The voice of the Church against contraceptives

The encyclical Humane Vitae turns 50 years old

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, on human life in which Pope Paul VI spoke of married love amid the new challenges presented during that time. Here we offer a brief synthesis of this critical document that still has great validity today.

What is the theme of Humanae Vitae?

The theme is the nature and purpose of married love and the transmission of life. The central message of this text is that the use of artificial contraceptive methods is an immoral act since it separates the conjugal act from its unitive and procreative purposes.

Who wrote it?

Paul VI, who was the pope of the Catholic Church between 1963 and 1978.

When was it written and what was the state of the world in those times?

This encyclical was published July 25, 1968. The world was going through the sexual revolution, with the appearance of the contraceptive pill in 1960 and the increasing concern of overpopulation, which was often based on exaggerated numerical projections. The sexual revolution created an increasing disconnect between sexual relations, love, and responsibility. Many priests and lay ministers were confused and didn’t know how to guide the faithful about sexual themes. For this reason, a statement from the Church was necessary.

Does Humanae Vitae offer some proposal concerning birth control?

Yes. Through a discernment based on just reasons, if the couple determines that it is not the will of God to have a child at the moment, the pope proposes using natural methods of birth control. He proposes abstaining from sexual relations during periods of a woman’s fertility, which allows for better communication between spouses. Unlike contraceptives, this practice of periodic abstinence promotes the virtue of chastity within marriage.

How did the world react to this new encyclical?

There was strong criticism of Paul VI’s stance from many corners of the world. According to them, the encyclical was legalistic, ultra-conservative and closed to progress. Also, within the Church herself there were contrary or somewhat ambiguous reactions. However, Paul VI was very courageous to go against the current of a world that aggressively imposed new stereotypes for a sexual life detached from commitment and love.

Was the Pope right to be so critical of artificial birth control?

In this encyclical, the Pope pointed out some consequences of the use of contraceptives. Among these are an increase of infidelity, the general degradation of morality, becoming sexually active at a younger age, the loss of respect for and objectification of women, and the excessive intervention of government authorities in conjugal life, which takes place only within the intimacy of each couple. Fifty years later, we see how these consequences have been realized and have trivialized something so sacred as the sexual act.

COMING UP: The splendor of love banishes darkness

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

We live in a culture that is very confused about love, particularly the sexual aspect of love. This confusion, combined with our fallen human nature, is deeply hurting many people, but God’s love and his plan for human sexuality shines a brilliant light into this darkness. To share these beautiful truths and to help guide the people of northern Colorado, I have published a pastoral letter called The Splendor of Love.

This coming July will mark 50 years since Blessed Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae and the aim of The Splendor of Love is to celebrate the gift of that teaching and to affirm the great beauty of the Church’s consistent teaching throughout the centuries on married love.

Since Humanae Vitae was published 50 years ago, American society has experienced both positive and negative developments.

On the positive side, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality has been deepened by the insights of Humanae Vitae, St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and advances made in Natural Family Planning.

On the negative side, we have witnessed the fulfillment of Blessed Paul VI’s predictions about how widespread use of contraceptives would lower moral standards, harm relationships between men and women, and be used as a coercive tool by governments. We have also experienced things that the Holy Father didn’t foresee: a spike in abortions, the spread of STDs and a decline in birth and marriage rates. More recently, the widespread availability of pornography and a hook-up culture facilitated by improved communications methods have contributed to further turning our sexuality into a kind of consumable product or form of entertainment.

It is precisely for such a wounded and distorted world that Jesus was born. In Christ, the love of God became incarnate and illuminates our lives today, radiating through our families and into society.

The Church’s teaching on human sexuality changes lives, as I experienced when I was Bishop of Fargo. One day I received a letter from a young woman which said:

“I am writing to you today to thank you and to ask you a question. I have never met you. When I was told that we would have to take a full course of NFP over a 3-4-month period for our marriage preparation, I was not happy. However, after the course, which included the Theology of the Body, I was filled with joy, and the question I have for you, bishop, is: Why did I not receive this valuable teaching in high school? It would have saved me much heartache and confusion in my college years. I have shared the teaching with my younger sister who is in high school so she doesn’t make the same mistakes I made.”

The message she received was that her sexuality is a gift, and that properly used, it reflects the love of the Trinity, giving her great dignity. Furthermore, the “language” of the marital act communicates to her spouse that her love involves her whole being, it holds nothing back, is faithful and is fruitful.

Although the secular culture says that there is no objective truth, we are made for the truth, even if living according to the divine truths about sexuality is challenging. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Many in our culture consider the Church’s teaching to be bad news, a burden and source of repression, but we must help them see by the witness of our joy and true freedom that it will help them overcome the many burdens and wounds that follow from broken families and sexuality. Jesus desires our happiness and asks us to share it with others.

None of this is possible without first knowing and experiencing the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We must fortify ourselves with the grace he gives us in the sacraments and prayer and seek ongoing conversion. With this solid foundation, the splendor of God’s love can shine even more brightly in our hearts and enable us to imitate the generous, sacrificial love found at the heart of the Trinity, and at the heart of the Cross. It gives us the grace to live like Christ, to embrace our sufferings by uniting them to his cross, and to find true happiness in giving ourselves away in love.

May God give you courage, perseverance and joy in living out his plan for married love and human sexuality!

To read Archbishop Aquila’s pastoral letter visit: