The Immutable and Timeless Character of the Teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul Vi

“According to the plan of God, marriage is the foundation of the wider community of the family, since the very institution of marriage and conjugal love are ordained to the procreation and education of children, in whom they find their crowning (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 50).In its most profound reality, love is essentially a gift; and conjugal love, while leading the spouses to the reciprocal “knowledge” which makes them “one flesh,” (Gen. 2:24) does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity” (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 14).

Since the beginning the Church kept always unchangingly the word of God, who condemned a direct contraception of new human life. One of the greatest witnesses of the Tradition is Saint Augustine, who said: “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is directly prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.” (De adulterinisconiugiis, II, 12).

The Magisterium of the Church i.e. the Pope and the entire episcopate of all times, that means the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, is not above the written and orally transmitted Word of God, but beneath it (cf. II Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 10). Therefore, the Magisterium in obedience to the Word of God had constantly taught the unchangeable truth about the transmission of human life.

The Church always taught the truth that “there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsecemalum); they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances (John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 80).

Pope Paul VI stated this basic duty of the teaching Church in his prophetical and epochal encyclical Humanae vitae: “The Church in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (n. 11).

An important witness of the constant and immutable teaching of the Church on the theme of human procreation is Pope Pius XI, who taught: “No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. “Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you” (Conc. Trid., sess. VI, cap. 11)” (Encyclical Casticonnubii, 61).

“This same doctrine was again solemnly repeated and confirmed by the Church in the condemnation of the Jansenist heresy which dared to utter this blasphemy against the goodness of God: “Some precepts of God are, when one considers the powers which man possesses, impossible of fulfillment even to the just who wish to keep the law and strive to do so; grace is lacking whereby these laws could be fulfilled” (Innocent X, Const. Apost. Cum occasione, May 31, 1653)” (Encyclical Casticonnubii, 62).

Paul VI pronounced in his encyclical Humanae vitae the following truth“There is 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 towards man’s exalted vocation to parenthood” (n. 12).

“Excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good,” it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3. 8)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.” (Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae Vitae, n. 14).

Pope Paul VI referred to the teaching of the constant Magisterium of the Church quoting the following affirmation of Pius XI in his encyclical Casticonnubii: “Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition, some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (n. 55).

Pope Pius XII taught in the exactly same sense: “Every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no “indication” or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law”.

“Repel the attack of this refined hedonism void of spiritual values and thus unworthy of Christian married couples. Show how nature has given, truly, the instinctive desire for pleasure and sanctions it in the lawful marriage, not as an end in itself, but rather for the service of life” (Address to Midwives, October 29, 1951).

The marriage is by its nature established by God in order to procreate and give birth of a human person. Pius XII taught that: “The constant teaching of the Church says that marriage cannot be conceived as an egoistic search for affective and physical satisfactions in the interests only of the spouses” (Address to the Participants of the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility held at Naples, May 19, 1956).

Pope John XXIII proposed the same doctrine: “The transmission of human life… is as such subject to the all-holy, inviolable and immutable laws of God, which no man may ignore or disobey.” (Encyclical Mater et Magistra, 193).

John Paul II taught:”When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the Divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality – and with it themselves and their married partner – by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality” (Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 32).

Pope John Paul II reproposed strongly and without any ambiguity the immutable and constant teaching of all times, saying: “There can be no contradiction between the divine law concerning the transmission of human life and true conjugal love (cf. II Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 51). To speak of a “conflict of values or goods” and of the consequent need to “balance” them, choosing one and rejecting the other, is not morally correct and only generates confusion in the conscience of the spouses. The grace of Christ gives spouses the real capacity to fulfill the whole “truth” of their conjugal love. The first, and in a certain sense the most serious difficulty, is that also in the Christian community, voices have been heard and are heard that call into question the truth of the Church’s teaching. … What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary is tantamount to inducing the moral conscience of the spouses into error. … Many think that the Christian teaching, although true, is nonetheless unfeasible, at least in some circumstances. As the Tradition of the Church has constantly taught, God does not command the impossible but every commandment also entails a gift of grace which helps human freedom to fulfill it. Yet constant prayer, frequent recourse to the sacraments and the exercise of conjugal chastity are needed. Today more than yesterday, man is again beginning to feel the need for truth and right reason in his daily experience. Always be ready to say, without ambiguity, the truth about the good and evil regarding man and the family” (Address to participants in a study meeting on responsible procreation, June 5, 1987).

Pope John Paul II stressed the need for pastoral action to be faithful to Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio: “It is absolutely necessary that the pastoral action of Christian communities be totally faithful to the teachings of the Encyclical Humanae vitae and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio. It would be a grave error to set up pastoral requirements in opposition to doctrinal teaching, since the very first service that the Church must perform for people is to tell them the truth of which she is neither the author nor the master.” (Address to the participants in the first Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, May 30, 1983).

“Questions concerning the unity and indissolubility of marriage, and all that regards the meaning of the union and of procreation in married life and its specific act, must be treated faithfully and accurately, according to the clear teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae(cf. nn. 11-12). This is equally true for everything that pertains to the gift of life which parents must accept responsibly and joyfully as the Lord’s collaborators.” (John Paul II, Concluding Discourse to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family held from September 30-October 5, 1991).

“When the spouses through contraception deprive the exercise of their conjugal sexuality of its potential procreative capacity, they attribute to themselves a power which belongs to God alone: the power to decide in the last instance the coming to existence of a human person. They attribute to themselves the qualification of being not the cooperators of the creative power of God, but the ultimate holders of the source of the human life. From this perspective, contraception is to be objectively judged to such an extent illicit, that it could never, for any reason, be justified. To think or to speak the contrary, equals to hold that in human life there could be given situations in which it would be licit not to recognize God as God”. (Address to Participants of a study seminar on Responsible Procreation, September 17, 1983).

“It is above all necessary to avoid establishing a “graduated” law of God according to the extent of the varying situations in which the spouses find themselves.  … One might, indeed, wonder, if the confusion between the “gradualness of the law” and the “law of gradualness” hasn’t its explanation also in a weakened respect for the law of God. They think that the law of God is not adapted to each person, to each situation, and one wants therefore to substitute for oneself an order which is different from the Divine order.” (Address to Participants of a study seminar on Responsible Procreation, September 17, 1983).

“To opine that there exist situations in which it would be in fact not possible for the spouses to be faithful to all the exigencies of the truth of the conjugal love, would equal to forget this event of grace which characterizes the New Covenant: namely that the grace of the Holy Spirit makes possible what is impossible to man, left alone to his own forces. It is therefore necessary to support the spouses in their spiritual life, inviting them to a frequent use of the sacraments of Confession and of the Eucharist for a continuous return, for a permanent conversion to the truth of their conjugal love.” (Address to Participants of a study seminar on Responsible Procreation, September 17, 1983).

John Paul II affirmed that we are facing in our days “the worrying consequences of a false sexual freedom for which contraception provides the incentive and means, increasing the dulling of consciences and the eclipse of values” (Message to Bishop Elio Sgreccia on the occasion of an international congress on the theme “At the Sources of Life,” sponsored by the Centre for Studies and Research on the Natural Regulation of Fertility of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, November 16, 1996).

John Paul II described realistically the naked reality, in wish married couples and the family find themselves in our days, saying that married couples and the family are “placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.” (Gratissimum sane, Letter to Families from February 2, 1994,n. 23).

The contraception mentality is the loss of truth about one’s own self and about the family, and consequently of a loss of love itself.

“Contraception and abortion are very closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. … Contraception imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs.” (Encycical Evangelium vitae, 13).

“The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being.” (Encyclical Evangelium vitae, 13).

John Paul II explained that the “difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle is much wider a deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.” (Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 32).

John Paul II taught: “When man himself deprives artificially the conjugal act of its procreative capacity, he deprives the conjugal act of its interior truth, what is the case with contraception, and therefore the conjugal act ceases also to be an act of love” (General Audience of August 22, 1984).

“Doubt or error in the field of marriage or the family involves obscuring to a serious extent the integral truth about the human person, in a cultural situation that is already so often confused and contradictory. In fulfillment of their specific role, theologians are called upon to provide enlightenment and a deeper understanding, and their contribution is of incomparable value and represents a unique and highly meritorious service to the family and humanity” (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 31).

“The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony) and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of life” (Pontifical Council for the Family, Vade Mecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life from March 1, 1997, n. 24).

“The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust. The more lust dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the nuptial meaning of the body. It becomes less sensitive to the gift of the person, which expresses that meaning in the mutual relations of the man and woman.” (General audience of July 23, 1980)

Contraception is an attempt to disenfranchise God from the matter of creating new life and putting the responsibility solely in the hands of humans.

Saint Theresa of Calcutta: “In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self. This turns the attention to self and so destroys the gift of love in him or her. Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.” (Address at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Washington DC, February 3, 1994).

About the great value of a large family John Paul II said: “Parents will remind themselves that it is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety.” (Homily at the Holy Mass at the Capital Mall, Washington, October 7, 1979).

Benedict XVI taught about the perennial value and the unchanging meaning of Humanae vitae: “Humanae Vitae reasserts the continuity of the Church’s doctrine and tradition. … This teaching not only expresses its unchanged truth but also reveals the farsightedness with which the problem is treated. In fact, conjugal love is described within a global process that does not stop at the division between soul and body and is not subjected to mere sentiment, often transient and precarious, but rather takes charge of the person’s unity and the total sharing of the spouses. How can such love remain closed to the gift of life?

What was true yesterday, is true also today. The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change; on the contrary, precisely in the light of the new scientific discoveries, its teaching becomes more timely and elicits reflection on the intrinsic value it possesses.

In a culture subjected to the prevalence of “having’ over “being’, human life risks losing its value. If the practice of sexuality becomes a drug that seeks to enslave one’s partner to one’s own desires and interests, without respecting the cycle of the beloved, then what must be defended is no longer solely the true concept of love but in the first place the dignity of the person. It was not by chance that Jesus, in speaking of human love, alluded to what God created at the beginning of the Creation (cf. Mt 19: 4-6).

In the fruitfulness of conjugal love, the man and the woman share in the Father’s creative act and make it clear that at the origin of their spousal life they pronounce a genuine “yes” which is truly lived in reciprocity, remaining ever open to life. This word of the Lord with its profound truth endures unchanged and cannot be abolished by the different theories that have succeeded one another in the course of the years, and at times even been contradictory. Natural law, which is at the root of the recognition of true equality between persons and peoples, deserves to be recognized as the source that inspires the relationship between the spouses in their responsibility for begetting new children. The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which all must refer. Any attempt to turn one’s gaze away from this principle is in itself barren and does not produce a future.

No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that husband and wife exchange as the sign of a greater mystery which sees them as protagonists and sharers in creation.

The teaching expressed by the Encyclical Humanae Vitae  conforms with the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted since the world’s creation, with respect for nature and in conformity with its needs. Concern for human life and safeguarding the person’s dignity require us not to leave anything untried so that all may be involved in the genuine truth of responsible conjugal love in full adherence to the law engraved on the heart of every person.” (Address to participants in the International Congress on the 40th Anniversary of the Encyclical Humanae vitae, May 10, 2008).

Paul VI spoke on June 29, 1978 about the immutable character of the teaching of Humanae vitae: “This document was inspired by the immutable teaching of the Bible and the Gospel, which confirms the norms of the natural law and the irrepressible dictates of conscience regarding respect for life and its transmission by fathers and mothers who practice a responsible parenthood. The document has acquired new and urgent relevance in view of the wounds now being inflicted by civil laws on the holiness of the indissoluble marriage bond and the sacredness of human life even in the maternal womb. In face of of saddening defections in the Church and society, We, like Peter, feel compelled to go to Him as the only source of salvation and cry out to Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.””

In issuing the encyclical Humanae vitae Pope Paul VI demonstrated before the whole world and history the apostolic courage of a successor of Peter in proclaiming the unchangeable Divine truth concerning the transmission of human life. In doing so, Paul VI – as befits a Pope – was unconcerned about praise and unaffected by fear (neclaudibus, nectimore). A similar judgement about Paul VI expressed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the funeral homily he delivered on August 10, 1978 as archbishop of Munich: “Paul VI resisted telecracy and demoscopy, the two dictatorial powers of the present. He was able to do so because he did not take success and approval as the parameter, but rather conscience, which is measured by the truth, by the faith. This is why he was able to be inflexible and decisive when what was at stake was the essential tradition of the Church. In him this toughness did not derive from the insensitivity of one whose journey is dictated by the pleasure of power and by disdain for persons, but from the profundity of the faith, which made him capable of bearing the opposition.”

John Paul II said on the occasion of the Beatification of the couple Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini,that in saintly couples “we have the distinctive confirmation that the path of holiness lived together as a couple is possible, beautiful, extraordinarily fruitful, and fundamental for the good of the family, the Church and society.This prompts us to pray the Lord that there be many more married couples who can reveal in the holiness of their lives, the “great mystery” of spousal love, which originates in creation and is fulfilled in the union of Christ with his Church (cf. Eph 5,22-33).

Like every path of holiness, yours too, dear married couples, is not easy. Every day you face difficulties and trials, in order to be faithful to your vocation, to foster harmony between yourselves and between your children, to carry out your mission as parents and participate in social life.May you be able to find in God’s word the answer to the questions which arise in everyday life. Married and family life can also experience moments of bewilderment. We know how many families in these cases are tempted to discouragement. I am particularly referring to those who are going through the sad event of separation; I am thinking of those who must face illness and those who are suffering the premature death of their spouse or of a child. In these situations, one can bear a great witness to fidelity in love, which is purified by having to pass through the crucible of suffering.” (Homily in the Holy Mass of the Beatification of the couple Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini, October 21, 2001).

The future of the Church and of the civil society depend to a large extent on large families as Pope Pius XII explained with the following timeless words:

“Even externally, a large, well-ordered family is a kind of visible shrine: the sacrament of Baptism is not an exceptional event for them but something constantly renewing the joy and grace of the Lord. The series of happy pilgrimages to the Baptismal font is not yet finished when a new one to Confirmation and first Communion begins, aglow with the same innocence. The youngest of the children will scarcely have put away his little white suit among the dearest memories of life, when the first wedding veil appears to bring parents, children, and new relatives together at the foot of the altar. More marriages, more Baptisms, more first Communions follow each other like ever-new spring times that, in a sense, make the visits of God and of His grace to the home unending. God also visits large families with His Providence, and parents, especially those who are poor, give clear testimony to this by resting all their trust in Him when human efforts are not enough. A trust that has a solid foundation and is not in vain! Providence — to put it in human words and ideas — is not a sum total of exceptional acts of divine pity; it is the ordinary result of harmonious activity on the part of the infinite wisdom, goodness and omnipotence of the Creator. God will never refuse a means of living to those He calls into being” (Address to the Directors of the Associations for Large Families of Rome and Italy in January 20, 1958).

“As for you, parents and children of large families, keep on giving a serene and firm testimony of your trust in divine Providence, and be assured that He will not fail to repay you with the testimony of His daily help and, whenever necessary, with those extraordinary helps that many of you have been happy to experience already” (Address to the Directors of the Associations for Large Families of Rome and Italy,January 20, 1958).

Pope Francis spoke in the same sense about the great importance of large families: “It is a consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a true gift from God. They know that every child is a blessing.” (General Audience, January 21, 2015).

John Paul II left to couples who strive to lead their conjugal life according to the immutable and loving law of God, these encouraging words: “Dear married couples, do not be overcome by hardship:  the grace of the Sacrament supports you and helps you constantly to raise your arms to heaven, like Moses. At the same time, I ask all families to hold up the arms of the Church, so that she may never fail in her mission of interceding, consoling, guiding and encouraging.” (Homily in the Holy Mass of the Beatification of the couple Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini, October 21, 2001).

+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana