A Reflection on Humanae Vitae

Recently I watched a television interview with an eloquent defender of Humanae Vitae, but at its conclusion I was disappointed. To be sure, the speaker made a brilliant consequentialist defense of the encyclical, but this time the emphasis seemed to be a bit too much on section 17 of the encyclical. That’s the section in which Pope Paul VI predicted that the societal acceptance of contraception would yield four kinds of noticeable bad consequences. It reminded me somewhat of the negativity I have seen in political campaigns. Also, while a consequentialist argument reaffirms believers, the bad stuff too frequently is seen by unbelievers as simply a challenge to be overcome. Thus, I think that other aspects of Humanae Vitae are even more important, and need our attention.

To be sure, the Pope was correct. There certainly has been an increase in conjugal infidelity, as is indicated by a 500% increase in the divorce rate since Margaret Sanger began to promote marital contraception as a path for happier marriages.

There has been a general lowering of morality as indicated all too well by a 50 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate, with even higher rates, up to 80 percent, in some social or racial groups, and also by horrendous rates of abortion.

There has been a general loss of respect of women by men, and also by women themselves, some of whom have openly stated that women should want to be regarded as sex objects, and should use this as a means to advance on the corporate ladder. The so-called “me-too” movement is just one more sign of the correctness of this prediction by Pope Paul VI.

And certainly the world has seen certain governments impose birth control, and even abortion, on unwilling citizens.

But Pope Paul VI was not the first to make such predictions. In 1929, secular humanist, Walter Lippmann, reviewed the discussion of sexual matters occurring in the 1920s—a discussion that was prompted by the growing acceptance of marital contraception. As he wrote in A Preface to Morals, the Catholic Church, and others who oppose contraception on principle, are quite right “in recognizing that whether or not birth control is eugenic, hygienic, and economic, it is the most revolutionary practice in the history of sexual morals” (Transaction, 1982 edition, 291, my emphasis).

In 1930, the more conservative bishops of the Church of England warned that the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of marital contraception would lead to the acceptance of sodomy. They were horribly correct. Today, it is considered acceptable for Anglican bishops to live in a so-called “same-sex” marriage.

But there is much more to Humanae Vitae, and here I want to emphasize three vital teachings.

1. The key teaching of Humanae Vitae is that “… each and every marriage act must be left open to the transmission of life” (HV 11). Pope Paul VI was obliged to use this specific “each and every” language because the pro-contraception party had proposed its “Totality” thesis. That is, they proposed that if the marriage as a whole was fruitful, couples could use contraception—some of the time or most of the time. That line of reasoning cannot say “NO” to sodomy, or anything else of mutual acceptance. The acceptance of a “some of the time” or “most of the time” ethic would render the Ten Commandments as the “Ten Suggestions.”

2. The words of Jesus about marriage apply with equal force to the marriage act: “What God has put together, let no one take apart.” The encyclical teaches in section 12 that the “each and every act” teaching in section 11 “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 and the procreative meaning.”

Let’s put that in everyday language. If we ask, “Who put together in one act what we call “making love” and “making babies,” the theist has to answer: “God Himself….” And what is contraception except the studied effort to take apart what God Himself has put together? That’s exactly what it is.

The insurmountable problem with the acceptance of marital contraception is this: once an ethical system accepts the principle that it is morally permissible to take apart what God has put together in marriage and sexual matters, there is no logical stopping point.

Avid dissenter, Michael F. Valente, made clear that dissent from Humanae Vitae logically entails the acceptance of bestiality—the copulation of a human person with an animal. His 1970 book, Sex: The Radical View of a Catholic Theologian, received very little attention because he truly “spilled the beans” about the true meaning of the dissent from Humanae Vitae. He made it very clear that dissent from Humanae Vitae logically means that any, and every, imaginable sexual act has only two criteria: the parties must be of legal age and give mutual consent. That’s where much of Western culture is at today in thinking about sexuality.

3. Section 14 more fully responds to the “Totality” thesis, concluding: “Consequently it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund [infertile or sterile], and so is intrinsically dishonest, could be made honest and right by the ensemble [totality] of a fecund [fruitful] conjugal life” (my emphasis).

The teaching that the contracepted marriage act is intrinsically dishonest means that, on the other hand, there must be an intrinsically honest or true meaning. Thus the positive teaching here is that the human sexual act has a divinely created intrinsic meaning, and that is tremendously important.

The biblically-based teaching of the Church makes it clear that in God’s plan, the human sexual act is meant to be exclusively a marriage act. That is, Sacred Scripture explicitly condemns, in alphabetical order, adultery, bestiality, fornication, incest, prostitution, and sodomy. Contraception and masturbation are implicitly condemned by the death penalty God delivered to Onan for his contraceptive behavior. All that is left is the honest marriage act.

Then, within marriage, the marriage act is meant to be a TRUE marriage act. That is, it ought to be a renewal of the faith and love and commitment of the marriage covenant, for better and for worse, including the imagined possible “worse” of possible pregnancy. On the contrary, the contraceptive marriage act says, “I take you for better but positively NOT for the imagined ‘worse’ of possible pregnancy.” It contradicts the meaning of the marriage act, and is thus intrinsically dishonest.

There is much other beautiful teaching about love, marriage, and sexuality in Humanae Vitae, teachings with which the dissenters would agree. However, the three points above are the heart of the matter, and these are the truths against which the dissenters have raged.

     * * *

The “renewal of the marriage covenant” concept is not new. I first proposed it in “Holy Communion: Eucharistic and Marital” published by “Ave Maria” magazine exactly 15 months before Humanae Vitae (February 25, 1967). It can be stated in 17 words: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant.”

That article was included in the 1981 publication of Birth Control and the Marriage Covenant, and that’s the book that Scott Hahn credits for helping him and Kimberly accept Catholic teaching on birth control when they were still Protestants. (At that time, Scott considered himself the most anti-Catholic person at their Protestant seminary.) They also credit this book for starting them on their way into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Saint John Paul II used this concept in his 1994 “Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II” as follows: “In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant” (n 12). That gives papal, and thus ecclesial authority, to this concept. It gives a positive meaning and emphasis to the Traditional teaching affirmed by Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae, as well as other ecclesial documents cited in the latter encyclical.

Our experience is that the “covenant renewal” concept makes sense to ordinary people of good will. They “get it.” However, it is not at all magical. Just throwing those words at folks does not make Humanae Vitae converts. What is needed on the part of those who hear it is the attitude of discipleship. The Hahns were helped in this regard by a prayer taught them by Kimberly’s father, a Presbyterian pastor. “Lord, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, do whatever you want me to do, say whatever you want me to say, and give away whatever you want me to give away” (Rome Sweet Home, Ignatius, 1993, 115). In short, a prayer of discipleship: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Is periodic abstinence sometimes a daily cross? Of course. But isn’t the daily cross simply part of Christian discipleship?

The dire predictions in section 17 are very helpful in getting attention because they are so pragmatically correct. But the positive teachings of Humanae Vitae also need to be taught because they are even more important for lasting conviction and conversion.

John F. Kippley About John F. Kippley

John F. Kippley is Co-founder and president of Natural Family Planning International. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He married Sheila (Matgen) Kippley, and they have five children and ten grandchildren. He earned a B.A. in philosophy at St. Paul Seminary; an M.A. in industrial relations from University of Minnesota; an M.A. in theology from the University of San Francisco; an M.A.T. in applied theology from the School of Applied Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; and an Honorary Doctor of Ethics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has authored several books, including: Battle-Scarred: Justice Can Be Elusive; Birth Control and Christian Discipleship; Marriage Is for Keeps; Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality; and multiple articles and brochures dealing with Catholic sexual morality, natural family planning, and related issues. All the books and many of the articles are currently available at www.NFPandmore.org, the website of NFP International.


  1. Avatar Sam Nigro says:

    Marriage is also consistent with Nature and Nature’s God….Marriage is the psychosocial pheromone for humans which keeps sexuality consistent with sexuality in nature: Subhuman animals have biochemical pheromones which, unless biochemically disordered, keep sex between mature opposite sexed members of the same species consistent with reproduction. Thus subhuman animals do not become “pollution sex” crazed as has humanity without marriage. To be in tune with nature, traditional marriage is essential.