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.