Pope John Paul II, Humanae Vitae, and the Theology of the Body

Humanae Vitae, correctly understood and followed, could change the world.

In September 2010, Fr. Matthew Habiger, OSB, Associate Director of Natural Family Planning (NFP) Outreach visited made a presentation to adults and teenagers here in Camas, Washington. Fr. Habiger recommended that I procure a copy of Michael J. Waldstein’s book on the theology of the body, entitled; Man and Woman He Created Them, (Paulist Press). I was certainly impressed with the beauty of his translation, but it was not until reading the last section pertaining to John Paul II’s discussion and analysis of Humanae Vitae that I concluded that the Pope saved till last the crowning gem of his weekly catecheses. George Weigel, in his book, Witness to Hope, asserted his belief that the theology of the body “constitute(s) a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church”. So, let it be.

In the Book of Tobit, we read that Sarah’s marriage to seven former husbands resulted in their deaths on each of the wedding nights. Although it does not explicitly say so, the implication is that they were killed by an evil spirit because they lusted after Sarah. Tobiah, on the other hand, arose from bed, and with Sarah, prayed to God for safety and delivery. They not only survived but, as the story ends, grew old together. In Michael Waldstein’s introduction, we read: “The Sexual Revolution was heralded by its advocates as a breakthrough for human development.” Waldstein goes on to quote Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud, self-acclaimed advocate for the sexual revolution, who stated: “The essential social expression of this damage (sexual repression) is purposeless (irrational) action by human beings: their insanity, their mysticism, their readiness for war, etc. … The core of life’s happiness is sexual happiness.”

Yeah, right. The question is: What has the “Sexual Revolution” wrought? I would suggest it encouraged: infidelity, increasing divorce rates, increased out-of-wedlock pregnancy, pornography, blatant homosexuality, AIDS, and massive multi-billion dollar abortion and contraception industries.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his most famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae. In 1960, the “pill” had become available, raising the expectations of many that a change in Church teaching would follow. Owing to the immediate, vocal and vicious dissent which greeted the encyclical, I believe that the Catholic Church lost the opportunity of the ages. In 1979, John Paul II introduced, over four years, his series on the “theology of the body.”  Pope John Paul II presented his catecheses on Humanae Vitae (sessions 118 through 133) from July 11 through November 28, 1984. These sessions—an integral part of his presentation on the theology of the body—while delivered last, brought about a more clear, and reasoned, teaching of this beautiful, but rejected, encyclical, Humane Vitae, which addresses itself to the subject of human love, conjugal morality and spirituality.

I will limit my discussion here to the section of John Paul II’s catechesis, referring to “the Redemption of the Body and the Sacramentality of Marriage”. I believe the Pope’s presentation primarily reflects the constant teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, willed by God, which stresses “the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, which are unable to be broken by man on his own initiative” (HV 12). This teaching thus becomes “an indispensable condition for acting in the truth, and for behaving in conformity, with the values of the moral norm….according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman” (HV 12), that is,  the very nature of conjugal relations. Furthermore, Paul VI asserted: “We believe that the human beings of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principal” (HV 12), or, the right understanding of the innermost structure of the conjugal act. This teaching is not only a part of the natural law, but also part of the moral order, revealed by God. For this reason, I believe it is important for all Catholics—and, especially Catholic theologians—to reread Humanae Vitae in order to better understand its moral teaching.

Gaudium et Spes (51) asserts that: “The Church issues the reminder that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws, pertaining to the transmission of life, and those pertaining to the fostering of authentic conjugal love.” This rule of understanding and teaching of the Church reflects directly on the lives of human beings, and although challenging, it demands serious engagement and ennobling effort, along with true pastoral concern, for individuals, families, and society.

Responsible parenthood
What constitutes “responsible parenthood”? Objective standards, not sincere intentions or motives, must determine what responsible parenthood is, which should be based on true love and mutual self-giving, requiring the virtue of conjugal chastity. This obligation requires a mature judgment of personal conscience: knowledge of, and reverence for, the physiologic functions of fertility, an integral part of the human person. Self-mastery of human nature versus the use of artificial contraceptives, or taking advantage of a woman’s infertile period in trying to avoid pregnancy, underlies this dispute. In a true sense, “when the conjugal act is deprived of its inner truth, because it is deprived of its procreative capacity, it also ceases to be an act of love.” This constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act, opening the door to spousal manipulation. On the other hand, Humanae Vitae fully approves the natural regulation of fertility, defining it as “responsible fatherhood and motherhood,” and requiring perfect self- mastery from an ethical point of view”

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI asserted that abortion, direct sterilization, and any overt actions to render procreation impossible, are illicit (HV 14), while recourse to the infertile period is morally permissible if pregnancy is to be avoided and depends on serious motives to space children due to physical or psychological conditions extant in the family or even society (HV 16).

We define a virtue as a habitual, and firm, disposition in order to do the good. In practicing the morally licit regulation on fertility, John Paul II defines periodic continence as a virtue that is in complete conformity with the natural law, the order of nature, or, if you will, of the Creator’s providential plan. Further, he stated that: “Humanae Vitae underlines several times that responsible parenthood is connected with a continual effort, and a total commitment, that can be realized only at the price of a precise ascesis (self-discipline).” This underlies the cardinal virtue of temperance rightly understood. These natural methods teach four goods: patience, generosity, self-control, and sexual maturity. The Pope further states that: “This discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace and facilitates … attention to one’s partner and helps drive out selfishness.” He continues: “These goods are more than a component of conjugal and familial spirituality as a whole” and act to safeguard “the two meanings, the unitive and the procreative, of the conjugal act in reverence for their inseparability” (HV 21). Periodic continence, while difficult, is not only a virtue, but also an act of the will, an act of love in the true sense of the word; love for the spouse, love for the family and, if you will, love for society.

John Paul II then begins a deeper analysis of the virtue of continence. Periodic continence is not without difficulty. “This difficulty derives from the fact that the power of love is planted in man threatened by concupiscence”. Continence is part of the cardinal virtue of temperance and “consists in the ability to master, control and orient the sexual drives,” i.e., concupiscence of the flesh. Some couples complain that a contradiction exists in Humanae Vitae; if it is not licit to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal union, “then spouses would be deprived of the right to conjugal union when they cannot responsibly allow themselves to procreate.” Paul VI answers this “difficulty” by asserting that the conjugal act itself provides the dignity proper to it in its procreative meaning, additionally providing all the other indisputable forms of affection found in conjugal chastity and spirituality.

John Paul II further states: “Continence means nothing other than the spiritual aimed at expressing the ‘language of the body’ not only in the truth but also in the authentic richness of the ‘manifestations of affection.’” He then defined two other aspects of the sexual drive: arousal and emotion. Arousal, he maintained, tends toward sensual and bodily pleasure in the conjugal act, while emotion limits itself to other manifestations of affection in which the spousal meaning of the body expresses itself. The conjugal act, an effect of arousal, also results in deep emotional stirrings by the other person. Humanae Vitae teaches responsible fatherhood and motherhood, requiring periodic continence “as the verification of a mature conjugal love.” This is the essence of conjugal morality and spirituality. It is not enough to know and understand the “biological laws” or the “rhythms” of fertility, but, rather, it is the self-discipline of periodic continence which creates that moral and spiritual interior freedom, providing the total personal gift that is man in the “communio personarum.” This is the essence of spousal relationship. In fact, the practice of the natural methods requires precisely the same kind of commitment as marriage itself does.

Furthermore, Pope John Paul II points out that in Humanae Vitae, “the fundamental element of conjugal spirituality is the love, united with conjugal chastity, poured out in the hearts of the spouses, as a gift of the Holy Spirit.” Chastity provides for the development of the “affective manifestations” as “life of the Spirit,” and adds, above all, the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit as the spouses mature in virtue. Reverence for the twofold meaning of the conjugal act in marriage is born from the gift of reverence for God’s creation: the inner truth of the mutual “language of the body” in conjugal life.

We live in a contracepting culture. At the conclusion of his catecheses, Pope John Paul II stated: “The antithesis of conjugal spirituality is constituted, in some sense, by the subjective lack of such understanding, connected with anti-conceptive practices and mentality.” Make no mistake about it.

The August-September 2011 issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review contains an article by Frs. Habiger and McCaffrey of NFP Outreach (www.nfpoutreach.org) entitled: Blueprint for an NFP-Focused Parish. The article speaks directly to what needs to be done. A studied review of this article would be most appropriate.

My article touches only on the peaks of Pope John Paul II’s profound thought. When one reads Michael Waldstein’s work slowly, carefully, and with prayerful understanding, one cannot help but see its beautiful exposition. In doing so, one can also see the logic, the beauty, and the truth of the Church’s teaching in this magnificent encyclical. In addition, its message needs to be preached, and elucidated, from every pulpit in the world until people finally understand it. Its teaching and acceptance could change the world!

Dr. Charles W. Norris, M.D. About Dr. Charles W. Norris, M.D.

Charles W. Norris, M.D. is a retired Obstetrician/Gynecologist and a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, class of 1957. He can be reached at chazno@comcast.net.


  1. Avatar bill bannon says:

    Humanae Vitae was twiced described, at its own press conference in 1968, as “non infallible” by Msgr. Lambruschini, who was not corrected at all in subsequent days publically by Paul VI, as would have been apposite if he were not saying what the Pope counseled him to say. Listening to that news report, and that description of “non infallible,” were millions of Catholics who, as children, were told how special ex cathedra ,encyclicals are …as nuns readied them for the Assumption encyclical in 1950. You heard a hundred times….look how special the Assumption encyclical is…it is infallible. If you were twelve years old in 1950, you were thirty years old in 1968. You had been trained to put infallible encyclicals in the stratosphere and anything less in the atmosphere.

    Humanae Vitae in part got hit with rejection by not being infallible nor ex cathedra ( crystal clear form of infallible unlike the universal ordinary magisterium, about which debates flourished among theologians).
    Secondly, at that time, the main news magazines (Time/ Newsweek, etc.), in doctor office waiting rooms and in homes, had stories about what odd things saints and Popes had said a thousand years ago about sex.
    Pope Gregory wanting couples to atone for the admixture of immoderate pleasure in sex and certain positions being forbidden in sex. The laity wondered why their Catholic schools had not informed them of these extremes. Why were they hearing it from Time instead? Distrust then was a factor.
    Pope Paul VI should have shown he was capable of public debate. If, for instance, a Karl Rahner or Bernard Haring were wrong in dissenting, why couldn’t Paul VI debate them either in print or on TV.
    In short, there were manifold trust issues at that time which varied with literacy level, and which everyone is forgetting now, because we are constructing a version which continues to flatter Popes as per usual…and which seems to be our main goal in the Catholic publishing world.
    Many things led to the explosion of divorce….contraception, easy divorce, then no fault divorce, affluence…beginning with two televisions per family in the ’60s, TV shows, that in those days showed necking as a sport, ( the Dean Martin show…a Catholic). And bad example of famous Catholics like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra…3 marriages for Dean, and 4 for Sinatra.

    • Charles W. Norris, M.D. Charles W. Norris, M.D. says:

      Dear Mr. Bannon;
      What do your comments have to do with the issue at hand? Am I missing something?

      Charlie Norris, M.D.

  2. Thankfully, a thoughtful precis of some fundamental points that make clearer the trajectory of Theology of the Body. Often treated as a novelty, TOB’s ground is the same as HV and Casti Conubii. Bringing the truth of how God has shaped things before a culture which delights in cobbling and reworking things in the name of improvement and advancement requires these sorts of thoughtful essays. Thanks.

  3. Avatar Dcn. George M. Garber,Jr. says:

    Will you make H&PR “printer-friendly”?? This would be an excellent idea.
    Please respond.
    God Bless!


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