Humanae Vitae: Heroic defense of the faith?

pope-paul-vi-1The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a collection of progressive malcontents that strive to promote “gender equality and shared decision-making in the Church,” recently released a statement calling on “the Catholic hierarchy to reverse their stance against so-called ‘artificial’ contraceptives.”

Among the statement’s 151 “Catholic” signatories are Fr. Thomas Rosica’s idol, the Canadian heretic Gregory Baum, more than twenty professors of theology, and no less than half-a-dozen Jesuits; all of whom insist that the arguments set forth by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae are faulty.

In response, a group of some five hundred Catholic scholars issued a counterstatement that applauds the encyclical as a “prophetic” text that “focuses, as it should, on the person’s relationship to God and to other persons.”

With Humanae Vitae thus back in the headlines, the neo-Catholic choir is once more singing the praises of Pope Montini for his heroic defense of the Faith, but is it warranted?

An objective reading of Humanae Vitae through the lens of Catholic tradition, and a review of the circumstances leading up to its promulgation, tell a very different story.

Humanae Vitae is a conciliaresque document; one that at once repeats certain truths and then subtly undermines the same by failing to teach the fullness of Catholic doctrine.

Can it be said that Paul VI ably predicted the devastation that would follow should the voice of the Church be ignored?

Yes, but it must also be said that his incompetent handling of the matter all but guaranteed said devastation.

In this article, we will take a look at three of the ways in which Paul VI created the climate of dissent and confusion that exists even to this day concerning the matter of contraception:

  1. By charging a commission, the make-up of which included well-known dissenters, to study a “question” that was already well and truly settled.

As the text of Humanae Vitae itself states:

[Married couples] are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.

Elsewhere in the text, Paul VI claims recourse to the relevant “moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.”

NB: The constant teaching of the Church was already known.

Finally, we come to the answer that the entire world was awaiting:

The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

Again, note well that we are in the realm of “constant doctrine,” of which Paul VI says:

The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself.

This being so, a change in said teaching was never a possibility; as such, one cannot but recognize just how much unnecessary chaos and confusion arose out of the mere existence of the commission given its mandate.

There is nothing untoward about a commission of experts being charged with giving the pope a greater understanding of a given issue (in the case under discussion here, as it concerned newly available therapies for regulating birth); with the specific purpose of equipping him to most effectively teach the immutable moral doctrine of the Church.

This, however, isn’t what happened; rather, Paul VI invited speculation, which quickly led to rampant anticipation, the results of which have been nothing short of disastrous.

  1. By lending credence to popular notions that did not merit the Church’s serious consideration; much less in a papal decree.

In the opening paragraphs of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI cites the reasons for exploring the regulation of birth therein, among them are the following:

In the first place there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources…

More egregious still is the following:

Also noteworthy is a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, of the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love.

Is it even possible that God at once charged mankind to “be fruitful and multiply” and yet failed to provide sufficient resources for a faithful response? Did “the dignity of women” only happen to dawn upon the Church in the 1960’s – the era of bra burning feminists who sought liberation from the “burden” of motherhood? Was the “value of conjugal love” somehow lost on the Church until the age of “free sex” was inaugurated?

Of course not, and yet Paul VI saw fit to encourage such thinking, even if only inadvertently.

Remember, Humanae Vitae was promulgated less than a decade after the death of Pope Pius XII, and nearly fifty years before Francis began making a mockery of papal encyclicals by taking up the cause of godless secular activism.

In this sense, Paul VI was truly a pioneer.

  1. By failing to teach the ends of marriage according to the Church’s constant doctrine.

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI said that the “important realities of married life must be accurately defined and analyzed” in order to address certain misguided attempts to justify “artificial methods of birth control.”

He went on to encourage others to do likewise, saying, for instance:

We are speaking especially to you who teach moral theology—to spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching on marriage.

Paul VI was entirely correct to note the importance of teaching Christian doctrine on marriage in all of its fullness.

One notes, however, that a central tenet of said doctrine is as follows:

The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence. (1917 Code of Canon Law, the same in effect in 1968)

The closest Paul VI came to faithfully handing this teaching on was to say:

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children.

Close enough? Hardly. Elsewhere in the text, Paul VI says:

In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.

Fair enough, but how can the children of the Church be expected to rightly order their priorities before God as husband and wife when the pope himself is unwilling to faithfully teach the hierarchy of the ends of marriage?

Worse still, Paul VI went on to comingle the ends of marriage vis-à-vis the conjugal act:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on 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.

The fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.

It seems to me that certain crucial distinctions must be made; distinctions that, to my knowledge, have never been appropriately addressed by the post-conciliar magisterium:

First, this text is speaking of the “marriage act,” which is an aspect of marriage; it is not marriage itself.

Secondly, a distinction must be made between the significance and the qualities of the marriage act, and the ends of marriage. These things are often treated as interchangeable, when in fact they are not.

Paul VI is often hailed for firmly stating that the “unitive significance and the procreative significance” of the marriage act are inseparable. Fine, but what Paul VI failed to teach is that they are not, at least insofar as the ends of marriage are concerned, equals.

By deliberately avoiding recourse to the traditional doctrine concerning the ends of marriage (which, incidentally, is immutable), Paul VI invited the faithful to believe that the Church had, after some 1,900 years, finally come to realize that the ends of marriage were no longer to be understood  hierarchically; i.e., as primary and secondary.

This erroneous view is a direct fruit of his lack of discretion in comingling, without proper distinction, the procreative and the unitive, and I would argue that the central problem is that these things are different in kind.

Marital unity is not, properly speaking, brought about by the conjugal act. Once consummated, the union between husband and wife is objectively real; “the two have become one flesh,” and their union is indissoluble – even if the relationship is lacking in intimacy.

The marriage act in its unitive significance is an outward expression of the underlying reality that is marital unity; i.e., it does not create marital unity.

One rightly notes that the marriage act has (or should have) the effect of engendering and enhancing the intimacy between the persons as uniquely made possible in marriage; deepening the sacrificial love between the spouses and taking it to new heights.

It must be said, however, that this falls squarely into the category of marriage’s secondary end; namely, “mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence.”

By contrast, the procreative significance of the conjugal act has, just as the name suggests, a genuinely creative aspect. It brings about new life; children that are lovingly begotten and then educated in the ways of the true Faith.

This, needless to say, is the primary end – importantly – of marriage itself.

These distinctions strike me as absolutely crucial; if for no other reason than they expose the fundamental flaw in pro-contraception arguments that cite the unitive significance of marriage acts between couples that are unable to conceive.

Specifically, the distinctions cited thus far bring clarity to the fact that the procreative significance of the marriage act remains even when the procreation of children is not naturally possible; the ends of marriage in no way being upended.

In short, unless it is made clear that ends and significance are two distinct things, as are the marriage act and marriage itself, Church teaching on the matter of contraception will remain incomprehensible to far too many who might otherwise come to grasp its unassailable logic.     

At this, it bears noting that Paul VI did not employ the terms “procreative end” or “unitive end” anywhere in the text of Humanae Vitae. Even so, it is quite common for “conservative” voices, bishops included, to do so when attempting to defend Church teaching.

In fact, neither of these terms had ever been employed in a text of the Holy See until (wait for it…) the Final Report of the Synod of Bishops cited the “unitive end of marriage” in October 2015; a phrase that was repeated by Francis in Amoris Laetitia.

Now, that is not to suggest in any way whatsoever that Paul VI is blameless for the aforementioned confusion of concepts; on the contrary, it was he who invited the present climate of dissent and confusion by his failure to teach Catholic doctrine in its fullness.


Far from performing an act of heroism in promulgating Humanae Vitae, to say nothing of his mishandling of the process that preceded it, Pope Paul VI did the Holy Catholic Church and indeed the entire world a grave disservice.

And this, my friends, is the only thing his defenders can point to as the crowning achievement of an otherwise disastrous pontificate; the solitary achievement that allegedly justifies his being considered a “Blessed.”

Keep this in mind as his cause for canonization is relentlessly pushed forward.

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