VATICAN CITY – July 25, 2018 marks 50 years since Pope Paul VI released the encyclical Humanae Vitae – a document that reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s teachings on the regulation of birth.
“The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions,” Pope Paul VI wrote. He also acknowledged that, as the leader of the Catholic Church, he couldn’t remain silent on the topic of birth control. “The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings.”
Up until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, Christians prohibited the use of contraception and the practice of abortion. After the Lambeth Conference, though, the Anglican Church allowed the use of contraception in limited circumstances.
“Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles,” the 1930 Anglican Bishop’s Resolution reads. “The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”
The 1960s brought with it the appearance of an oral contraceptive. The world voiced concerns about overpopulation, and family planning was a popular topic.
Pope John XXIII issued a commission to study the effects of birth control and the population situation. Pope Paul VI completed the study.
The commission gathered together 58 men and women to discuss the subject of birth control. This commission group consisted of priests, theologians, married couples, and single women.
A majority those present for the commission suggested that the Church approve the use of contraceptives. However, a few proposed that the Catholic Church not change her stance on the subject.
In the summer of 1968, Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae. The encyclical affirmed the goodness of marriage and the unitive aspect of intercourse in marriage. The pope confirmed the dignity of all women in his statements as well.
Appealing to natural law, the encyclical did not allow for the use of contraceptives as some had hoped it would.
“The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman,” Pope Paul VI wrote.
The public did not respond well to the pope’s words in Humanae Vitae. Reverend Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America led a group of dissenters. They openly disagreed with the pope’s affirmation of Church teaching. “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage,” their statement read.
Canadian bishops also opposed Humanae Vitae, and published the Winnipeg Statement. Groups who fought for the rights of HIV/AIDS victims similarly pushed back against the reaffirmed teaching.
Pope Paul VI did not waver his stance. “In humble obedience then to her voice, let Christian husbands and wives be mindful of their vocation to the Christian life, a vocation which, deriving from their Baptism, has been confirmed anew and made more explicit by the Sacrament of Matrimony,” he wrote.
“Man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature,” the pope urged. “These laws must be wisely and lovingly observed. On this great work, on all of you and especially on married couples, We implore from the God of all holiness and pity an abundance of heavenly grace as a pledge of which We gladly bestow Our apostolic blessing.”