Celebrating Humanae Vitae

On April 4, 5, and 6, this year, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and twenty renowned theologians, lawyers, philosophers, and medical professionals celebrated Blessed Pope Paul VI’s visionary encyclical, Humanae Vitae, proclaimed 50 years ago this month. As one speaker noted, it was ironic that this celebration took place at Catholic University, the site of vociferous dissent immediately following the publication of the encyclical. The overarching theme of the symposium was that the document’s prophetic wisdom, manifested in both warnings and exhortations, had been borne out over the past 50 years resulting in its now unconditional affirmation at Catholic University.

The document had attempted to reassert what, until the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference, was the unified Christian conviction that artificial contraception violated God’s design for marriage and procreation. Blessed Pope Paul VI predicted that separating sexual intimacy from procreation would unleash behavior which, in fact, constituted the sexual revolution which closely followed only several years later. This pope warned:

[Let’s] first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness, and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Mary Eberstadt, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute, detailed the emergence of the sociological facts which have vindicated the Pope’s concern on several different fronts, only some of which will be addressed herein. Paraphrasing one of Pope Francis’ signature statements, she noted that the realities of contraceptive use have “trump[ed] the scholarly abstractions” on which the promotion of contraception was based. It is now incontrovertible that, in fact, the increased use of contraceptives has resulted in an increase of abortions, and a torrent of out-of-wedlock births, contrary to the predictions of contraception advocates.

Additionally, instead of insuring women more control over their lives, the sexual revolution, enabled by contraceptive use, has given men greater sexual power over women. Contraception has eroded the idea that men have equal responsibility in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. The depth of this phenomena was graphically described by a surprising source—an article by Janet Yellen, and two other colleagues, published in the secular Quarterly Journal of Economics on May 1, 1996:

Before the sexual revolution, women had less freedom, but men were expected to assume responsibility for their welfare. Today, women are more free to choose, but men have afforded themselves the comparable option. “If she is not willing to have an abortion, or use contraception,” the man can reason, ‘why should I sacrifice myself to get married?’ By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.

Frankly, this result should not have been a surprise since, as Ms. Eberstadt observed, the promise of sex on demand without consequences is the “strongest collective temptation humanity has ever encountered.”

Another social manifestation of contraception and abortion is the birth dearth, which has resulted in an epidemic of loneliness among the old. In Japan, for instance, this is manifested by a developing industry to clean up apartments in which deceased persons are found well after their death.

The symposium speakers also observed that the decadent reality of the past 50 years even exceeded Pope Paul’s specific predictions, although they flowed from the same logic. Homosexual marriage, in vitro fertilization, and gender ideology all stem from the rejection of God’s design for man, beginning with the separation of sex from procreation, and from marriage.

Margaret McCarthy, an assistant professor at the Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, noted that the current focus of gender ideology is to “eliminate” any notion that there is a given nature which precedes existence. “Gender frees mother from child.” “Sex is no longer indispensable” for procreation, which is made possible by the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual relations. Such thought, she concluded “tends toward the elimination of the sexes altogether,” with the result that women are freed from the constrictions of nature, the perceived power of men, the burdens of motherhood, and the instrumentalization of marriage.

However, Ms. McCarthy responded that the fruitfulness of procreation is an integral part of conjugal love. This underlying teaching of Humanae Vitae actually precludes the instrumentalizing of married love. When a child is naturally conceived, he or she is the “fruit of an act of mutual, gratuitous, and uncalculating self-forgetfulness,” rather than an act of power or dominion over life, which instrumentally produces a child.

Mary Eberstadt, joined by Teresa Collett, a St. Thomas School of Law Professor who has served on the Pontifical Counsel for the Family, also focused on the disturbingly concerted effort by the United Nations and governments to impose birth regulation on their own people, or on developing countries. The “ideological colonization”—a term used by Pope Francis—by the United Nations and developing countries was initially justified, in part, by the need to “improv[e] community composition of the ‘unfit.’” In a time of growing world population, the goal to depress fertility was also viewed as a means to “reduce threats to world peace, correct unjust social structures and cultural norms, decrease sexual violence and the number of unwanted children, protect the natural environment, all the while increasing personal prosperity and national economic development.”

Their talks described a pattern of arrogant, systematic imposition of artificial birth control and abortion. China’s continuing dictatorial one-child policy, and its targeting for extermination of unborn female children, was one example. Another example recalled India’s temporary application of some of the most egregious laws against procreation, despite the fact that Mahatma Ghandi had previously instructed that the sexual act should be related to the creation of precious human life.

These governmental actions attest to the accuracy of another prescient caution issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI:

[C]areful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. … Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

Western governments have persisted in promoting contraceptive use on an African population, despite the fact that Africans are among the most morally opposed to contraception, according to a cited Pew Research Center. Developing nations have responded to these efforts by asserting that socioeconomic development, and improved medical care for pregnant women and their unborn children, rather than increased use of contraceptives, would lead to less population growth. As women participate more frequently in the workplace, as infant mortality declines, and education increases, the need for large families would be diminished naturally, resulting in decreased births.

Ms. Collett recounted that coercive abortion is one of the methods advanced by the United Nations through its Family Planning Agency (UNFPA). Since President Reagan adopted the Mexico City policy, all Republican presidents have withheld funding of the UNFPA, while every Democratic administration has funded them. President Trump has expanded the policy to bar funding from any international program which promotes coercive abortion.

The existence of United Nations’ committees which monitor compliance with international conventions can also pose a challenge to developing nations. The committee reports can embarrass critiqued nations such that the latter feel compelled to respond to a committee’s distorted allegations. These reports can also influence entities, such as the World Bank, to condition loans to lendee countries based on the acceptance of contraception and abortion, with the idea that large populations tend to diminish the chance of a country’s economic development. Even gender fluidity can be the subject of such conditions.

Teresa Collett advised that such tactics have even been employed against the Vatican as the premier icon opposing this ideological colonization. The committee monitoring the Convention on Torture attempted to stigmatize the Church claiming that the sexual abuse permitted by Church representatives was essentially “torture.” Additionally, the committee charged with reviewing compliance with the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, faulted the Vatican for opposing abortion despite “at least one international convention which protects women and their children during pregnancy.”

In a seemingly counterintuitive and moving presentation on “Humanae Vitae and the Cross of Infertility,” Elizabeth Kirk, an attorney/scholar, credited Humanae Vitae for providing an answer to suffering caused by infertility which she promptly noted was the real disease—not fertility, as so many are want to believe today. She described the impact that infertility can have on the wife and husband, individually and as a married couple. For the woman there is the monthly hope of pregnancy which is continually dashed. Observing women who readily get pregnant, regardless of the circumstances, and that many of them discard that gift, only increases the pain caused by infertility. If the husband has a condition precluding conception, his masculinity can be diminished in not being able to engender a family. Sexual intercourse can seem without purpose. The yearning for a child can be so strong as to tempt the couple to embrace one of the technological methods which Donum Vitae makes clear separate the unitive and procreative elements of conjugal love, and treats the child, not as a gift of God, but as a much-desired consumer product.

Meaning for infertile married couples is found in Humanae Vitae’s affirmation that every conjugal act contains within it the characteristics of unity and fruitfulness, regardless of the couple’s status of fertility at the time of the act. The integral nature of conjugal love is not negated by temporary or permanent infertility. (In this regard, Margaret McCarthy had made the salient observation that married couples live most of their lives during infertile periods, whether monthly infertility, or that of the post-menopausal period.)

Indeed, through fidelity to the authentic expression of marital love, all marriages—whether or not physically fertile—are fruitful. A couple’s conjugal fruitfulness extends beyond conceiving a child. Obviously, those who bear offspring have the concomitant responsibility to rear their children. A married couple is called to share their love, and so they must tend to the needs of others, which may include the raising of adopted children, care of parents, or service to those in the extended family, work, parish, or community. In this way, their mutual love is sustained and strengthened. Hence, they will ask the Lord to make clear to them in what way He wants their love to be fruitful.

Ms. Kirk also suggested that spouses can grow closer through their shared suffering, and trust in the Lord’s plan for them. She recalled Scripture’s Hannah who found peace in a prayerful turning of her heart to God, which prepared her to accept the Lord’s decision to open or close her womb.

She urged pastors to regard infertile couples who do not seek technical conception as “silent witnesses” to the difficult, but true, teachings contained in Humanae Vitae. She also suggested that, since a significant percentage of married couples will experience infertility, that pre-Cana programs incorporate that topic, and proclaim the expansive notion of fruitfulness integral to conjugal love. By the way, Elizabeth and her husband, Bill, have walked the walk of fruitfulness—they have four adopted children.

Another element of the document’s prophetic wisdom is seen in its appeal to scientists and, medical personnel, to enhance and spread the true understanding of human sexuality. To scientists, Pope Paul VI urged that:

It is supremely desirable … that medical science should, by the study of natural rhythms, succeed in determining a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring. In this way, scientists, especially those who are Catholics, will, by their research, establish the truth of the Church’s claim that “there can be no contradiction between two divine laws—that which governs the transmitting of life, and that which governs the fostering of married love.”

He urged medical personnel to:

…regard it as an essential part of their skill to make themselves fully proficient in this difficult field of medical knowledge. For then, when married couples ask for their advice, they may be in a position to give them right counsel, and to point them in the proper direction.

Medical experts testified that this request has been heeded. The study of human reproduction has yielded various effective natural family planning (NFP) methods. These techniques are being enhanced by modern monitoring capabilities, including measurement of hormone levels, for which cell phone applications have been, or are being, developed.

These methods recognize that fertility is a powerful gift which must be respected, and for which a person has responsibility, no matter one’s state of life. Married couples who incorporate NFP into their married life preserve the integrity of the two-fold purpose of marital intimacy—unity of the couple and procreation—by abstaining from intercourse during the period of fertility at times in their marriage when they have determined they should not have children. Abstention is a human response of mutual consent to, and self-mastery of, their joint fertility, rather than an engagement of technological interference with the natural process of sexual love. Such self-mastery emanates from the respect for, and love of, one’s spouse as a human person, supported by prayer, as opposed to treating birth regulation as a merely technological phenomena.

In the final paragraph of the document, Blessed Pope Paul VI exhorted:

…all men of good will, great indeed is the work of education, of progress and of charity to which We now summon all of you.

Indeed, the entire symposium was a demonstration that this summons had been answered by lay men and women in multiple fields. The speakers were among those who have labored to plumb the depths of the encyclical, using the tools of their respective disciplines. They have shared the benefits of their efforts through instruction, explanation, and encouragement. Many of them have exhibited in their married lives that one can successfully and happily adhere to the truths of Humanae Vitae.

It has been through their efforts that many, including non-Catholics, have come to accept the truth of the document. Mary Eberstadt provided two examples of that effect, citing first a 2010 statement of Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

Evangelicals arrived late to the issue of abortion, and we have arrived late to the issue of birth control, but we are here now.

She then referenced a 2012 New York Times article, entitled “More Protestants Oppose Birth Control,” which explored the fact that Protestants had begun to recognize the wisdom of Humanae Vitae.

The truth about marriage’s sanctity, its requisite self-giving, exclusivity, oneness, and openness to life reflected in the conjugal act, must be proclaimed fearlessly, and with conviction. Janet Smith, who holds The Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and Teresa Collett, both encouraged the attendees to be confident in the attractiveness of the document’s truths when “winsomely” proclaimed. It has the power to transform one’s life and strengthen marriages.

The Symposium engendered a recognition that now is not the time to diminish this truth, or to make excuses for not adhering to it. Rather, the Church must be willing, as was Blessed Pope Paul, to challenge the faithful to meet the demands of the encyclical’s teachings by adopting the ascetical practices which make self-mastery possible. Now, Archbishop Chaput observed, is a “promising moment” to present these truths to “the most awake of [a new generation who] want something better, and more enduring, than the emptiness and noise they now have,” and “to feed and ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world and, thereby, lead it to Jesus Christ, and His true freedom and joy.”

Richard P. Maggi, Esq. About Richard P. Maggi, Esq.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq., has been a litigation attorney for the past 40 years. He is also a commentator on religion and politics, having been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, First Things (web edition), Crisis Magazine, the Washington Examiner, Human Life Review, and Notre Dame Magazine. For seven years, four of which they were co-leaders, he and his wife were members of the Pre-Cana team at Our Lady of Peace Parish in New Providence, New Jersey.


  1. Sorry,but you are 50 years too late. Sunday Mass attendances are now a fraction of what they were when Paul VI and Cardinal Ottaviani failed to consult and listen to the laity.

    • Avatar Rich Maggi says:

      Not sure of the import of your comment. In any event it is never too late to preach the truth. It is the laity which has been deepening and promoting the understanding of this teaching.

    • All the more reason to preach HV every mass every week for 50 years from now.

  2. Brian says: July 13, 2018 at 1:22 am
    “Paul VI and Cardinal Ottaviani failed to consult and listen to the laity.”
    ‘Prof. Seifert concluded by underscoring that, in Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II had already guarded against the errors of situational ethics, utilitarianism and consequentialism, which obscure the “fundamental truth” in virtue of which we can claim that “there can be no grounds whatever for permitting an act that is morally evil in itself”. And while Seifert did not patently expose Pope Francis’s views, it is evident that anxiety is increasing due to Amoris Laetitia’s approach. And in fact, in his closing remarks, Archbishop Negri hinted at the difficulties the Church is facing in this phase of its existence, urging Catholics to be “missionaries of the truth” on Humanae Vitae. Undoubtedly, this may entail forms of ‘filial corrections’ of the most controversial statements by the current papacy. The problem has been openly addressed by Prof. De Mattei.
    ‘The Symposium engendered a recognition that now is not the time to diminish this truth, or to make excuses for not adhering to it. Rather, the Church must be willing, as was Blessed Pope Paul, to challenge the faithful to meet the demands of the encyclical’s teachings by adopting the ascetical practices which make self-mastery possible. Now, Archbishop Chaput observed, is a “promising moment” to present these truths to “the most awake of [a new generation who] want something better, and more enduring, than the emptiness and noise they now have,” and “to feed and ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world and, thereby, lead it to Jesus Christ, and His true freedom and joy.” ‘