Humanae Vitae: Second Article

The following is the second installment of the 3 part series on Humae Vitae I wrote for Fr. Michael Dandurand at St. Thomas More Parish in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Last week, I tried to provide a brief overview of a monumental and providential document, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968: Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). Based on the title of this encyclical letter alone, however, it is obvious that a single commentary article could never be sufficient in providing even a basic understanding of its worth. Thus, I again hope to use this forum to explain the immense value of the Holy Father’s teaching concerning marital love and procreation, and to bring to light a little more the inestimable wealth of divine Love which it imparts to the universal Church.

“The question of human procreation, like every other question which touches human life,” writes the Pontiff, “involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects.” (HV 7) As Catholics, we should all be able to find great truth and comfort in this statement; it is not our utility to society that makes us special in God’s eyes, but rather our very essence, having been created in His image and likeness. The human person is an organic whole, to be seen by others as inviolable, and it is in light of this reality that the Holy Father seeks to clarify what the Catholic Church has always taught about the significance of human life, specifically with regard to procreation and its most fundamental and modern opposition: artificial birth control and contraception.

To begin, the pope calls to mind the “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” (HV 12) In other words, we are to be conscious of the fact that the beauty of marital love is found both in the union of spouses to one another (a participation in the Trinitarian union) and in the openness of both spouses to the procreation of children (a participation in the creative Love of the Holy Trinity). The first claim is rather readily accepted: “Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love.” (HV 13) The latter claim, however – that of the sacredness of procreation – is much more commonly denounced and promptly cast aside. Together with contraception, the Holy Father cites intentional sterilization, abortion and anything which interrupts the “generative process already begun” as a serious violation of the true meaning of conjugal love. In short, any process that is intended to limit the total gift of self from one spouse to another during the marital act is an impediment to true love and is thus an abomination of the sacramental worth bestowed upon marriage in the sight of God.

Certainly, it is not the intent here (nor was it that of Paul VI) to convey a message of “thou shalt not.” The aim of the Catholic Church has always been, quite simply, to promote a positive view of the human person in light of salvation history – Jesus Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection, which saves us all from sin. However, an unfair reading of Humanae Vitae, or any Church teaching for that matter, can lead the uninformed man or woman to believe something quite contrary from its true and intended message. For this reason, it is important to spend a little time on the practical directives also provided by Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of this encyclical. In the final installment of this column, we will examine more closely the expectations that the Church has for us, as lay men and women, concerning the transmission of human life and the preservation of its dignity, both during and after conception. Until then, may we continue to pray that the Lord Jesus enlighten our minds and hearts to the reality of His glorious Love, and that we all come to find the majestic beauty of the Catholic Tradition, given to us through the Holy Apostles. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever, Amen.