Humanae Vitae

by Pope Paul VI
Reviewed date: 2017 Dec 20
Of Human Life: On the Regulation of Human Births
cover art

I'm not overly impressed. If this is Catholic scholarship, Protestants aren't missing much. Pope Paul VI upholds the traditional Catholic ban on contraception, but fails to offer any substantive explanation or supporting argument. The closest he comes is in section 12, where he mentions that man "may not break" the link between the inseparable unitive and procreative aspects of sex. That's given as a reason why contraception is illicit. That's not a reason, that's begging the question. Separating out the procreative part of sex is the definition of contraception. Contraception is illicit because it's illicit to contracept.

Pope Paul VI doesn't even attempt to delve into the tricky questions. For example, in section 13 he mentions that man has no right to meddle with the natural procreative process because "these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source." But that's meaningless. (It's also begging the question again.) God is the source of life, sure. But God is the source of everything. All the universe is God's creation, and I don't see Pope Paul VI issuing encyclicals forbidding us from damming rivers or carving roads into mountainsides. He doesn't attempt to explain why, specifically, the procreative aspect of sex is off limits to mankind.

I find evangelical scholarship on these matters to be more rigorous. Evangelicals address the philosphical questions, and search the Bible for principles and guidance to help answer those questions. Pope Paul VI did none of that. Maybe that's because he was just reaffirming existing teaching, so he didn't feel the need to explain it from first principles.

I. Problem and Competency of the Magisterium
1. New developments bring new questions. "the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions"

2. New developments are:

  • Rapid population increase threatens to outstrip global resouces
  • Changing economics means large families are difficult to afford
  • Women's rights
  • Love's role in marriage
  • Birth control pill

3. Questions are:

  • Can procreative finality apply "to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?" (I.e., can we use birth control sometimes, as long as we aren't using it to avoid having children altogether?)
  • Can we use our intelligence and science to plan when we have children?

4. The Church has divine authority to interpret the Gospel and natural law.

5. This encyclical is the result of a study commissioned by Pope John XXIII in 1963.

6. The commission's conclusions contradict established Church teaching, so Pope Paul VI had to consider the matter himself.

II. Doctrinal Principles
7. Human procreation involves "natural, earthly aspects" and "supernatural, eternal aspects."

8. Marriage was created by God

9. Married love is:

  • fully human
  • total
  • faithful and exclusive
  • fecund

10. Responsible parents must:

  • Understand the biological process of reproduction
  • Use reason and will to control those processes
  • Decide how many children to have, and when
  • "Recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society."
  • Make procreative choices that "[correspond] to the will of God"

11. The Church teaches that each and every act of sexual activity must "retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." So, no birth control, ever.

12. The Church teaches that man is not morally permitted to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex.

13. Separating procreation from sex is "repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will."

"Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source."

14. Abortion is condemned. Sterilization is condemned. Artificial contraception is condemned.

15. Treatment of diseases is permitted, even if an effect of that treatment creates "a foreseeable impediment to procreation," as long as that loss of fertility is not a motive for the treatment.

16. Husbands and wives may choose to limit sex to naturally occuring infertile periods, in order to space the births of their children.

17. Artificial birth control will lead to:

  • More infidelity
  • Lowering of moral standards
  • Men treating women as objects
  • Governments advocating contraceptives
  • Governments mandating contraceptives

18. This teaching will be unpopular, but it is from God.

III. Pastoral Directives
19. The Church must compassionately support families, not just lay down the law.

20. This teaching is hard, perhaps impossible without God's grace, but it is beneficial.

21. This doctrine requires self-discipline, which builds godly character.

22. To promote chastity, all depictions of indecency and immorality in the media must be condemned.

23. Governments and rulers must not pass laws that would promote or require contraception.

24. Scientists should further study the natural fertility rhythms to make it easier to naturally limit procreation.

25. The Pope encourages Christian couples, and exhorts them to "take up the burden appointed to them," and to rely on God.

26. Married Christian couples should minister to one another

27. Doctors and nurses should advocate for Church teaching within their professional community, and must be ready to give proper advice concerning family planning to their patients.

28. Priests must support the Church teaching. There is no room for dissent. Pope Paul VI quotes Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10, "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment."

29. Husbands and wives shouldn't forget the compassion of Christ, who was "patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners"

30. Bishops must work with "with all zeal and without delay to [safeguard] the holiness of marriage"

31. Adhering to this teaching will bring blessings to the world and the Church.

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