Volume > Issue > Conveying the Message of Humanae Vitae to the People of Today

Conveying the Message of Humanae Vitae to the People of Today


By Willem Jacobus Eijk | May 2021
Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk is the Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

On July 25, 1968, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae. Against all expectations, he maintained in this encyclical the Catholic tradition that has denounced contraception as a means of birth control. The encyclical faced great resistance, especially in the West. This article describes in a simply historical way the attempts of Pope St. John Paul II and Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, to overcome this resistance and convey the message of Humanae Vitae by presenting their analyses of marriage from the perspective of a philosophical and theological anthropology and the way in which they dealt with some misunderstandings over the Church’s call to “responsible parenthood.”

The key message of Humanae Vitae, and the source of its poor reception, is that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (no. 11). Paul VI specifies that there are two types of significance of the marriage act — the unitive and the procreative — which are inseparably connected, and that spouses may not separate the two on their own initiative. From this it follows that “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” (no. 14).

In so writing, Paul VI denounces direct contraception, that is, the deliberate use of contraception as an end in itself (preventing procreation) or as a means (delaying childbirth or counteracting overpopulation). Indirect contraception, in contrast, is a side effect of the administration of hormones, usually prescribed for contraception, that under certain circumstances can be acceptable for a therapeutic purpose, for example, regulating the menstrual cycle.

The marriage act can only be an authentic expression of love between spouses when both of its meanings are respected. Paul VI notes that when married couples become one through sexual intercourse, the special physical expression of their love, on one hand, and procreation, on the other, cannot be considered two values to be weighed against each other.

As is the case with all cultures, today’s postmodern culture is not easily influenced. Postmodernism denies that there is an absolute truth. The consequence of this denial is the disintegration and fragmentation of society, in which everyone has his own ideas of the world and how to live in it. With respect to ethics, it leads to relativism through the absence of universal standards that hold true for all.

In this context, it is practically impossible to grasp that a moral norm, such as the Church’s prohibition of contraception, applies to everyone and every situation without exception. In such a culture, people simply cannot believe that an act could be “intrinsically evil,” that is, essentially vicious and thus always and everywhere, without exception, a morally evil act. What’s more, people in this culture do not easily accept that a moral leader such as the pope can speak with authority about absolute moral norms.

Yet, underpinning the standard of Humanae Vitae — that it is not morally allowed on one’s own initiative to separate the meanings of the conjugal act — to a philosophical and theological analysis of marriage and human sexuality is possible.

In 1968, when the encyclical was published, there was no philosophical or theological analysis of marriage and human sexuality available that was generally known and provided arguments that could make comprehensible traditional Church doctrine on contraception. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a group of moral theologians and ethicists developed such an analysis, from which rational arguments flow with respect to direct contraception. The key players in this development were Karol Wojtyła, who would later become Pope John Paul II, and Cardinal Caffarra.

Before the Second Vatican Council, Karol Wojtyła had already developed a philosophical analysis of marriage in his book Love and Responsibility. First published in Polish in 1960, it would only become known in other countries in the 1980s when it was translated into German and English. A negative formulation of Wojtyła’s philosophical analysis is that people may never be used as means to an end, that is, purely as objects. A positive formulation is that love is the only good attitude to have toward others. To achieve mutual love, people must be united by a common goal, which they freely choose. What does this mean when applied to the relationship between a man and a woman that forms the basis of sexual ethics?

“Marriage is one of the most important areas for realizing this principle,” Wojtyła writes. “For in marriage, two persons, a woman and a man, unite in such a way that they become in a sense ‘one flesh’ (to use the word of the Book Genesis), that is, so to speak, one common subject of sexual life.” How can their becoming a means to an end for each other be avoided, that is, one becoming an object to achieve the other’s ends? What is the common objective that makes their relationship a loving relationship? Wojtyła answers: “Concerning marriage, this end is procreation, progeny, the family, and at the same time the whole constant growing maturity of the relationship between both persons in all the spheres brought by the spousal relationship itself.”1

Wojtyła sees marriage not merely as a means to procreation and the establishment of a family. Reproduction is an intrinsic good but not the only goal of marriage. “For the interior and essential raison d’être of marriage is not only to become a family,” he writes, “but above all to constitute a durable personal communion of a man and a woman based on love.”2

The loving relationship between the married couple is also an intrinsic part of their marriage. However, when the couple, by using contraception, positively exclude the intrinsic common good of the marriage — that is, conceiving children and building a family — then they are no longer treating each other as persons but as objects with a view to the gratification of their own sexual pleasures. Wojtyła explains:

Precisely the erotic lived-experiences connected with sexual intercourse of a man and a woman that positively exclude the parental moment (“I can be a father,” “I can be a mother”) cancel the value of the person. For the value of the person is manifested, on the one hand, in action that is fully conscious and fully harmonized with the objective finality of the world (the “order of nature”), and, on the other hand, by excluding the person from “use.” A thorough contradiction exists between “to love” and “to use” in relation to the person.3

In the 1980s Cardinal Caffarra, a professor of moral theology and the first president of the John Paul II Institute in Rome, also developed an anthropological analysis of marriage and human sexuality from a philosophical and theological perspective. His starting point, derived from Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” no. 48) and laid out in his book The General Ethics of Sexuality (1992), is the description of marriage as an “interpersonal gift,” a mutual gift between a man and a woman. The use of contraception with the objective of preventing the procreation of a new human person damages the totality of this mutual gift: Contraception means that “one positively excludes something from the self-gift to the other,” Caffarra writes.4 The sexual communion of a man and a woman is not only the biological union of two bodies but of two persons. “The person is also his body: it makes no sense to say that the person has his body or is connected to a body…the human person is a physical person and the human body is a personal body.”5

Caffarra uses as his foundation the thesis propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas that the human soul is the substantial form of the body. The human soul “forms” the primary matter into the living human body. Consequently, both the spiritual and the material dimensions constitute the human person, which implies that the material dimension is intrinsic to the human person. This is confirmed through the Christian belief in the salvation of man’s body by Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. “The salvation of our body is a participation in the resurrection of the body of Christ,” Caffarra writes.6 At the end of time, those who are redeemed by Him shall also share in His Resurrection to a new life that is not only spiritual but also physical. We shall have glorified bodies that are nevertheless in ontological continuity with our physical lives before death. This confirms that the body is an intrinsic dimension of the human being.

Therefore, we do not say, “The body is fertile,” but rather, “The person is fertile.” Positively refusing parenthood means that the spouses’ mutual gift is not total as it excludes the gift at the bodily level. Excluding the totality of the mutual gift also affects the unity of the spouses.

That the mutual gift of spouses must be a total gift was also emphasized by Karol Wojtyła, now as Pope John Paul II, during his general audiences on Wednesday mornings from the spring of 1980 until the autumn of 1984, when he developed his “theology of the body,” an analysis of marriage and sexuality based on scriptural anthropology.

The creation of woman defeated what John Paul II calls Adam’s original loneliness. With his exclamation, “At last bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” (Gen. 2:23), Adam expressed his joy that he had met someone who was a person just as he was. According to John Paul II, Adam appears to be saying, “Look, a body that expresses the ‘person’!” The liberation from his original loneliness by God’s gift of woman brings man to the dimension of mutual gift of the person, of which the body in its masculinity or femininity is an expression. As John Paul II put it, “The body, which expresses femininity ‘for’ masculinity, and masculinity ‘for’ femininity, manifests the reciprocity and the communion of persons. It expresses it through gift as the fundamental characteristic of personal existence.”7

In the beginning, man and woman are not ashamed of their nakedness (cf. Gen. 2:25). John Paul II calls this original innocence. This is key to discovering the spousal meaning of the body. “The exchange of the gift,” the Pope explains, “in which their whole humanity, soul and body, femininity and masculinity, participates, is realized by preserving the inner characteristic (that is, precisely innocence) of self-donation and of the acceptance of the other as a gift.”8

In man and woman’s discovery of their nakedness after the Fall (cf. Gen. 3:7), John Paul II sees the loss of their original innocence and the beginning of concupiscence, a state in which the desires of the sensory appetites are contrary to reason, that is, to the (moral) truth concerning the human person. This leads to a distortion of spouses’ mutual self-donation. They start to see each other’s bodies as objects, as expressed in the words God utters to them: “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he will dominate you” (Gen. 3:16).

That the mutual gift between the spouses is, in principle, total is also expressed by the analogy of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Christ gave Himself to us fully in His Crucifixion. As creatures, we cannot receive total divinity as a gift. John Paul explains:

God’s gift of Himself to man, which is what the analogy of the spousal love speaks about, can only have the form of a participation in the divine nature [cf. 2 Pet. 1:4]…. Nevertheless, according to such a measure, the gift by God to man in Christ is a “total” or “radical gift,” which is precisely that what the analogy of spousal love indicates.9

The relationship between Christ and His Church is fundamental to the relationship between spouses; the latter is intended to be a faithful reflection of the former. It achieves this distinction when spouses offer themselves to each other in a completely mutual gift of self that is both spiritual and physical.

In applying the above to contraception, John Paul II says that because of their marital bond, husband and wife are called “to express the ‘language of their bodies in all the truth that properly belongs to it.’ Through gestures and reactions, through the whole reciprocally conditioned dynamism of tension and enjoyment — whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity…, through all this man, the person ‘speaks.’”10

When the sexual union of the spouses is the authentic expression of their total self-gift, then a true bond of love develops between the two. This self-gift means total openness to new life. However, if this openness is positively precluded through contraception, then the mutual gift is not total and there is no true bond of love. The language of the body must speak the truth by expressing its openness to procreation. This bond of love as a totally mutual gift cannot be separated from procreation. John Paul explains:

One can say that in the case of an artificial separation of the two meanings in the conjugal act, a real bodily union is brought about, but it does not correspond to the inner truth and dignity of the personal communion, communio personarum. This communion demands, in fact, that the “language of the body” be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth is lacking, one can speak neither of the truth of the reciprocal gift of self nor of their reciprocal acceptance of oneself by the person. Such a violation of the inner order of conjugal communion, a communion that plunges its roots in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act.11

In Humanae Vitae Paul VI asks spouses to exercise “responsible parenthood.” Considering their physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, they are to “prudently and generously decide to have more children.” Responsible parenthood is also exercised by “those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (no. 10).

The spouses define what responsible parenthood is under these conditions based on their formed conscience. However, what the conscience cannot define or change are the fundamental absolute norms anchored in God’s plan of creation that proclaim an act morally illicit under all circumstances and at all times. This concerns, among others, the norm that proclaims direct contraception an essentially illicit act. It is, however, morally allowed to delay or prevent pregnancy through periodic continence, when the married couple has legitimate reasons for doing so and is prepared to welcome any conceived child.

One common question is why contraception is an essentially evil act, whereas the Church considers periodic continence acceptable under certain circumstances. That two acts have the same effect is not the same as saying that, ethically, they fall into the same category. For example, life can be cut short by administering a deadly dose of medication, but the same effect can also be achieved by not resorting to life-prolonging measures. If the relationship between the chance to preserve life and the chance of side effects and complications becomes disproportionate, treatment can be refused, even if this means the patient will die sooner rather than later. There is no moral obligation to prolong life using disproportionate means. The same idea also applies to procreation: If expanding their family has disproportionate consequences, then the couple is not obliged to have sexual relations during the woman’s fertile phase and beget children (cf. Casti Connubii, no. 59; Humanae Vitae, no. 16).

Cardinal Caffarra distinguishes between a “non-procreative” and an “anti-procreative” will. A non-procreative will does not imply a will that positively excludes procreation. Certain circumstances — such as illness of one of the parents, living in a wartime situation, or failing financial circumstances — can justify the decision to engage in marital intercourse only when the woman is not fertile. Establishing the circumstances for conceiving a child is never an evil but is, in itself, a good thing. However, as with every good action, conceiving a child must occur in due manner. If it cannot take place in due manner, for example, because circumstances prevent a good upbringing and care of the children, then this can be a legitimate reason to postpone conception. If, however, there are no such circumstances, but the couple’s motives for abstaining from the marriage act are selfish, then abstinence, which is otherwise a good thing, is being misused.

An anti-procreative will positively excludes conceiving a new child by eliminating the fertility with the use of contraceptives because the spouses see procreation as an evil effect that needs to be prevented. This renders their self-gift to each other incomplete.12

In short, periodic abstinence is not so much a method as a virtue.13 Paul VI indicates the need for ascesis, or self-discipline, with respect to the virtue of continence (cf. Humanae Vitae, no. 21), which is required when practicing periodic abstinence. In the same vein, John Paul II does not speak of “periodic abstinence” but of “periodic continence,” a virtue that requires asceticism from the spouses. Continence, which comes under the cardinal virtue of temperantia, is the virtue in which humans master their natural instincts (e.g., eating, drinking, and sexual impulses and affections) and maintain the right balance. The virtue of continence makes it possible for a spouse to truly present himself to the other as a gift because he gives the other mature possession of himself.14 However, if the objective of periodic abstinence is the positive exclusion of procreation to be able to enjoy as much sexual pleasure as possible, then periodic abstinence is no longer a virtue but rather a technique employed by the spouses to use each other’s bodies, whereby they objectify each other.

Church doctrine regarding contraception, as confirmed by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and later by John Paul II in his theology of the body, is one of the least understood and accepted parts of her conjugal and sexual ethics. The thorough philosophical and theological analyses of marriage and human sexuality developed by John Paul II and Cardinal Caffarra, based on the Sacred Texts, Church tradition and doctrine, and a personalist philosophy, offer the possibility of overcoming this difficulty. Their analyses deserve to be the subject of extensive philosophical, theological, and medical-ethical education and research.



1. K. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility; Grzegorz Ignatik (transl.); Pauline Books & Media, 2013; p. 14.
2. Ibid., p. 202.
3. Ibid., p. 217.
4. C. Caffarra, Etica Generale della Sessualità; Edizioni Ares, 1992; p. 76.
5. Ibid., p. 13.
6. Ibid., p. 22.
7. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body; M. Waldstein (transl.); Pauline Books and Media, 2006; no. 14:4.
8. Ibid., 17:4.
9. Ibid., 95b:4.
10. Ibid., 123:4.
11. Ibid., 123:7.
12. C. Caffarra, Etica Generale della Sessualità, op. cit., pp. 67-69.
13. K. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, op. cit., pp. 223-230.
14. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, op. cit., no. 130:4.


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