrinsically dishonest” raises the question, “Why is it dishonest?” What the Pope is saying is that the contraceptive married act only pretends to be a marriage act, but it contradicts its true meaning and is therefore dishonest. It seems to me that many today do not mind thinking of themselves as lustful, but almost no one likes to think of himself or herself as dishonest or a liar. The papal language here is appropriate but perhaps has been overshadowed by the prophetic word in section 11.
n. 15 This short, one-sentence section may be the most misunderstood and misused part of the encyclical. Here the Pope invokes the traditional moral principle called the “principle of the double effect” or the “indirect voluntary” to teach that the Church accepts the use of truly therapeutic means “to cure diseases of the organism” even if this should result in temporary or permanent sterility.
For a definition of the principle of the double effect, see the “morality” section of “The Question Box” on this website. There you will find four conditions for the morally licit application of this principle. The fourth condition is this:
There must be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect. At least the good and evil effects should be nearly equivalent.
The misuse of section 15 has been that some advisors have told some women they can use the hormonal birth control pill to regulate their cycles or for some therapeutic use and continue to engage in the marriage act. This reflects a desire to be helpful, but it may reveal misunderstanding about how the birth control pill works. It may also reflect imprecise thinking about the principle of the double effect.
The birth control pill does not regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. Instead, it seeks to suppress her fertility cycle. The “monthly” bleeding while taking the Pill is withdrawal bleeding that occurs when she stops taking the active daily dosage for a few days.
The birth control pill (and most of this applies to all forms of hormonal birth control) accomplishes its birth control effectiveness in three ways that are mentioned in the typical package insert. It tends to suppress ovulation much of the time, thus being an agent of temporary sterilization. It thickens cervical mucus, making sperm migration more difficult. It changes the lining of the uterus to make it hostile to the implantation of a newly conceived baby should the first two actions fail. The first two actions are contraceptive, but the third action is abortifacient.
Because of the abortifacient potential of the Pill, there is a lack of the proportionality required for the morally valid application of the principle of the double effect. If a woman needs to take a medication with an abortifacient potential, she and her spouse should refrain from the marriage act until the effects of the medication have disappeared.
This section properly applies to diseases such as ovarian or uterine cancer where treatment requires the removal of those organs. It also applies to prostate cancer treatment that may either remove the prostate gland or at least prevent it from producing the seminal fluid needed to transport sperm.
n. 16 Here the Pope reaffirms that in using human knowledge we must respect the order of creation and thus the Creator.
Then he addresses the conditions that justify using NFP to avoid or postpone pregnancy. In section 10, he used “serious reasons” (seriis causis). Here he uses four other terms, translated here by Janet Smith: “just reasons” (justae causae), “worthy and weighty justifications”( (argumenta…honesta et gravia), “defensible reasons” (probabiles rationes) and “just reasons” (justae rationes). [Janet Smith, Why Humanae Vitae Was Right, p. 461]. It is the common opinion of commentators that section 16 modifies section 10 in some way, but to modify does not mean to delete. It is clear that the “serious reasons” of #10 is not restricted to life or death situations, but the reasons have to be substantial and certainly not trivial or selfish. That’s why, over the years, I have tried to combine all of these in the phrase “sufficiently serious reasons.”
In a letter to us dated February 23, 2007, His Eminence Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, quoted from the Final Declaration of the Congress on the 25th anniversary of the Encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, (Nov 24-26, 1993) as follows:
We support the legitimate ways of regulating conception. These are self-mastery, chastity and the practice of the authentic alternative of the natural methods for regulating fertility. Through these methods, parents can achieve or postpone conception when there are the serious reasons outlined in Humanae Vitae, number 10.
He then added: “Otherwise, the predictable risk is that of developing a so-called contraceptive mentality even for those who have recourse to natural methods.”
n. 17. This section is prophetic in the sense of predicting the future disastrous results of the widespread acceptance of contraception. An easy road towards conjugal infidelity. The general lowering of morality. The loss of encouragement and motivation needed especially by young men to be faithful to the moral law. Loss of respect for women. Considering wives merely as instruments for sexual gratification. Giving government a tool to impose on its citizens.
No one argues with that today. What many forget is the reason he gives. The only way to avoid these situations is to recognize that we are not morally free to impose our domination on the very plan that God has built into human nature. However, once you say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive sexual behavior, you have abandoned principled moral reasoning and have resorted to pragmatic rationalization.
n. 18 The Pope was prepared to some degree for rejection of this teaching, but that is no reason to keep silent. He notes that the Church remains, “like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction’ ” and must continue his mission.
In defending conjugal morals in their integral wholeness, the Church knows that she contributes towards the establishment of a truly human civilization; she engages man not to abdicate from his own responsibility in order to rely on technical means; by that very fact she defends the dignity of man and wife.”
For more on the connection between the acceptance of contraception and the dissolution of contemporary Western civilization, see “Mission and Vision” on the Home Page of this website.
Part Three. Pastoral Directives
n. 19 Having proclaimed the divine law, the Church, like Jesus, recognizes the need to help her people.
She knows their weaknesses, has compassion on the crowd, receives sinners; but she cannot renounce the teaching of the law which is, in reality, that law proper to a human life restored to its original truth and conducted by the spirit of God.
nn. 20-21 The teaching is regarded as impossible by many. I would add that this is especially true of those who advocate contraceptive sex education for the young. The Pope admits that “it would not be practicable without the help of God,” but that’s the difference. God does provide the help.
To let God help, married couples first have to stop feeling sorry for themselves. They need to have moral conviction about the truth of this teaching. They need to develop self-mastery. They need to dominate instinct through the development of ascetical practices. Too many today look upon self-mastery in sexual matters the same way they regard dietary self-discipline. They want a pill to make it effortless.
nn. 22-24 The Pope calls for educators to create “an atmosphere favorable to education in chastity, that is, to the triumph of healthy liberty over license by means of respect for the moral order.” A 21st century question: How many educators today believe there is a difference between a healthy liberty and a license to do whatever is legal in that time and place?
His plea to public authorities to uphold family morality has been tragically rejected. The logic of birth control has overruled the logic of human nature. In the first decade of the 21st century, the developed countries of the West are contracepting and aborting their way to oblivion and to an exchange of their Christian heritage for that of Islam whose adherents have babies. The logic of birth control has led to the question of whether to accept same-sex sodomy as a legal state of marriage.
His plea to men of science to provide a “sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms” has been answered affirmatively by a few.
n. 25 The Pope’s call to married couples reminds them that the graces of baptism and matrimony do indeed strengthen them to keep the commandments of married love. The Church recognizes that frequently there are difficulties, but these are part of Christian discipleship, the narrow way that leads to eternal life with Jesus.
If they sin, the Pope encourages them to not become discouraged but to have recourse to the mercy of God in the sacrament of Penance. He concludes this section with a long quotation from Ephesians in which St. Paul reminds husbands that they are to love their wives with the self-sacrificing love of Christ for his Church.
n. 26 In this short, one-paragraph section, the Pope provides the basis for “a new and most noteworthy form of the apostolate of like to like: it is married couples themselves who become apostles and guides to other married couples.” This section has been acted upon by some, and we believe that our NFP How-to manual at this website can be used both for self-instruction and by user-couples to help other interested couples.
n. 27 Here the Pope appeals to doctors to become well informed about NFP and to offer “wise counsel and healthy direction.” Once again, a few doctors have answered the call, but, unfortunately, most Catholics, even those who want to practice the Faith, still have to put up with physicians, even “Catholic” doctors, whose orientation and training is thoroughly in accord with the contraceptive sexual revolution.
n. 28 The Pope calls on priests. “Your first task—especially in the case of those who teach moral theology—is to expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity.” Once again, a few have answered the call. Read the text. Pray that all priests will soon answer the call.
n. 29 Jesus came to teach the divine truth about human love. On trial for his life, he bore witness to the truth about his very being and his mission. It cost him his life which he gave up out of love for us. The Pope reminds priests of this love and of their importance in helping couples to work their way through difficulties, not to become discouraged, and to grow in holiness.
To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.
nn. 30-31 Finally, the Pope asks the bishops of the Church to consider that the mission of safeguarding the holiness of marriage is one of their most urgent responsibilities. In doing so, they will be working for the happiness of spouses since “man cannot find true happiness—towards which he aspires with all his being—other than in respect of the laws written by God in his very nature, laws which he must observe with intelligence and love.”
* * *
In summary, the message of this encyclical is that God knew what he was doing when he created man and woman, their marital and sexual relationship, and the delights and the demands of true love. In God’s plan, sexual intercourse is exclusively a marriage act, and within marriage it must be a true marriage act, a symbolic renewal of their marriage covenant. Contraceptive behaviors contradict God’s plan. When married couples live out the plan of God, they and their families and the entire culture will benefit. This is the divine truth about human love, and the Church must keep on proclaiming it. When they have sufficient need, couples can practice natural family planning. The Church must do what it can to help couples develop the virtues necessary to live the demands of love and to provide whatever practical help it can through its bishops and priests, scientists and doctors, and couples helping other couples.