The Truth of Humanae Vitae
by Most Reverend Fabian Bruskewitz
Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, U.S.A.
In speaking about the great and famous encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, which was issued on July 29, 1968, my personal recollection goes back to an incident ten years later, on June 29, 1978. It was the feast of Saint Peter and Paul, always a great and glorious celebration in the City of Rome. I was among those priests designated to distribute Holy Communion in Saint Peter's Basilica that day. Pope Paul VI was the homilist, and his homily consisted mainly of the resume of the major documents of his pontificate. He was sitting on the pontifical cathedra, in front of the altar of Saint Peter, and reading from his prepared manuscript. He would announce the name of each of the various documents that he issued.
When he came to Humanae Vitae, I recall vividly how he set the papers he was holding on his lap, when he looked up and with an enormous amount of sincerity said, "Humanae Vitae, I did not betray the truth. I did not betray the truth." Then he picked the papers up and continued his formal discourse. Loyal to his memory then, as we say a few words now, about Humanae Vitae, let us pray that we will be as loyal to the truth also, as was that great Pontiff, Pope Paul VI, and not in any way diminish the integrity and the luster of the moral principles and teachings embedded in that encyclical.
Until the 1930's there is no indication in the history of Christianity that any Christian group approved as moral any method of artificial birth prevention. Contraception was well-known, even to ancient peoples, although the methods were often crude and primitive and based on exceptionally faulty biology. Still, all through the history of Christianity, contraception was considered, along with abortion, as an intrinsically evil undertaking, and if done with free will and sufficient reflection, always a mortal sin, placing one's eternal salvation in jeopardy. This was the consistent teaching of all the fathers and doctors of the Church, even in the moral teachings of those Christians who, in the course of history, were separated from Rome and the See of Peter, as the Eastern Orthodox and later the various Protestant groups were. The teaching about the evil of contraception was maintained. It was only in 1930 at the Lambeth conference that the majority opinion of the Anglican Bishops present there approved the use of artificial birth prevention. It was a startling innovation and shocked the entire Christian world. It is true that through the centuries many Christians, including Catholics, would violate God's law, and use artificial contraception, but it was conceded and accepted that this was wrong, and there was no attempt to justify morally acts that were contrary to the divine and natural law. The 1930 Lambeth conference attempted to give a legitimacy to a practice that was before considered immoral, and now declared to be not immoral.
The reaction was generally negative throughout the world, and His Holiness Pope Pius XI immediately wrote a splendid encyclical called Casti Connubii in which he re-affirmed the constant and unbroken moral teaching of the Catholic Church about the immorality of artificial birth prevention. He asserted in very strong and clear terms what the Church had always taught in that regard. In 1930 the world-wide depression was underway, and the straightened economic circumstances of the western world particularly exacerbated the temptations to prevent births. Already a considerable amount of propaganda had been waged, especially through such figures as Margaret Sanger, to the intent that children were a costly burden, and that one could alleviate some of the economic hardships that might be experienced by a family through the limitation of the number of births.
With a certain measure of gradualness, the idea that contraception was not intrinsically evil began to creep into the doctrinal views of other Protestant and non-Catholic groups. By and large, however, there was no dissent about the issue in the Catholic Church. In the 1950's there began to be developed an anovulant pill, which was found capable of being used as a pre-coital type of artificial birth prevention. Pope Pius XII, in 1958, said that this was, in his view, a direct, if temporary, contraceptive sterilization and, therefore, was immoral. More and vigorous research, however, was undertaken in various places in regard to chemical means to inhibit female human ovulation and, consequently, as a method of artificial birth prevention.
The matter was particularly vivid in the early 1960's, and circulated largely around research being done at Harvard University by a Doctor Rock, who claimed to be a Catholic and thought that inhibiting ovulation by chemical means would be a moral way to prevent births. He was joined by various figures in the Church and outside the Church who continued to claim that a new look should be given to this method of birth prevention, claiming that it had certain similarities to natural family planning, and that inhibiting ovulation was a means of preventing or limiting births that could be found compatible with Catholic traditional morality. Pressured to look into the matter more thoroughly, Blessed Pope John XXIII, in March of 1963, formed a special commission to look in a more profound way into the study of an ovulant chemical means to prevent births, in relationship to Catholic morality. After the death of Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI reconstituted the commission, and expanded its purpose to look into the entirety of Catholic moral teaching in regard to artificial contraception. This commission, which was twice expanded by Pope Paul VI, was the object of a great deal of interest as well as pressure from inside and outside the Catholic Church. It is difficult to recapture in words the atmosphere of that time. Part of the atmosphere involved this culture of the Second Vatican Council which spoke of and was involved in dialogue with the world. There was in the Church a large number of people who were very eager to have the Church accept certain kinds of worldly views so that the Church herself would be more readily accepted in some of her doctrines. Since the forbidding of artificial birth prevention was a very clear and distinctive Catholic moral position, there were many who thought it would be easier to accommodate evangelization were the Church able to change her doctrine and historic teaching on this issue.
There was also at that time an enormous growth of young people, especially in the western world. These were the famous "baby boomers" who were coming into adulthood after their births following the Second World War. This lent itself throughout western Europe and North America especially, to a great deal of restlessness and youthful exuberance which contained a huge amount also of rebellion. Many of these young people were raised in unparalleled and unprecedented prosperity, and were very much children of television which stimulated their appetites, and would oftentimes arouse their excitement and resolve the arousal after a half-hour or hour was over. Sensual gratification was an important part of their cultural milieu Also, at that time, through television and parents who themselves had been deprived of material comforts in the depression and the war, these young people were given as probably the principal goal in their lives, at least in their imaginations, the acquisition of comfort and pleasurable experiences. Hence, a culture of hedonism and materialism was being born. The 1960's were the time when the Dionysian music began to take hold, music that influenced the culture far more powerfully than was recognized at the time. Music that not only extolled self-gratification, but that was lascivious and to a large extent irrational. Also, the 1960's were the times when the ingestion of narcotics became widespread in the western world, deriving from a culture that was devoted to pleasure-seeking, comfort, and utter selfishness.
All of this was brought to a clearer picture in the famous Woodstock nation, which occurred only a year after the issuance of Humanae Vitae, when some hundreds of thousands of young people gathered on a farm in New York and engaged in ingesting narcotics, listening to rock music, and involving themselves in sexual promiscuity. This was alleged to be the way to a more peaceful world, especially by the media pundits.
At that time within the Catholic Church, there were quite revolutionary developments. Liturgical language was changed. Many of the rules that restricted or guided Catholic life were modified or loosened. In that atmosphere, there was also a spirit generated that "everything is up for grabs," and, consequently, there were expectations generated which would tend also to loosening the provisions of divine law in regard to contraception. Both within and without the Church, there was at that time, two other moral issues which were sometimes used to disguise the quest for immorality in matters of sexual conduct. These had to do with racial justice and equality, and with peace and the opposition to American involvement in the war in Vietnam. Both of these issues took on a moral patina and were used oftentimes as a salve for consciences, which were inclined to immoral sexual practices.
Finally, although I do not know all the particulars, I think some consideration should be given to the theory of E. Michael Jones, who maintained that the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic President of the United States in 1960 threw a strong panic into the Anglo-Saxon establishment, which had hitherto controlled the country. This caused powerful economic forces, especially the Rockefeller Foundation, to fund the research on the contraceptive pill, and to fund the incredible national and worldwide propaganda campaign for zero population growth, and for the widespread use of contraception. The possibility that Catholic demographics would overtake the establishment in the United States caused this expenditure of effort to propagandize, especially within the Catholic Church, the use of contraception, and to limit the growth of the Catholic population within the United States.
Another aspect of the background to issuance of Humanae Vitae was the continuing length of time that the Pope was taking in coming to a decision about the moral issue. The longer the time, the more growth there was in the opinion that somehow or another the Church would proclaim that artificial birth prevention was no longer considered to be immoral. During the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Montini of Milan, who later became Pope Paul VI, was largely identified with what might be called the more liberal or progressive elements in the Council, particularly Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, Cardinal Alfrink of Holland, and Cardinal Koenig of Austria. There was little doubt that those Cardinals as well as many other prelates, particularly from western Europe and North America were pressing the Pope to change the historic and traditional doctrine of the Church. The commission also was strongly divided and a growing majority in the commission were of the opinion that contraception could be declared to be a moral undertaking. Information leaks, from what were supposed to be confidential discussions, were pouring out into the newspapers, and especially into the left-wing and liberal press which was eagerly anticipating announcing a change in this matter. The heroic issuance by Pope Paul VI of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, subtitled On the Regulation of Birth caused an immediate sensation throughout both Catholic and non-Catholic parts of the world.
The structure of the encyclical is relatively simple. The Pope began by reviewing the controversy that occasioned the issuance of the encyclical and was very forceful in reiterating the Church's competence to judge even matters of the natural law. He said, "No believer will wish to deny that the teaching authority of the Church is competent to interpret even the natural moral law. It is, in fact, indisputable that our Predecessors have many times declared that Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and the apostles His divine authority, and sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law, not only that is of the law of the Gospel, but also of the natural law, which is also an expression of the will of God, the faithful fulfillment of which is equally necessary for salvation." The Pope goes on to say, "Conformably to this mission of hers, the Church has always provided, and even more amply in recent times, a coherent teaching concerning both the nature of marriage and the correct use of conjugal rights and the duties of husband and wife.”
The Holy Father talks of conjugal love, like marriage itself, being a good, instituted by God to realize in mankind His design of love, and to enable spouses to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives. He talks about responsible parenthood which involves understanding and respecting the biological laws which are part of the human person, mastering instinct and passion by rational control, deciding prudently about family size and concrete circumstances, and adhering to the objective moral order established by God.
The encyclical reiterated the traditional and continuous Catholic teaching that the procreative and unitive ends of marriage cannot be separated, and that both are essential to the integrity of the conjugal act. He said very clearly that the natural law requires that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. This entails the rejection of direct abortion, direct contraceptive sterilization of either spouse, whether permanent or temporary, and any procedure which either in anticipation of the conjugal act or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or a means to render procreation impossible. The Pope emphasized that deliberate violence to the integrity of even a single conjugal act constitutes a grave evil which cannot be rectified either by a good ulterior motive or by other conjugal acts left open to procreation.
While rejecting all artificial birth prevention, the Pope affirmed that conjugal acts can be legitimate if they are foreseen to be unfertile for causes independent of the will of the husband and wife. Therefore, it is allowable to use therapeutic measures necessary for health, which are not calculated to suppress procreation, even if an obstacle to procreation will arise as a side-effect. Moreover, for serious motives, not selfishness which can never be an adequate serious motive, spouses may regulate births by utilizing the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions. The Pope points out however, that this necessitates self-discipline and restraint, and makes a significant contribution to the mutual unselfishness essential to a happy and stable marriage.
The encyclical also contains exhortations to married couples to pursue the positive value of conjugal chastity, to be assisted by prayer and the sacraments, and not be discouraged by natural weakness. He also is very strong in admonishing public authorities to promote a social climate favorable to chastity, and to refrain from supporting or imposing artificial birth prevention techniques simply to solve demographic problems.
The Pope goes on to predict what would be the consequences of giving way to the intrinsic evil of artificial birth prevention. He said it would encourage promiscuity and marital infidelity; it would degrade women into being objects of sexual satisfaction; and it would furnish unscrupulous governments with the means of violating the procreative freedom of their subjects. Our present Holy Father Pope John Paul II has reiterated in exceptionally strong terms the teaching of Humanae Vitae, and he has been very clear that this teaching belongs, not only to the natural moral law, but to the moral order revealed by God. It could not be different but solely what is handed down by tradition and by the Magisterium. There is a dispute among some theologians about the infallible character of this moral teaching of the Church. It is generally accepted and the preponderance of evidence is on the side of the assertion that this teaching does enjoy the charism of infallibility. Even the dissenting theologian Hans Kung understood this to be the case, and in order to evade the consequences of that fact, has written a book denying the dogma of infallibility, and for that reason has been declared a non-Catholic theologian, and someone whose teaching is dangerous to eternal salvation. Especially, Professor Germain Grisez and Father John Ford have been particularly emphatic that this teaching of the Church and its long continuity enjoys the charism of infallibility that the Holy Spirit gives to the Catholic Church, and that this is a fact even before the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. There are some who have a different view of this issue, of course.
Immediately after the encyclical was issued there was a tremendous uproar throughout the world, particularly within the Catholic Church. The majority report of the commission was leaked in America to the National Catholic Reporter. Immediately upon the issuance of the encyclical, a group of persons claiming to be theologians in the United States, some 250 of them, led by a teacher at Catholic University, Charles Curran, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, issued a public denial of the encyclical and a public refusal to accept the teaching. By various means, this was acquiesced in by others throughout the world. Several people came strongly to the defense of the Holy Father and the traditional teaching of the Church, but there were others, and especially theologians joined to Bishops' Conferences, like Indonesia and Canada, where they were notorious for seeking means to evade the objective truth of Humanae Vitae. Many of these people laid claim to "conscience." Conscience, of course, is the supreme subjective norm of morality, but it has no value unless it is linked to the objective norm of morality which is law, natural law and divine law being paramount. Therefore, conscience itself can be erroneous, and knowingly to follow a conscience which is doubtful or erroneous about these issues would, of course, be sinful in itself. The dissenters were not firmly and strongly and universally refuted and disciplined by the authorities of the Church. Some of the Church authorities themselves, while not entirely disagreeing with the Pope's teaching, were lax in enforcing the teaching, and perhaps, somewhat embarrassed about the teaching in view of the overwhelming push on the world cultural scene for acceptance of contraception.
Dissent from authoritative teaching in the Church became quite acceptable, and transference from dissent about this aspect of sexual morality to other aspects of sexual morality, as well as to other aspects of Church life, began in earnest and has continued and grown in strength even to this day. I think statistically it could be shown that the majority of the homosexual pedophile crimes committed by some priests in the United States date in large measure from the dissent to Humanae Vitae and from the echo of that dissent. If one asserts that the very clear teaching of the Catholic Church about this aspect of sexual morality is in error, one can say that the other aspects are or could be in error as well.
The anti-population growth people have engaged in a vigorous campaign supported by vast amounts of government funding to promote limitation of births throughout the world, and especially in the United States. That this has had a deleterious effect upon the Catholic Church in our country and beyond, is, I think, quite beyond question. In a recent issue of Religious Life, Father Paul Marx has pointed out how the contraceptive mentality has invaded Catholic families. This has had a disastrous effect upon vocations to the priesthood and religious life, where family numbers are extraordinarily tiny, and parents are opposed to having their only one or two children giving their lives to Christ and to a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
By separating the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal life, our culture has opened the doors to every sort of sexual perversion and sexual aberration. If the purpose of sexual acts is merely to gather selfish pleasure to oneself, and there is no necessity for commitment or responsibility in regard to these kinds of acts, then there is almost no limit to what kind of acts in that context would be considered moral. The growth of homosexual perversion and the growth of marriage seen as an institution without any sacrifice or self-discipline, but merely a vehicle for personal and selfish pleasure, is understandable in that cultural context. Father Paul Mankowski has eloquently set forth how dissent from Humanae Vitae has also caused the destruction of much of religious life. Since one dissents from a very vital and important aspect of moral teaching, there is nothing to prevent the same kind of logic to lead one to dissent from not only the discipline, but many of the doctrinal teachings of the Church on the basis that one simply, in kind of a Protestant way, makes oneself the Pope in all these questions and decisions.
It is amazing that even today many people buy into the fallacious demographic that overpopulation is the cause of national or familial poverty. It has been proven untrue in many ways. For instance, Belgium and Holland are some of the most densely populated countries in the world. They are also among the most prosperous and actually import workers from third world countries because there are not enough people to do the work that keeps those countries in their prosperity. Whereas other countries such as Nepal and Paraguay, for instance, are greatly impoverished and yet are sparsely settled, with a very low population density.
Another argument that has been used is that contraception will diminish the number of abortions. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Statistically, every place where there is a heavy use of contraception, there is also a heavy use of abortion. As a matter of fact, in the United States, as well as in other places, abortion is a preferred means of contraception, and it is looked on and defended as a type of birth prevention, rather than the heinous slaughter of the unborn that it is. Not only is there a statistical relation between abortion and contraception, that is that both go up together, but the fact that many contraceptive means and devices are in themselves abortifacient, including the type of birth control pills that are now in vogue, is overlooked. For example, the IUD, Norplant, Depo-Provera and so on, are not simply contraceptives, but are abortifacient. The pill sometimes inhibits ovulation, but as often or more often it inhibits nidation, which means that the ovum which has now begun life by being fertilized, is prevented from imbedding itself in the wall of the uterus and so is expelled. The so-called morning-after pill, and the do-it-yourself abortion pill that now is coming into use, are very clearly acts of what the Second Vatican Council calls the abominable and unspeakable crime of abortion.
It does not take much power of observation to see that the predications of Pope Paul VI have been plainly realized. Sexual promiscuity and marital infidelity are more frequent and clearly apparent than ever before. No-fault divorce has allowed, under the guise of faulty civil laws, wholesale promiscuity throughout the culture and, unfortunately, even throughout many parts of the Catholic Church. Women are being degraded into objects of sexual satisfaction. The pornography industry, billions and billions of dollars throughout the United States, is one of the largest industries, and its exploitation of women and of children is horrible beyond comprehension.
In that same regard the killing policy in China, where the government has allowed only one child per family has resulted in the wholesale slaughter and abandonment of infant baby girls and the proportion of genders in China is now 60-40 boys over girls. Sociologically and politically to say nothing of morally it is very questionable what happens to a country that will be predominantly male in a few years. This also gives a strong illustration of what Pope Paul VI talked about, namely that contraception would furnish unscrupulous governments with the means of violating the procreative freedom of their subjects. One of the apparent consequences of the contraceptive culture and of the violation and ignoring of the teaching of Humanae Vitae has been what Pope John Paul II has called the demographic winter, which means that many countries of Europe, specifically Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium and Holland are well below population replacement in their reproductive statistics, and that these countries which are importing vast numbers of workers and laborers from third world countries, especially Muslim countries, are becoming at a very rapid rate countries where Islam will become the predominant religion since Muslims do have many children. In our own country, we have a similar situation. The population of the United States is growing, but almost exclusively by means of immigration, rather than by means of reproduction. If the native American stock alone is considered, we too are in a state of population decrease, which has enormous political and economic ramifications even apart from the frown of God which must certainly settle upon those who violate the laws He has written into nature and that He has revealed through Jesus Christ.
One of the saddest aspects of the growth of contraception, and its garments and attendants, abortion and infanticide, sexual promiscuity and the like, is the reluctance and sometimes the avoidance of preaching and teaching the correct doctrine of the Church on these issues by Bishops and priests. In the Diocese of Lincoln, I have inherited a strong and clear doctrinal direction that is contrary to that trend. My Predecessor of happy memory, Bishop Glennon Patrick Flavin, in March of 1992, wrote a very significant letter to Catholic married couples and to Catholic physicians about this issue. He wrote it in an uncomplicated and pastoral way as a Good Shepherd does who cares for the eternal salvation of his flock. It has had and continues to have a happy and beautiful resonance.
In conclusion, let me quote Pope Paul VI, and the final appeal that he has in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. He writes, "Venerable brothers, most beloved sons and all men of good will, Great indeed is the work of education, of progress and of love to which we call you. Upon the foundation of the Church's teaching of which the successor of Peter is, together with his brothers in the episcopate the depository and interpreter, truly a great work of which we are deeply convinced, both for the world and for the Church, since man cannot find true happiness towards which he aspires with all his being, other than in respect of the laws written by God in his very nature, laws which he must observe with intelligence and love, upon this work and upon all of you, and especially upon married couples, we invoke the abundant graces of the God of holiness and mercy.” His sentiments are indeed, my own.
The foregoing first appeared in the Population Research Institute Newsletter "PRI Review" and was re-posted here with permission. Visit http://www.pop.org