Humanae Vitae: An Unwelcomed Anniversary in the West

Conceptually pastoral weaknesses in expression, not errors, within Humanae Vitae, might have led to its lack of reception on the part of some priests, bishops, and people. For a host of reasons, it did not turn hearts and minds to understand, resulting in a hatred of contraceptive “love.” The delay of Bl. Paul VI from the conclusion of Vatican II in making a moral decision on the use of the “pill” in marital intimacy might have led to a lack of reception. Moreover, resistance to HV might have been due to a failure to correct, admonish, and remove moral theological professors in seminaries, and Catholic colleges, who were openly teaching that sometimes contraceptive acts are good acts. Further, five years of marital couples practicing contraception, thinking it was good to do so, makes it very difficult to give up contracepting. The draw of sexual pleasure, without worry of children, is never easily diminished or stopped, especially when the head of the Church is faraway, and a benevolent confessor is nearby soothing one’s conscience.

Statistics consistently show that a very small minority of husbands and wives practice NFP.1 What went wrong? Maybe not in the order of truth, but in the order of persuasion…? With Friday abstinence gone, and its attached mortal sin eliminated, with the Mass in English, and celebrated with subjective elements from the priest facing his people, and occasionally making up parts of the liturgy, and the spirit of Vatican II hailing the primacy of conscience—HV seemed like a stern command of the old pre-Vatican II Church of edicts, decrees, and excommunications, which curtailed human freedom to do what seemed, at the time, to be obviously the right thing to do.

After all, HV was written not only for bishops and theologians, but for the faithful, and to all men of good will, who would, the Pope thought, give an understanding assent to its contents. The very many objections to the Tradition’s teaching against contraception during the five years of hiatus between the report of the commission on marriage, was not discussed in HV. One could get the false impression during that time, that mounting dissent against the constant teaching of the Church was not a real issue. Moral teaching appeared to be many degrees below faith found in dogmatic definitions (certain over 200 of them). People could proudly call themselves Catholic because they consented to the Apostles Creed. Of course, so do many protestant communions do the same.

However, what someone believes, and how someone lives, seemed to be a kind of intellectual chasm to many of theologians at the time, as seen in the previous Dutch Catechism, which led to a present, almost-defunct church in the Netherlands. The former told Catholics what to believe with some lacunae but said very little on how to live one’s faith except in vague terms. Therefore, when HV was published, and rather tardy (five years after the conclusion of the experts chosen by Bl. Paul VI were tendered to him), many of the dissenting arguments in favor of contraception were left unanswered, and many, if not a majority, of Catholics were using contraceptives, given the silence of the Pope, and the knowledge that the majority of his chosen advisers favored contraception under certain conditions—the practical beginning of “proportionalism.” By an authoritative decree, HV over-rode both minority and majority reasoning of the time by simply asserting the Tradition of the Church, as recently formulated by two previous popes. In the document, there were also prophecies about the future if contraception was a morally good act (all of them became true in retrospect), but there were not many convincing arguments answering the false reasoning of the dissenters to back up the major conclusions of HV.

The paragraph which shocked a majority of theologians and laity under the title “Respect for the Nature and Purpose of the Marriage Act” was the following:

11. These acts, by which husband and wife are united in chaste intimacy, and by means of which human life is transmitted, are, as the council recalled, “noble and worthy,” and they do not cease to be lawful if, for causes independent of the will of husband and wife, they are foreseen to be infecund, since they always remain ordained toward expressing and consolidating their union. In fact, as experience bears witness, not every conjugal act is followed by a new life. God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births. Nonetheless, the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life.2

The big issue causing the cultural problem was the “pill,” which superficially did not seem to interfere with conjugal intercourse physically like the traditional condom, or “withdrawal” being another form of contraception altogether. Therefore, the pill was thought not to interfere with nature. Likewise, the body, as such, was not a “me” but an aspect of my personality, especially my chemistry, which I can manipulate often when I am ill, the beginning of dualism, or I inhabit a body like a possession.

The argument was simple: if my family is already too large, then having another child is worse than having the flu. And reason suggests preventing a disease, or curing it with a pill, is the paradigm for keeping fertility under control, lest too many children undermine family life, both financially and emotionally. It was a matter of practicality. “It preserves the common good of my family, as I cannot afford another mouth to feed.” “God expects me to use common sense.” “The pill is medicine for my family equilibrium.”

One easily charged the Pope, at the time, that being open to the transmission of human life could mean the transmission of death to “my family.” So, it would seem that contraception would defend my family from the ill effects of having another child. Thus entered the false idea that having a child is a health issue, especially for women, psychologically-speaking. Likewise, having a child was, therefore, not always a blessing from God, but a potential curse, given other values at-stake, such as one’s career, job, or future marriage.

These tugs at the heart then led fuzzy minds to the false conclusion that abortion is sometimes a reasonable solution to family planning for the future. For the first time, in light of knowing that nature has already implanted periods of infertility in the chemistry of a woman, then it seemed reasonable to conclude one can assist these periods of infecundity with pills, operations, and the like.

These deep emotional pulls of the heart (feelings overcoming reason) were the problems facing the man and woman on the street, and were largely ignored by HV. To the uneducated, or slightly educated, HV gave spouses a seeming slap in the face because the prohibition of contraception seemed like a decree of the Vatican, a human institution, not a precept of God—neither being found in the New Testament, nor clearly found in the Old Testament, but clearly found in the writings of celibate popes, and saints of the past.

The next paragraph of HV, on a much higher level of thought, attempted to answer the issue of control of one’s bodily chemistry and functions, and seemed to suggest the Pope’s teaching was almost evident to “men of our day”:

12. 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. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. 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 toward 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.

The average couple could say “who says it is found to be inseparable, that is, the connection of the unitive and procreative meaning of our sex life? We separate many things in our bodies when they are harmful. I can separate by my initiative many meanings in my life when it is convenient. Just watch me. Keeping my family intact is an even higher calling than parenthood.” These are powerful emotional arguments, lacking in rigor and depth, but they needed to be answered if there was to be a timely persuasion of the truth of the human body.

It was here in paragraph 11 where Paul VI could have said that if the two meanings of a conjugal, or sex act, are breakable in principle by the will of human beings, then all the morality of sexuality disintegrates, and chastity—the key virtue of temperance, and a foundation of the moral life—is undermined. Without the unitive meaning of a conjugal act, then fornication, adultery, IVF (in vitro fertilization), are permissible in principle. Without the openness to human life, contraception, masturbation, homosexual acts, or sexual acts with animals are not always morally wrong, as well. Authentic marital acts join the two meanings, given the right motives and circumstances, and chosen with prudence.

Moreover, closing off, deliberately, a conjugal act by an instrument—for the best of motives—can also justify any and all contraceptive devices, whether a sexual act is done in marriage, or outside marriage. However, all this presupposes a discussion of the meaning of lust—an insidious capital vice, and its many daughters, namely, blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness—all of which undermine solid prudence while producing the vagaries of folly, the vice which prefers the things of this world to the contempt of the goods of the next world. and God himself.3 If charity is the form of the virtues, then lust, like pride, is a kind of anti-form of charity in the long run. Unfortunately, the word “lust” does not appear in the encyclical even though it is presumed.

Even more importantly, without a deep analysis of the virtue, chastity, together with its enemy, lust, and the contrary outcomes of both virtue and vice for the mind and heart of a person, then the vice of lust, does not always seem so unreasonable, given specific circumstances. HV does make chastity part of its appeal to the faithful, but this appears rather toward the end of the document. For the most, a part it rather seeks to convince by an appeal to the law of God, and the force of the previous Magisterium of the Church. Here in numbers 21-22, which might have been more effective at the beginning of HV, we find a few important thoughts on the virtue of chastity for its self-mastery:

21. The honest practice of regulation of birth demands, first of all, that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend toward securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices…. Yet this discipline, which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value….

Unfortunately, the Holy Father does not develop what that human value is. Continuing with #21, he does not explain how chastity drives out selfishness, and deepens a sense of responsibility:

It demands continual effort, yet thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility….

If sexual sins are seen to be the least of the sins relative to others against justice due to human weakness, then why the concern about contraception, since it is a very practical way of limiting one’s family, and at the same time, manifesting intimacy with one’s spouse without the undue worry of producing unwanted offspring? In addition, if pleasure in marriage is a natural good to be accepted, it can seem to affirm the goodness of another, and even oneself, as a solution to emotional problems for those outside the marital bond.

What Bl. Paul says in number 17 is quite true also:

17. Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up toward conjugal infidelity, and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men—especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point—have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

However, this true paragraph does not explain why all these deleterious consequences will occur, and why the virtue of chastity prevents these terrible effects. If chastity is simply the result of obeying a law promulgated by the Church, and not a precept of God in need of explanation, then the need for ascetical practices is not convincing (mentioned in paragraph 21) given the desire for pleasure implanted in the human person.

What could have been written at the very beginning of HV should have been an analysis of chastity, not as more important than charity, but as a defense of the human person against the anti-form of the vice of lust undermining charity, all of which can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas. The problem is that sins of weakness, over the long haul of life, can facilitate sins of malice, something the commandment tradition of morals may have ignored.

What is now needed is a newer encyclical, taking all the truth of HV, and scripting it in light of virtue and vice, which speaks to ordinary human beings, as well as theologians and bishops. That, and a great deal of penance on behalf of the Church’s shepherds, might move sinners away from the contraceptive life, to the chaste life of charity for adolescents, the engaged, married, and the widowed.

  1. Today FC (Fertility Control) or FABM (Fertility Awareness Based Methods) are the preferred acronyms in lieu of NFP.
  2. Cf. Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Casti Connubii: AAS 22 (1930), 560; Pius XII: AAS 43 (1951), 843.
  3. Cf. ST II-II q. 153, 1. 5 and De Malo q.15, a. 4.
Rev. Basil Cole, O.P. About Rev. Basil Cole, O.P.

Fr. Basil Cole, O.P., is Ordinary Professor of Moral, Spiritual and Dogmatic Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He has authored Music and Morals (Alba House, 1993) and co-authored with Paul Connor, O.P., Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (St. Paul's editions in Bombay, India 1990, revised in 1997 Alba House). He has written for The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Reason and Faith, and Angelicum. He has also been a long time collaborator for Germain Grisez's four volume series of moral theology, The Way of the Lord Jesus.


  1. Thank you for this interesting article Fr Cole, and yes, one is left wondering, why was there a delay in publishing HV – will the whole story ever be told – is it even known?

  2. Of interest might be our experience of teaching NFP in the 70s as compared to today. See this week’s blog at .

    • There have been many social changes since the 1970s. One often overlooked one is that the demands of parenthood are far greater.

      Modern fathers spend almost as much time parenting as mothers did in the 1970s. Mothers? They spend twice as much time now as their mothers did.

      If modern parents raised their children like the parents of the 1970s did, CPS would take them away. Yes, we know that children of the 1970s turned out just fine. CPS doesn’t care.

      Therefore, the idea of having a large family seems less like a joy and more like a heavy burden—a burden that the Church seems to have little interest in helping families bear (as evidenced by parochial school tuition costs).

  3. Dear Fr. Cole:

    I think that another area where HV is deficient is in addressing the massive technological and cultural changes that were sweeping the world at that time and continue to do so today. (In all charity to Blessed Paul VI, this is being said with the benefit of hindsight.) For example, the advent of families with two parents working outside the home has had a massive impact on the calculus associated with whether or not to have more children. This is also affected by the shift away from an agrarian economy where families with many children are seen as beneficial, to an urban economy where no such advantage exists – and indeed the reverse can be the case (see the previous comment about parish school tuition). In summary, the widespread disobedience in regard to contraception is not merely a consequence of a decline in morals, but is also the result of widespread cultural forces that are beyond the control of individuals and families. Indeed, making the decision to have a large family in this day and age is rightly seen as a profoundly sacrificial act.

    • Excellent thoughts, Matt!! I have often thought these excellent thoughts. Thank you for printing them!!

  4. Jim Foley says:

    The same sort of thing happened with usury. In a simple agrarian society, taking unjust gain for extending a loan of food or equipment was obviously morally wrong. In a more sophisticated money economy, the moral equation changed. Did the Church change, very, very slowly. When most businessmen in Italy were charging or taking interest in the early modern period, the Church was still taking a hard line on usury. It was never formally retracted. Slowly it became inoperative until in the 1917 Code of Canon Law it was mandated that church funds secure appropriate interest. My Orthodox friends, who in most respects are very doctrinal conservative, have no problem about the use of contraceptives because they emphasize the relational aspects of marriage over pure procreation and recognize that a rigid stance is not pastorally viable.

  5. I am discovering every day some advantages living through the angst some here express coming into this world in 1937 and then, a surprise to me and others, blessed with a vocation to the priesthood in 2006. I still remember as a youngster the shame of ‘no fault’ divorce in 1961 preceded by the legalization of “the pill” and the age of “free love” going forward. Yes, we are “born in sin” which David acknowledged in Psalm 51 and the forebearer of the “Son of David” who came to say, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We should remember this every day. Be temperate and chaste and remember Jesus is the “bridegroom.” Others have led chaste marital lives, so can today’s husband and wife.

  6. I agree that the focus, wording, and delayed release of Humanae Vitae may have contributed to its rejection in America. But at the time, our culture was rebelling against God and all authority, especially moral and religious authority. The rise of secular humanistic and narcissistic values placed great emphasis on individual conscience which easily morphed into condoning contraception. Our Cana classes taught us about contraceptives, all our Catholic friends were using it, the feminists were glorifying careers and downgrading motherhood, and not a word was ever preached from the altar denouncing contraceptives. (Still waiting and we’ve been married 43 years.). We chose to forego artificial contraceptives and follow the Church’s teaching. Humane Vitae was doomed, regardless of how it was written or presented, because cultural forces in America had brainwashed my generation, and subsequent ones, to view children as burdens that would alter one’s lifestyle, rather than as blessings.