Reflections on some aspects of Encyclical Humanae
Vitae to which less consideration has been given
To many people, concerned only with its fundamental thesis, Humanae
Vitae seemed to be a pure and simple repetition of the traditional
doctrine of the Church. Its original nuances escaped them. We would like
here, as a sign of gratitude for this act of magisterium by Paul VI, to
suggest some lines in view of a new reading: rejection of sexual
violence, denunciation of an atheistic secularization of human
sexuality, personalizing promotion of a humble and complete
rationalization of the sexual sphere in the horizon of eternal life.
Rejection of sexual violence, promotion of non-violence in the use of
N. 13 of the Encyclical begins as follows: "a conjugal act
imposed upon one's partner without regard for his or her condition and
lawful desires is not a true act of love, and therefore denies an
exigency of right moral order in the relationships between husband and
There is a great deal of talk today about the liberation of woman.
How could we fail to stress the liberating significance of the passage
quoted for certain wives, victims of the sexual violence of husbands
addicted to alcohol? Their passion drives them in the direction not of
conjugal love but of a real "intraconjugal rape", as we said
elsewhere.1 The matrimonial contract is not an instrument of
mutual slavery or of the subjection of one of the spouses to the other,
but the loving alliance of two freedoms in view of their mutual and full
liberation. We agree, therefore, with Fr Zalba's opinion:2
the duty of accepting procreation might cease to exist when the violence
of one of the spouses has forced the sexual act upon the other in a way
contrary to the inalienable dignity of his person.
Paul VI, let us note clearly, has continued on this point the
magisterium of Pius XII, always assuming the free character, explicitly
affirmed, of sexual activity, which involves responsibilities.3 The
irresponsibility of one of the spouses, who, in passion and under its
sway, wishes to inflict on the other his absence of love, might in
certain rare cases and under certain conditions free the latter from the
obligation of a motherhood which might be irresponsible (see n. 10).4
There are many cases of irresponsible parenthood which God did not want,
though wanting and loving infinitely their fruits. True conjugal love
exercises its rights in non-violence. The mutual donation to which
spouses are committed, has as its limit the inalienable dignity of each
of their persons.
But in Humanae Vitae Paul VI did rot limit himself to
promoting sexual non-violence in individuals. He also advocated that of
peoples, denouncing the dangers that the contraceptive mentality of
individuals represents for nations exposed to contraceptive planning:
"Who could blame a Government for applying to the solution of the
problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for
married couples in the solution of a family problem?" (N. 17).
There are not two distinct moralities, one for persons and another
for collectivities. The individual and collective violence that
contraception imposes on human nature, is rooted, however, in a
practical atheism which is also denounced by the Vicar of Christ.
Contraceptive violence has its origin in an atheistic secularization
of human sexuality
The contraceptive mentality aims at claiming the unlimited power of
man and woman over their own bodies and in particular over their
procreative faculties. More precisely, these faculties are no longer
even perceived as such. One modern view aims at replacing a doubly
vertical conception of sexuality (given finality through the procreation
of children for the glory of the one Creator) with a purely horizontal
evaluation of sexual relations, without any finality that goes beyond
the couple towards society and God. When the divine origin of sexuality
is not acknowledged, neither is its transcendent and ultimate finality.
Paul VI, on the contrary, vindicated in magnificent terms the
sovereign dominion of God the Creator over human sexuality, created and
redeemed by him; "to make use of the gift of conjugal love while
respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge
oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather
the minister of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as
man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also,
with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his generative
faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination towards raising
up life, of which God is the principle" (N. 13). Human life
is sacred, Pope John XXIII recalled, "from its very inception it
reveals the creating hand of God" (ibid.).
What does this mean? It is the privilege of the conjugal act to be
able to involve the direct action of God the Creator, the exclusive
origin of the child's immortal soul. No other natural action of the
human person involves the Almighty in this way. The contraceptive
mentality refuses to acknowledge God's creating action, unconsciously
attributing to itself the unlimited and infinite power that belongs to
God alone. It is the proud wish for absolute sexual autonomy.
It is not only the immediate creation of man's immortal soul, a
particular and sublime act of God as possibly immanent in this conjugal
act, that the proud contraceptive mentality refuses to acknowledge; it
is also the infinite wisdom of Divine Providence present and active in
the laws and natural rhythms of fertility. "God has wisely disposed
natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a
separation in the succession of births" (11). The same divine
Wisdom is also at the supreme origin of the sterility of conjugal acts
accomplished outside these fertile periods. The contraceptive mentality
in the exercise of conjugal life, by refusing to distinguish fertile and
barren periods, deliberately despises the intentions of the infinite
Wisdom which is at the origin not only of immortal souls but also of the
laws governing bodies. Proud and voluntary blindness, through which
human intelligence refuses to draw the consequences of the biological
laws (which it has nevertheless discovered) which are part of the nature
of the human person (N. 10)! It is in man's body as well as in his soul
that the practical atheism of the contraceptive mentality refuses to
recognize the action of God.
It might be objected that many couples who practise contraception,
believe in God, in a general way. They do, certainly. I do not deny it.
But do they believe in the active presence of God the Creator in their
fertile acts and in the Wisdom of his Providence as the master of their
naturally barren acts? It is precisely here that the atheism of couples
who use contraceptives lies. It is not so much the existence of God as
his Action and his Wisdom that they fail to acknowledge. All this is
conveyed in the very compact paragraphs of the Encyclical Humanae
Inversely, periodic continence is usually inseparable from humble
recognition of the creating Act of God immanent in every fertile
conjugal act, and of the Wisdom of the supreme Legislator immanent in
naturally barren acts. Periodic continence signifies the sexual humility
of the human person. The latter concretely recognizes the temporal
structure of his sexuality as well as the sexual dimension of his
In this way the human person, recognizing that sexuality is not
extrinsic but inherent in him,5 just like the biological laws
that concern him, perceives further the rational exigency—human in its
essence but divine in its origin and in its purpose—that every
matrimonial act should be intrinsically ordained to life, to the
transmission of life (N. 11),6 even if in actual fact, owing
to an accidental and extrinsic reason, it must remain barren.
This accidental reason may depend on age, health, the period of the
The characteristic of the contraceptive mentality, so widespread
today, is precisely this radical refusal to recognize the essential and
intrinsic ordaining of human sexuality to the transmission of life and
to the continued existence of mankind. A refusal which, as we are about
to see, does not fail to be irrational and inhuman, and even
Promotion of a complete rationalization of the sexual sphere in the
perspective of eternal life
At first sight the expression "rationalization of the sexual
sphere" calls up, for different historical reasons, rather the idea
of the complete autonomy of the intimate life of the couple with regard
to all transcendent norms, as well as the use of artificial means to
control births. That is, just what the Encyclical finds irrational...
Is it not forgetfulness of what constitutes the essence of the virtue
of chastity which makes such confusion possible?
In fact, for Catholic theological tradition,7 the acquired
virtue of chastity penetrates with reasonableness the exercise of sexual
life when the latter is legitimate. It subordinates passions to reason
and to divine law, at once immanent and transcending human reason. By
encouraging periodic continence and the regulation of births without
artificial control, Paul VI rightly exalts a humble and complete
rationalization of the sexual sphere subjected to the knowledge of human
reason and to the control of freedom helped by grace. He does not appeal
to instincts, which are common to men and to other animals and which are
deprived of reason, but he appeals to man's freedom, through which man
resembles pure spirits such as angels are...
For it is not the transmission of a purely animal life that the
Encyclical wishes to promote, but that of a completely human and
humanized life: hence its title: Humanae Vitae. Let us
re-read in this light the very fine paragraph 21: "The honest
practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and
wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of
life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect
self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one's reason and free
will undoubtedly requires ascetic practices, so that the affective
manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in
particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet
this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far
from harming conjugal love, confers on it, rather, a higher human value.
It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence,
husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with
Yes, periodic continence, practised for love of God (cf. 1 Cor 7:5),
by exercising a rational and free mastery of the instincts, humanizes
sexuality, setting free the spiritual forces of the higher intellectual
nature. Far from signifying slavery in relation to purely biological
data, periodic continence by regulating births implies, on the contrary,
the concern to satisfy as far as possible a request of the men and women
of our time: to see "the prerogative of the human intellect
dominate the energies offered by irrational nature [in this case, the
human body] and orientate them towards an end conformable to the good of
man" (N. 16) The body, irrational as such, is, as a human body,
subjected to the rule of reason, pervaded with rationality, if human
freedom is willing. That is: if this reason, helped in fact by grace,
agrees to recognize in the biological rhythms of its own organism (N.
3), not an extraneous datum, but an element that is an integral part of
the human person (10) and is even the object structured and determined
by a divine law (N. 11).
In this context, contraception, with everything it presupposes and
everything that accompanies it, is manifested as a real alienation
of the human person, refusing to recognize the bodily dynamisms, in
himself and as part of himself, in favour of mechanical or
pharmaceutical means which are really extraneous to him.
Nor must it be forgotten that this humanization of sexuality is
promoted by the encyclical Humanae Vitae within the even more
fundamental design of its redeeming divinization, by means of the
sacramental graces of Baptism, Marriage, Penance and the Eucharist
(mentioned together in N. 25) and in the perspective of eternal life:
"The problem of birth, like every other problem regarding human
life, is to be considered in the light of an integral vision of man and
of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his
supernatural and eternal vocation" (N. 7).
The human life of husbands and wives, parents and children, as
regards their immortal souls, does not end with death, but leads to a
life in which one and all are called to enjoy endlessly one another and
God above all. The very serious duty of transmitting human life comes
from the eternal God and leads to an eternal life in him not only, if
they are faithful, those who gratuitously receive this human life,
without having been able to ask for it, but also those who, at the
request of mankind, agreed to transmit it as free and responsible
collaborators of the Creator.8
With the Encyclical Humanae Vitae Paul VI wished to announce
to all mortal men, to the whole of mankind,9 the sublime
reward for carrying out the duty of transmitting human life: eternal
1) Cf. B. de Margerie S.J., Sacrements et Développmement
intégral, Téqui, Paris 1977, p. 42; English ed., Sacraments and
Social Progress, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1974, p. 22.
2) M. Zalba S.J., Rassegna di Teologia, 9 (1968), 234.
3) Pius XII, Address on 12.11.1944; 8.9.1953; 12.9.1958.
4) Cf. Aertnys-Damen-Visser, Theologia Moralis, Marietti, Rome
1969, 18 t. IV, par. 309 and 335, pp. 252 ff. and 289 ff.
5) Humanae Vitae, n. 10: "human intellect
discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are part of
the human person".
6) We think with L. Ciccone, C.M. that a fundamental sentence of n.
11 of the Encyclical has not been well translated. The original Latin
runs: "quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se
Ciccone commented on this text as follows: "the act always
remains structured by a tendency and orientation towards procreation, as
the eye is always made for seeing even when there is lacking one of the
essential elements for actual sight and when, consequently, the visual
function of the eye remains only potential" (Ciccone, L'Enciclica
H.V., Analisi e Commento, "Divas Thomas", Piacenza,
72, 1969, 279). Per se, which means "essentially,
intrinsically", is opposed to per accidens; whereas
it is not possible to see the meaning of the translation: "every
matrimonial act must remain open to the transmission of life": in
what sense does the conjugal act of elderly persons remain open to the
transmission of life? The whole matter is clarified when we note the
explicitly Thomist origin of the Latin sentence quoted above: Summa
contra Gentes, III, 122, Ex quo patet... "secundum se,
per accidens: contra naturam... non contra naturam". It is
interesting to know that one of the decisive points of the Encyclical
reproduces literally, though without quoting it, the thought of the
Angelic Doctor on the use and abuse of marriage.
7) Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,
8) Cf. Pius XII, Address to Midwives: AAS 43 (1951),
845-846, with our explanation in Sacraments et Développement
Intégral (see n. 1), p. 45 ff.; H.V., n. 1.
9) The encyclical is explicitly addressed to all men of goodwill.