VATICAN CITY- Although it’s been almost 50 years since the publication of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, the Pope’s message about authentic love and family planning is still relevant and needed in today’s culture.
“The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator,” Pope Paul VI wrote in the beginning sentences of the letter. “It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.”
When the Pill was released in 1960, Pope Paul VI’s predecessor, Pope John XXIII initiated the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. The commission consisted of six non-theologians who were asked to discuss the question of Catholicism, morality and family planning. After Pope John XXIII’s death in 1963, Pope Paul VI added more members to the commission. 72 Catholics from 5 continents met to discuss the new medical advancements of birth control. The members included 16 theologians, 13 doctors, 5 women without medical careers, 16 bishops, and 7 cardinals.
In 1966, the commission released their report to Pope Paul VI. 64 of the 69 commission members who voted agreed that birth control was not evil, and Catholic couples should be permitted to use it within their marriage.
Pope Paul VI shocked the commission and the world when, on July 29, 1968, he released Humane Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s position concerning the unitive and procreative natures of sexuality in marriage, and warning against the use of artificial birth control. His statements concerning love and morality were certainly prophetic.
The encyclical re-affirmed the teachings of the Catholic Church on topics such as love, marriage, parenthood, and the rejection of artificial birth control.
The Origins of Marriage
Pope Paul VI emphasizes the beauty of sacramental marriage. “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love,’ the Father ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.'”
Marriage does not originate by chance or from “blind evolution.” Instead, Pope Paul VI wrote that marriage “in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.”
Natural Family Planning
When the Pope Paul VI condemned sterilization, “whether of the man or the woman, whether permanent or temporary,” he didn’t leave Catholic couples up the creek without a paddle. He took time in the encyclical to explain the Catholic Church’s stance on family planning, and wrote: “The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.”
“Finally,” Pope Paul VII wrote, “this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”
Relativism and Morality
Pope Paul VI also wrote on man’s desire to define his own morality, a point heightened in a culture defined by relativism. “But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.”
To read the full Humanae Vitae encyclical, you can visit the Vatican website.