Humanae Vitae: Understanding the Encyclical

Author: LOR

An unsigned Editorial in L'Osservatore Romano

Perhaps no other Papal document has been so anxiously awaited, or has aroused so many and widespread reactions, not only in Catholic circles, as Pope Paul's last Encyclical on procreation, Humanae Vitae.

This is explained by the fact that, unlike other documents the Humanae Vitae touches all men directly, whatever their social condition or religious creed, in an intimate matter of which people are naturally jealous, as they are of the sanctuary of their consciences. From the first comments appearing in the press it seems that even this encyclical has not escaped hurried, biased and selfish interpretations.

This one-sided disparity of judgment and valuation is something to which even Catholic circles have been accustomed, especially since the Council, when in the ecclesial community, together with increased freedom of opinion and expression, a dialectic developed which was accompanied by a frequently critical attitude towards traditional institutions and positions. The terms "progressives" and "conservatives" are no strangers to the Catholic world.


In considering that doctrine one understands easily how it is that the Catholic Church of the XX century cannot profess a faith different from that of the primitive Church, or of the Apostolic community. Similarly, the Catholic Church of the XX century cannot teach a set of moral laws different from those taught by the primitive Church or by the Apostolic community.

This principle of identity does not exclude legitimate progress in possession., of the truth, nor a legitimate growth of the faith. But the growth of the faith, like the evolution of morality, are not susceptible to intrinsic changes. But the community of believers, under the influence of the Spirit and the sure guidance of the Magisterium, gradually reaches a deeper penetration of the truth contained in the sacred deposit, and revealed once for all by Christ.

The Council's Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, on divine revelation, reminds us of this, stressing the fact that the Church, "in the course of centuries, tends unceasingly towards the fulness of divine truth, until through her the Word of God is brought to fulfillment." But between this progressive, incessant acquisition of the truth and the radical transformation of the truth in itself, in its objective content, there lies the same difference as there is between subject and object, between the knower and the known.

Having recalled this principle it is not difficult to understand how the Church follows a constant and uniform line to resolve new problems emerging from social evolution or scientific and technical progress. But really, these problems are new only in their formulation, their presentation or outer covering; radically, against their doctrinal background, they are the old problems, originating in the historic conditions of fallen man, which have accompanied him in his evolution and expansion, dressing themselves up in different colours.

The problem of birth, or as the Pope more correctly calls it in his Encyclical, human propagation is one of these. It was present to the conscience of the first couple, as it was to those that followed, and is present to the couples of today. The difference between the first couple and their modern counterparts lies in the fact the latter feel it in a more acute, pressing, even dramatic way. But, as will be easily realised it is not a difference of substance but of manner, of intensity.


The laws governing marriage are fundamentally the same for all generations. Marriage, in fact—as Pope Paul's Encyclical worthily points out—is not an institution for the arbitrary decisions of individuals or groups. It originated from God, who having created male and female, united them in a monogamous and indissoluble bond, attaching to it the precept of propagating the human race.

Christ has ennobled this union which was based on the laws of nature, raising it to the dignity of a Sacrament, strengthening the bond, and sanctifying it with his grace. The qualities of marriage which the Church acknowledges and defends are not therefore extrinsic elements temporary and transitory. They are permanent arid intrinsic, arising directly from the will of Christ and of God, authors respectively of sacramental and natural marriage.


One of the fundamental, permanent principles of the teaching of the Church is that "every conjugal act must remain open to the transmission of life", and that the regulation of birth may not be effected by external constraint, nor by doing violence to nature. On the basis of this principle the Church holds illicit those acts that are aimed at the direct interruption of a generative process already started: direct abortion, deliberate, and carried out even for therapeutic reasons; direct sterilization, temporary or permanent, of husband or wife; every action, that in connection with the conjugal act—whether previous to it, during the act, or in the development of its consequences—is intended as a means of preventing the generative process.

It is probable that on the first three points there is no disagreement between Catholics and people who acknowledge or accept the principles of natural law. The conscience of every honest man revolts at the destruction of life, whether matured or germinating, so that he feels horror and loathing for every form of direct sterilization. The right to life, and its integrity, is a natural, inviolable right, protected in the most evolved and civilized states even by numerous constitutions.

As far as Catholic morality is concerned, the Church, with Pope John XXIII, whose authority is quoted by Pope Paul's Encyclical, teaches that "human life is sacred" and "from its first moment directly engages the creative action of God." Man is therefore not its arbiter, its absolute master, but a wise administrator aware of his rights and duties towards himself, towards others and towards God. Natural right is ratified by the positive Mosaic precept that includes the other three cases cited above.

It is not possible to make equally evident the illicit nature of other cases. However, as far as the list is concerned, that is, the action that aims at preventing the natural consequences of the conjugal act, the difficulty is less in that it is connected with one of the preceding cases. Both intention and action are aimed at the direct arrest of the generative process, real or presumed. Its illicit nature comes within the common norms of morality.


Two cases remain; one is that of an action that in intention and accomplishment is directed as an end or means at preventing procreation. We do not conceal the difficulty raised by this problem. Perhaps this was the crucial point on which—as in mentioned in the Encyclical—the Commission did not reach "full agreement on the moral norms to be proposed", as "some criteria for solution" had emerged that varied from the traditional line.

The Commission did not have a deliberative vote. Its task was to offer advice. The authentic and true solution rested with the supreme Pastor of the Church. After careful evaluation of the commission's documents and of the advice spontaneously offered by "a good number" of the Bishops, or specially requested from them, and after "mature reflection and assiduous prayers," Pope Paul VI, "in virtue of Christ's mandate", as Head of the Catholic Church, has given in the Encyclical the answer to the final complex issues.


The Pope's pronouncement, which has all the character of a magisterial act of the Vicar of Christ, authentically interprets a principle of Catholic morality whose binding force in the cases under discussion, did not appear obvious to all. It is therefore self-contradictory to speak of the acceptance of the argument of a minority opinion, or worse, of a new 'Galileo' case, which the Catholic Church would be compelled to review in the near future.

When the Pope, with his authority derived from Christ, has made a pronouncement on a definite question over which theologians are divided, it is irrelevant to consider the numbers of eventual supporters, or the force of their arguments. The Church is not a community ruled by a democratic regime, whose discussions are decided by a majority vote. Only to Peter and the Apostolic College did Christ promise the Spirit of truth, to interpret the moral order authentically in its natural expression and its evangelical revelation.

This is not altered by the fact that we are dealing with a pronouncement of the ordinary magisterium. The Second Vatican Council expressly proclaimed that one must give "religious submission of will and intelligence to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, "even when he does not speak 'ex. cathedra'." On this point it must be remembered that Pope Paul's pronouncement is in line with those of preceding Pontiffs, and conforms to the Council statements on matrimony.

It cannot be said that, in taking this stand, the Pope has shown himself insensible to the problems of propagation, or has blocked the way to any honest solution. Following the magisterium of Pope Pius XII, he has indicated the path to be taken in periodical continence, founded on natural rhythm, appealing not only to married couples, but also to scientists to give "a sufficiently sure basis for a regulation of birth founded on natural rhythms", and on respect for the objective moral order.

The re-confirmation of the validity of the traditional magisterial line is an act of evangelical service to humanity, which, notwithstanding its enormous technical and scientific progress, is still far from the goal of an objective morality based on respect for human dignity. This is why we said at the beginning that before judging the Encyclical hastily, we must know how to read it, to be able to interpret it correctly.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 August 1968, page 4

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