While Humanae Vitae is viewed today as the Catholic Church’s official response to the increasing acceptance of birth control within marriage, the actual teaching contained within Pope Paul VI’s landmark 1968 encyclical is much more profound and prophetic than many remember.
Looking back over the past forty plus years since it’s release we can see that many of the current culture wars being waged have been built upon a contraception foundation. Divorce, abortion, pornography and even same-sex “marriage” all require an acceptance of contraception, or to be more accurate, a contraceptive mentality. Sadly, we have all seen the studies which reference upwards of 90% of Catholics using contraception within their marriage. How can this be? With the Synod on the Family continuing this October, it is important to address this great crisis facing the Church and the family today.
While the Church has always condemned the use of contraception officially, we have sadly seen a de facto acceptance of it, often under the guise of pastoral sensitivity. Make no mistake about it, this false mercy is devoid of both charity and truth. Four decades of failed catechesis and poor pastoral care require that we revisit Humanae Vitae and the true meaning and purpose of marriage.
The Meaning of Marriage
To begin, what exactly did Pope Paul VI say about marriage in Humanae Vitae?
Marriage, and specifically married love, is first defined as a love that is “above all fully human.” It is meant to survive the ups and downs of life and to grow, “so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul.”
Pope Paul goes on to state that married love is a love which is total; a “special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything.”
Additionally, love within marriage is also “faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death.”
Finally, married love is that which is capable of bringing forth new life.
The Holy Father references the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage…”
The Unitive and Procreative Purpose of the Marital Act
Having described the nature of married love, Pope Paul VI then directly relates this to the true purpose of the conjugal act:
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.
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. (HV 12)
Abortion, Sterilization and Contraception
Having restated the constant teaching of the Church, and having defined the purpose of both marriage and married love, Pope Paul next declares that all means of birth control are unlawful:
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.(HV 14)
The Prophetic Warning
Most interesting, and most tragic in hindsight, is the prophetic warning issued by Pope Paul VI and yet ignored by so many. Infallible when instructing on issues of faith and morals, the Church described in Humanae Vitae what would occur in a culture accepting of contraception.
First, Pope Paul VI warns that artificial methods of birth control would result in marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards, particularly among the young.
Second, the use of contraception causes the objectification of women, with men losing the sense of reverence for women and their physical and emotional equilibrium.
Third, the promotion of artificial methods of contraception on populations by governments who care little for the precepts of the moral law would result in coercive measures and the loss of freedom.
The Culture of Death: The Fruit of Dissent
The Culture of Death, as Pope St. John Paul II labeled contemporary society in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, was largely born out of the open dissent and even hostility that greeted Humanae Vitae.
The laity largely rejected the authority of the Church in the matter of personal sexuality. Many theologians, parish priests, men and women religious and even episcopal conferences sought to diminish, or in some cases outright dismiss, the Church’s stance on contraception. For the past forty six years many of the faithful have either been quietly encouraged to “search their conscience” with regards to contraception or have simply never heard it addressed by their priest. I heard an archbishop of a major American diocese state during a 2013 interview that he could not remember the last time he had given a homily on contraception.
So what has been the “fruit” of this rejection of Humanae Vitae?
Contraception has now been defined as health care, as a right and as something that must be subsidized by tax payer money and provided for by employers regardless of conscience or religious conviction.
Roe v. Wade was still five years away when Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968. However, in the 40 years since the Supreme Court “discovered” the right to an abortion in the United States Constitution we have seen over 50 million unborn children killed in the womb.
Pornography, the ultimate objectification of women and a complete distortion of the true meaning of sex, is now a multi-billion dollar industry that is as close as your computer or the television in your own home. Worse yet, mainstream society has largely recognized pornography as legitimate entertainment. Pornography epitomizes and celebrates the idea of sex strictly for pleasure, removing it entirely from the context of marriage.
Widespread fornication among the young is a plague ravaging society. The proponents of the Culture of Death advise that sex education from an earlier age -even as early as kindergarten- and easy access to birth control, are the solutions for this epidemic. Contraception, the root cause of the problem, is now presented as the solution to the problem.
The cultural acceptance of cohabitation. Fewer Catholics are getting married and those that do are waiting longer on average to get married. These cohabitating couples are firmly convinced of the very necessity to contracept since children are -as of yet- unwanted.
In 1968 there was no widespread, well organized, homosexual movement to contend with. The American Psychological Association was still several years away from removing the stigma of “mental illness” from same sex attraction. The rationale for their cause was aided by an entire generation of heterosexuals engaging in sterile, recreational, sex strictly for pleasure who had no compelling argument for why homosexuals shouldn’t also be allowed to engage in sterile, recreational, sex strictly for pleasure. Neither scenarios were producing life. With the “Marriage Equality” movement we are now seeing the logical and destructive culmination of this contraceptive mentality.
Despite what many Europeans bishops may contend these days, the greatest challenge facing the family has little to do with the divorced and civilly remarried being unable to receive communion. It is instead the complete misunderstanding of marriage, it’s meaning and purpose, and the de facto tolerance of contraception by the vast majority of Catholics that is the real crisis facing the Church today. If society fails at marriage and the family, the faith and culture collapse. There is no evangelization, no Church as a field hospital, if the family is destroyed by the self inflicted wound of contraception.
This article originally appeared on the author’s website. It has been revised and re-printed here with permission.
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.