By Francis Muroki

This month, July 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial Church documents in modern times - Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”). This 1968 Encyclical was issued by the late Blessed Pope Paul VI to reaffirm the Church’s condemnation of modern use of contraception. Its defenders see its issuance as an act of courage by the Pope in the face of rampant sexual permissiveness.

In October this year, Pope Paul VI will be canonized and declared Saint by Pope Francis.   Pope Francis will tell the world that Pope Paul VI lived a holy life and now is with God in heaven. In doing that, Francis will be continuing a practice that used to be rare but in recent years has become fairly common - canonizing a pope. The ceremony will take place at the conclusion of an assembly of the Synod of Bishops on young people, which will be held at the Vatican from Oct. 3-28. The canonization of Pope Paul, whose pontificate overlapped the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, will bring to 82 the number of popes - out of a total of 266 - whom the Church recognizes as saints.

It also will be the fourth time since 1954 that a pope has been canonized. That was when Pope Pius XII canonized Pius X, pope from 1903-14. Two others have been canonized since then - Pope St. John XXIII (pope from 1958-63) and Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005), whose canonizations occurred in a dual ceremony in 2014. When Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical, critics at the time, as they do even in recent times, dismissed the encyclical as a relic of outdated morality that Catholics can safely ignore. According to the polls, a large majority of Catholics in the world do exactly that where contraception is concerned about.

One thing the defenders and the critics agree on: Humanae Vitae was a turning point, a watershed event in the life of the Church. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand some of the background that led up to its issuance. When the birth control pill was developed in the 1960s, many people thought it would bring great benefits. Contraception would free women from fear of pregnancy, allowing men and women to love each other fully and have children only when ready. Abortion, child abuse and out-of-wedlock births would be reduced or eliminated. When Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, he saw a different future. He thought readily available contraception would weaken, not strengthen, fidelity in marriage. He feared it would liberate not authentic love but rather a selfish desire allowing men to treat women as sex objects. Governments would promote birth control, intervening in what should be a private decision for couples. Many Catholics were skeptical of these predictions and disappointed in the encyclical.

After 50 years, we can take a new look. The problems contraception was thought to solve are worse. We see more infidelity, divorce and sexual harassment and abuse of women. Governments have vast programs for population control, not all of them voluntary.

 It’s natural to ask: Why did Paul VI see the future more clearly than his critics? With the aid of our Christian tradition, did he see more deeply into the truth about marriage and sexuality?  Paul VI saw that couples need more than clear teaching. They need to accept the unconditional love of God, who wants only what, helps us flourish in love for each other and our families. Pope Paul’s encyclical was by no means the first time a Pope had spoken against artificial birth control. Particularly noteworthy was Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”), dated Dec. 31, 1930. The document is a comprehensive presentation of Church teaching on marriage, but what it says about contraception was widely seen as an implicit response to a high-level Anglican Church statement from earlier that year giving limited approval to birth control.

Pius XI said: “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.”  In the years that followed, Pope Pius XII repeated the condemnation of contraception a number of times. In an address in 1951, he said the teaching “is in full force today, as it was in the past, as 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.”  Pope St. John XXIII established a papal commission to study population issues. Pope Paul expanded its membership and placed the question of oral contraception on its agenda. Suddenly change began to seem like a real possibility.

Pope Paul VI - 1963 - 1978. Born: 26 September 1897,  Italy and Died: 6 August 1978
Pope Paul VI - 1963 - 1978. Born: 26 September 1897, Italy and Died: 6 August 1978


On July 25, 1968, the Pope issued Humanae Vitae. Citing the “inseparable connection” between the “unitive” (love-giving) and “procreative” (life-giving) means of the conjugal act, Paul VI said: “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” He added: “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Coming amid the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the heady days of the immediate post-Vatican II period in the Church and the widespread expectation that the Pope would change the teaching, this reaffirmation of traditional teaching received a firestorm of angry criticism led by theological dissenters, which spread by blanket coverage in the media. Paul VI was the target of much of it. Although an exodus from the priesthood and religious life had in fact begun several years before, now the Pope was blamed for it. Defenders of the encyclical were either ignored or vilified. The mood of dissent spread and became entrenched.

Does the Catholic Church oppose all forms of Family Planning?

No. Pope Paul VI endorsed “responsible parenthood.” He said a couple may have serious reasons for wanting to delay having a child. But not every means to that end is equally good. Is there an approach to family planning that respects that power to work with God to create a human life, even when we have a good reason not to exercise it right now? The answer lies in an approach known as fertility awareness or Natural Family Planning (NFP). It is based on the fact that a woman is only fertile for a few days in each reproductive cycle -NFP consists of learning how to read the signs indicating this time. The couple can choose to have sexual relations at all other times if they want to delay having a child. Married couples with fertility problems can have relations during the fertile time to increase their chance of conceiving. This approach works with a woman’s natural cycles rather than against them.

Decades ago this approach relied on estimating a 28-day reproductive cycle and was called the “rhythm method.” It did not work very well for women with irregular cycles. Modern methods are much improved, relying on the signs of fertility as they arise here and now.  Since then, the teaching of Humanae Vitae has been endorsed by Pope St. John Paul II (who is said to have had a hand in drafting the encyclical), Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis.

In his own document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, published in 1981, Pope John Paul II expressed sympathetic understanding for married couples who have difficulty living the teaching on contraception, and quoted Paul VI: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.” Pope Francis echoed his predecessors last year in his marriage document, Amoris Laetitia: (The Joy of Love). “From the outset, love refuses every impulse to turn in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning.” The passage carries a footnote reference to Humanae Vitae.  Pope Francis also recommends that the teaching of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio now be “taken up anew” with the aim of countering “a mentality that is often hostile to life.” The 50th anniversary of Pope Paul’s courageous but much-maligned encyclical might be a good time for doing that.

The Catholic faith adds its own insight. “Our bodies are “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), as are the bodies of any children we conceive. When a man and a woman give themselves to each other in committed love, their bond is a sacrament, a symbol of Christ’s union with his Church. And when their love conceives a child, they cooperate with God to create a human person, body and soul, with his or her own innate dignity and eternal destiny. This power to be “co-creators” with God deserves our respect. Paul VI sought to defend these two gifts from God, the “unitive” and “procreative” meanings of sexuality. Marital love is about bonding with each other forever and being open to a child who may result from that union. To quote Pope St. John Paul II, they are both ways in which “life attains its fullness in the sincere gift of self” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 86).

These two meanings imply and support each other. Marital commitment must be permanent so children can be sure of both parents’ love and support throughout childhood. And openness to having a child with each other makes married love deeper and richer.  Here, as in many areas, a Catholic way of life is countercultural, a “sign of contradiction.” It does this not to be contrary but, rather, to show a better path that preserves love for each other and for God as the center of our lives. On this path we will never walk alone, and we will teach our families and other couples about the true meaning of love. I really hope and pray that our priests may help spread this message in their homilies and interactions with ordinary Christians because mainstream media will not propagate this teaching due to their anti-life mentality and other in-house policies that are certainly not pro-life.

**Francis Muroki is a Catholic journalist and Masters Student at Daystar University.