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What is Humanae vitae really about?
Pope Francis has again publicly promoted Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae (On Human Life), issued on July 25, 1968. In our Year for Marriage and Family Life, it is good for us to review this document.
It begins by noting that the transmission of human life is a wondrous role “in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.” As we know, this brings great joy with occasional hardships. Some have raised concerns over population increase and the difficulties of providing for a large family. Others point out our ever-growing power to assert control over everything – including our bodies. For many in our world today, these issues raise the question of whether the time has “come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies.” (HV 3)
To respond to these contemporary questions, the pope turns to the natural law which the Church is authorized to interpret and teach. The starting point must always be what God created and intended in the beginning: that man and woman are totally and permanently bound to one another and for the sake of the procreation and formation of children. (Genesis and HV 9)
Now, Pope Paul also affirmed the principle of responsible parenthood: this is governed by self-control, prudence, generosity and, above all, God’s will. (HV 10) Thus, “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates his design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life ... But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.” (HV 13) Thus, Paul concluded, “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.” (HV 14)
The Holy Father did recognize that it was not wrong to use “those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom – provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (HV 15)
In addition, following the principle of responsible parenthood, couples may space the birth of their children using natural family planning as this is “done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.” (HV 16)
Then Pope Paul warns of the dangers flowing from artificial birth control – “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards;” a loss of “reverence due to a woman” on the part of men, making her “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” He also warns about the possible controls which could be exerted by governments. (HV 17) The Holy Father acknowledged that this teaching will not be easily accepted but that it does contribute “to the creation of a truly human civilization.” (HV 18)
The rest of the document recognizes the challenges of this teaching but that it promotes self-discipline, a critical component of the virtue formation of any family. (HV 21) He also calls for instructors to help create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity (HV 22) and for couples to deepen their sense of their marital vocation and have frequent recourse to the sacraments for the grace to persevere; “If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the sacrament of penance. In this way, for sure, they will be able to reach that perfection of married life.” (HV 25) He then called on priests to teach the truth but to be patient and rich in mercy and never let couples lose heart. (HV 29)
Marriage and family are the heart of any society and civilization. May we this year seek always God’s will in living out this noble and blessed vocation.