The Truth of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae

Author: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla


Cardinal Karol Wojtyla

A Testimony

It will seem strange that we begin our thoughts about the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" with quotations from the "Autobiography of M. Ghandhi". "In my opinion—wrote the great Indian—to maintain that the sexual act is a spontaneous action analogous to sleeping or eating, is crass ignorance. The existence of the world depends upon the act of multiplying—upon procreation, we say—and since the world is the dominion of God and a reflection of his power, the act of multiplying—of procreation, we say—must be subjected to the norm which aims at safeguarding (the development of life on earth). The man who is aware of all this, will aspire at all costs to dominate his senses and will furnish himself with the necessary knowledge to promote the physical and spiritual growth of his offspring. He will then pass on the fruits of this knowledge to posterity as well as using them for his own advantage". In another passage from his autobiography, Gandhi says that twice in his life he was influenced by the propaganda for artificial means of contraception in conjugal life. However he arrived at the conviction that "one must act primarily through interior force, in the mastery of oneself, that is through self-control".

With regard to the encyclical "Humanae Vitae", these passages from the Autobiography of Ghandhi take on the significance of a special testimony. They make us recall the words of Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, concerning the substance of the Law inscribed in the heart of man and demonstrated by the dictates of an upright conscience (Rom. 2, 15). Even in the times of Saint Paul, the voice of an upright conscience was a reproach for those who, even though "possessors of the Law", did not observe it.

Perhaps it is also good for us to have before our eyes the testimony of this non-Christian man. It is appropriate for us to be aware of "the substance of the Law" written in the heart of man and demonstrated by the conscience, in order to be able to penetrate the profound truth of the doctrine of the Church contained in Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae". For this reason at the beginning of our thoughts, which aim at clarifying the ethical truth and the objective foundation of the teaching of "Humanae Vitae", we have used such a testimony. The fact that this testimony historically precedes the encyclical by a few decades does not lesson its significance: in fact, the essence of the problem remains the same in both, and even the circumstances are quite similar.

The True Meaning Of Responsible Parenthood

In order to answer the questions presented at the beginning of the encyclical (H.v. 3), Paul VI analyzes the two great and fundamental "realities of married life", conjugal love and responsible parenthood (H.v. 7), in their mutual relationship. The analysis of responsible parenthood constitutes the principal theme of the encyclical since the questions posed at the beginning present this problem: "Could it not be admitted, that is, that the intention of a less abundant but more rationalized fecundity might transform a materially sterilizing intervention into a licit and wise control of birth? Could it not be admitted, that is, that the finality of procreation pertains to the ensemble of conjugal life, rather than to its single acts? ... has not the moment come for him to entrust to his reason and his will, rather than to the biological rhythms of his organism, the task of regulating birth?" (H.v. 3).

To answer these questions the Pope does not resort to the traditional hierarchy of the purposes of marriage of which the first is procreation, but instead he analyzes the mutual relations between conjugal love and responsible parenthood. This is the same formulation of the problem as that contained in the pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et spes".

A correct and penetrating analysis of conjugal love presupposes an exact idea of marriage itself. Marriage is not "the product of unconscious natural forces" (H.v. 8), it is "the communion of beings" (H.v. 8) based on their reciprocal gift of self. And for this reason a correct judgment of responsible parenthood presupposes "an integral vision of man and of his vocation" (H.v. 7). To acquire such a judgment "the partial perspectives—whether of the biological, psychological, demographic or sociological orders" (H.v. 7) are not at all sufficient. None of these views can constitute a basis for an adequate and just answer to the questions posed above. Every answer that comes from a partial view can only be a partial one. In order to find an adequate answer, it is necessary to have a correct vision of man as a being, since marriage establishes a communion of beings which is born and brought about through their mutual gift of self. Conjugal love is characterized by the elements which result from such a communion of beings and which correspond to the personal dignity of the man and the woman, of the husband and the wife. It is a matter of total love, or love which involves the whole man,: his sensitivity, his affectivity, and his spirituality, which must be both faithful and exclusive. This love "is not exhausted in the communion between husband and wife but it is destined to continue raising up new lives" (H.v. 9); it is therefore fruitful love. This loving communion of a married couple, through which they constitute, according to the words of Genesis 2, 24, "a single body" is a kind of condition of fecundity, a condition of procreation. This communion being a particular type—since it is corporeal it is in the strict sense "sexual"—of realization of the conjugal communion between beings, must be brought about at the level of the person and must befit his dignity. It is on this basis that one must form an exact judgment of responsible parenthood.

This judgment concerns, first of all, the essence of paternity—and under this aspect it is a positive judgment: "conjugal love requires in husband and wife an awareness of their mission of responsible parenthood . . . " (H.v. 10). The encyclical throughout its text formulates this judgment and proposes it as a basic answer to the questions posed above: conjugal love must be fruitful love, that is, "directed toward parenthood". Parenthood which comes from love between persons is "responsible parenthood". One could say that in the Encyclical "Humanae vitae" responsible parenthood becomes the proper name for human procreation.

This basically positive judgment of responsible parenthood, however, requires some further explanation. It is only through these further explanations that we can find a universal answer to the initial questions. Paul VI offers us these explanations. According to the encyclical, responsible parenthood means "both... the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, and... the decision... to avoid for the time being or for in indeterminate length of time, a new birth" (H.v. 10). If conjugal love is fruitful love, that is, open to parenthood, it is difficult to think that the meaning of responsible parenthood, deduced from its essential properties can be identified only with the limitation of birth. Thus responsible parenthood is realized both by those couples who, thanks to their generous and meditated decision, produce a large family, as well as by those couples who for "grave motives and with due respect for the moral law" (H.v. 10) decide to limit the number of their offspring.

According to the doctrine of the Church, responsible parenthood is not and cannot be only the effect of a certain "technique" of conjugal collaboration: in fact, it has primarily and "per se" an ethical value. A true and fundamental danger—to which the encyclical purports to be a providential remedy—consists in the temptation to consider this problem as being outside the sphere of ethics, to make an effort to divest man of the responsibility for his own actions which are so profoundly rooted in his entire personal structure. Responsible parenthood—writes the Pope—"means the necessary dominion which will and reason must exercise" over the tendencies of instinct and passion (H.v. 10). Thus this domination presupposes "the knowledge and respect of the biological processes" (H.v. 10) and this places these processes not only in their biological dynamism, but also in their personal integration, that is, at the level of the person, since "the human intellect discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are part of the human person" (H.v. 10).

Love is the communion of persons. If parenthood, and responsible parenthood, correspond to this love, then the way of acting which leads to such parenthood, cannot be morally indifferent. In fact, it decides whether the sexual activity of the communion of persons is or is not authentic love. "By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fulness the sense of true mutual love..." (H.v. 12).

Man "cannot of his own initiative break the inseparable connection between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning" (H.v. 12). It is for this reason that the encyclical supports the previous position of the Magisterium and maintains the difference between the so-called natural regulation of birth which calls for periodical abstinence and contraception which uses artificial methods. We use the word "maintains" because "the two cases are completely different from each other" (H.v. 16). There is a great difference between them with regard to their ethical qualification.

The encyclical of Paul VI as a document of the supreme Magisterium of the Church presents the teaching of the human and Christian ethic in one of its key points. The truth of "Humanae vitae" is therefore primarily a normative truth. It reminds us of the principles of morality, which constitute the objective norm. This norm is even written in the human heart, as is demonstrated at least in the testimony of Ghandhi which we quoted in the beginning of this article. Nonetheless, this objective moral principle easily suffers from subjective deformations or common obscuring. On the other hand many other moral principles such as those which were recalled in the encyclical "Populorum Progressio" have met a similar fate. In the encyclical "Humanae vitae", the Holy Father expresses above all his full understanding of all these circumstances which seem to speak out against the principle of conjugal morality as taught by the Church. The Pope is also aware of the difficulties to which modern man is exposed, as well as the weaknesses to which he is subject. However, the path towards the solution of the problems must be through the truth of the Gospel: "To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes in eminent form of charity for souls" (H.v. 29). The motive of charity towards souls and no other motive moves the Church which "does not cease... to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical" (H.v. 18).

A Correct Hierarchy Of Values

The normative truth of "Humanae vitae" is strictly tied to those values which are expressed in the objective moral order according to their proper hierarchy. These are the authentic human values which, are connected with conjugal and family life. The Church considers herself the custodian and guarantor of these values as we read in the encyclical. In the face of any danger which threatens them the Church feels it her duty to defend them. The authentic human values constitute the basis and at the same time the motivation of the principles of conjugal morality mentioned in the encyclical. It is useful to emphasize them once again even though they have already been demonstrated in the preceding discussions, and the matter is quite clear, since the true meaning of responsible parenthood was already expressed in the encyclical in relation to conjugal love.

The value which is at the foundation of this demonstration is the value of human life, that is, of that life already conceived and blossoming in the living together of the married couple. The responsibility of parenthood, to which the entire encyclical is principally dedicated, itself speaks of this value.

The fact that this value of life already conceived or in its origin, is not examined in the encyclical within the framework of procreation as the purpose of marriage, but rather within the vision of the love and the responsibility of the partners, places the value of human life itself in a new light. Man and woman in their matrimonial life together which is a living together of persons, must create a new human person. The conceiving of a person by means of persons—this is the just measure of values which must be used here. This is, at the same time, the just measure of the responsibility which must guide human parenthood.

The encyclical recognizes this value. Even though the encyclical does not seem to speak of this value very much, nevertheless it indirectly emphasizes it even more when it places it firmly within the context of other values. These are the fundamental values for human life, and ,at the same time the specific values for marriage and the family They are specific because only marriage and the family—and no other human environment—constitute the specific field in which these values appear. They are the fertile soil in which they grow. One of these is the value of conjugal and family love, the other is the value of the person, or his dignity which is manifested in the closest and most intimate human contacts. These two values permeate each other so completely that in a certain sense they constitute a single good. And this is the spiritual good of marriage, the greatest wealth of the new human generations: "...husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace... it favours attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties" (H.v. 21). This is the full context and at the same time the universal framework of the values upon which the doctrine of responsible parenthood is founded, the attitude of responsibility extends over the entire conjugal life and over the entire process of education. Only those who have reached the full maturity of their person through a complete education can succeed, in educating new human beings. Responsible parenthood and the chastity of the mutual relations between the married couple inherent in it are the verification of their spiritual maturity. Thus they project their light over the entire process of education which is carried out in the family.

The encyclical "Humanae vitae" contains not only clear and explicit norms for married life, conscious parenthood and a correct regulation of birth, but through these norms it indicates the values. It confirms their correct meaning and warns us against false meanings. It expresses a profound solicitude to safeguard man from the danger of altering the most fundamental values. One of the most fundamental values is that of human love. Love has its source in God who "is Love". Paul VI places this revealed truth at the beginning of his penetrating analysis of conjugal love because it expresses the highest value which must be recognized in human love. Human love is rich in the experiences of which it consists, but its essential richness consists in being a communion of persons, that is of a man and a woman, in their mutual self-giving. Conjugal love is enriched through the authentic giving of one person to another person. It is this mutual giving of self which must not be altered. If in marriage there is to be the realization of authentic love of persons through the giving of bodies, that is, through the "bodily union" of the man and the woman, then out of regard for the value of the love itself, this mutual gift of self cannot be altered in any aspect of the interpersonal conjugal act.

Authentic Value of Human Love

The value itself of human love and its authenticity demand such a chastity of the marital act as is required by the Church and is repeated in the encyclical itself. In various fields man dominates nature and subordinates it to himself through the use of artificial means. The sum total of these means in a certain sense is equivalent to progress and civilization. In this field, however, where love between one person and another is expressed through the marital act, and where the person must authentically give himself (and "give" also means "to receive" reciprocally) the use of artificial means is equivalent to an alteration of the act of love. The author Of "Humanae vitae" is aware of the authentic value of human love which has God as its source, and which is confirmed by a correct conscience and a healthy "moral sense". It is precisely in the name of this value that the Pope teaches the principles of ethical responsibility. This is also the responsibility which safeguards the quality of human love in marriage. This love is also expressed in continence—even in periodic continence-since love is capable of giving up the marital act, but it cannot give up the authentic gift of the person. Renouncing the marital act can be in certain circumstances an authentic gift of self. Paul VI writes in this regard: "...this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value" (H.v. 21).

In expressing the thoughtful concern for the authentic value of human love, the encyclical "Humanae vitae" addresses man and calls upon his sense of dignity as a person. In fact, love, according to its authentic Value, must be realized by man and woman in marriage. The capacity for such love and the capacity for the authentic giving of self demand from both partners the sense of personal dignity. The experience of sexual value must be permeated by a vivid awareness of the value of the person. This value, in fact, explains the necessity for the mastery of oneself which belongs to the person: in fact, the personality is expressed in self-control and self-domination. Without these man would not be capable of giving himself nor of receiving that gift according to the measure of the value which must characterize such an interchange. And therefore the moral doctrine proclaimed by the Church contributes "to the establishment of a truly human civilization; she engages man not to abdicate from his own responsibility in order to rely on technical means; by that very fact she defends the dignity of mail and wife" (H.v. 18).

The encyclical "Humanae vitae" formulates this hierarchy of values which proves to be essential and decisive for the entire problem of responsible parenthood. This hierarchy cannot be overturned and the correct order of values cannot be changed. We would risk such an inversion and changing of values if, in order to resolve the problem, we were to take partial aspects as our point of departure rather than starting from "the integral vision of man and his vocation". Each of these partial aspects is very important in itself, and Paul VI does not diminish their importance in the least; whether it be the demographic-sociological aspect or the bio-psychological aspect. On the contrary, the Pontiff carefully considers them. He only wishes to prevent any of the partial aspects—no matter what their importance—from destroying the correct hierarchy of values and from divesting love of its true significance as the communion of persons and from divesting man himself of his true significance as a person capable of authentic self-giving, a self-giving in which mail cannot be substituted by "technology". In all this, however, the Pope does not overlook any one of the partial aspects of the problem; as a matter of fact he confronts them, establishing their fundamental content and declaring the correct hierarchy of values. And it is precisely along this path that there exists a possibility of birth control and therefore also the possibility of resolving the socio-demographical difficulties. And therefore Paul VI was able to write with all certainty that "...public authorities can and must contribute to the solution of the demographic problem" (H.v. 23). When it is a matter of the biological or even the psychological aspects—as the encyclical teaches us—the path towards the realization of the respective values passes through the heightening of the value of love itself and of the person. Here are the words of the eminent biologist, professor P. P. Grasset of the Academy of Sciences: "The encyclical is in agreement with biological data, it reminds doctors of their duties and Points Out to man the way by which his dignity-both physical and moral-will not suffer any offence" (Le Figaro, 8-10-1968).

One might say that the encyclical penetrates the nucleus of this universal problem which had engaged the Second Vatican Council. The problem of the development "of the world" both in its modern demands and in its more distant perspectives leads to a series of questions which man poses to himself. Some of these are expressed in the pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et spes". A correct answer to these questions is not possible if one does not realize the significance of those values which make man and his life truly human. In the encyclical "Humanae vitae" Paul VI dedicates himself to the examination of these values in their central core.

Evangelic Profile

The examination of these values and through them the examination of the norm itself of responsible parenthood formulated in the encyclical "Humanae vitae" carry with them a particular stamp of the Gospel. It is important to point this Out again at the conclusion of the present considerations even though this very idea has been the connecting thread throughout. The questions which agitate modern man "required from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection upon the principles of the moral teaching on marriage: a teaching founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation". Revelation as the expression of the eternal thought of God permits us, and at the same time commands us, to consider marriage as an institution for transmitting human life, in which the marriage partners are "the free and responsible collaborators of God the creator" (H.v. 1).

Christ himself confirmed this perpetual dignity of married persons and he inserted the totality of married life into the work of the Redemption, and lie included it in the sacramental order. By the sacrament of Marriage "husband and wife are strengthened and as it were consecrated for the faithful accomplishment of their proper duties, for the carrying out of their proper vocation even to perfection, and the Christian witness which is proper to them before the whole world" (H.v. 25). Since the doctrine of Christian morality was set forth in the encyclical, the doctrine of responsible parenthood understood as the just expression of conjugal love and of the dignity of the human person, constitutes an important component of the Christian witness.

And it seems to us proper that for this witness man must make a certain sacrifice for the sake of authentic values. The Gospel continually confirms the necessity of such a sacrifice, and it is confirmed by the work of Redemption which is expressed in its totality in the Easter Mystery. The cross of Christ has become the price of human redemption. Each man who walks along the path of true values must assume part of this cross as the price which he must pay in exchange for authentic values. This price consists in a particular effort: "The divine law, as the Pope writes, demands serious engagement and much effort", and he adds right after this that "...such efforts ennoble man and are beneficial to the human community" (H.v. 20).

The last part of the encyclical is in appeal for this serious engagement and these efforts which is addressed both to the human community, in order that it "create all atmosphere favourable to education in chastity" (H.v. 22), and to public authorities as well as men of science in order that they may succeed in "providing a sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms" of fertility (H.v. 24). The encyclical finally appeals to married persons themselves, to the apostolate of families for the family, to doctors, to priests and to bishops as pastors of souls.

For contemporary men who are restless and impatient and who are at the same time threatened in the sphere of their most fundamental values and principles, the Vicar of Christ recalls the laws which rule over this sphere. And since they lack patience and seek after simplifications and apparently easy solutions lie reminds them of the necessary price for true values and of how much patience and effort are necessary for the realization of these values. It seems that throughout all the arguments and appeals of the encyclical which are full of dramatic tension, we can hear the words of the Master: "by your endurance you will gain your lives" (Luke 21, 19). For in the last analysis that is precisely the point.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 January 1969, page 6

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