Humanae Vitae: half a century

Originally presented during the FIAMC Congress in Zagreb



Humanae Vitae: half a century — a stumbling block or a prophetic document?[1]



+ Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk, MD, PhD, STL

Archbishop of Utrecht



In July 1968, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical letter, Humanae vitae. Against expectation, he maintained in this the Roman-Catholic tradition that resolutely declines contraception as means of birth control. The non-Catholic as well as the Catholic press took offence at him. I still recall my father, who was a Mennonite, deeply indignant, by the fireside with the journal in his hand which qualified the encyclical as a “loveless text.” My father totally agreed with that qualification. However, that indignation was also present among Catholics.


Elsewhere in the Western world, many reacted outrageously. Bishops’ Conferences turned against the encyclical, and many priests and the majority of the lay people did the same. Paul VI was afterwards so intimidated that he never published an encyclical letter again. However, he nevertheless published a number of important documents, like the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi (December 8, 1975) about Catholic evangelization in the contemporary world.[2]


Half a century after the publication of the encyclical, the storm of outrage calmed. For decennia Paul VI was counted as a somewhat “forgotten pope”, stuck in between great popes, Pius XII and John Paul II. However, little by little, one could also observe that he was being held in ever higher esteem. He is viewed in a certain sense as a martyr, for he had to close down the Second Vatican Council under difficult circumstances and to execute its decisions. Especially his efforts to realize the reform of the liturgy, decided by the Council, in a good way – in which he met with vehement opposition of ‘left’ and ‘right’ – commanded respect.


When he was beatified on October 19, 2014, on the occasion of the conclusion of first of the two Bishops’ Synods on the family initiated by Pope Francis, that esteem could be noticeably perceived. At the same time, his encyclical letter, Humanae vitae, had become recognized through the years ever more as an actually prophetic document. And were the prophetic statements of the Old Testament prophets not stumbling blocks,[3] certainly during their lives? And did that not also concern the sayings of Jesus and those of the Apostles? And are they still not stumbling blocks for many?



Previous history


The discussion on birth control may have generally been new among Roman Catholics in the sixties of the last century, but outside the Church the debate on it started by the end of the 18th century. The British demographer, economist and Anglican priest Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), from 1805 professor of economy at Cambridge University, observed that the growth of food production lagged behind the very fast growth of the population in his time. His proposal to create a balance between both was the application of birth control, but not by way of contraception, which he considered as something that infringed on human dignity.[4] A positive means of birth control was, for him, that people applied moral restraint and married at a later time in life, when they were able to provide financially for a family. They would therefore, generally, have less children. Before marriage they should then strictly live as celibates. He pleaded for education to achieve that. He also saw in an improvement of the living conditions of the lower classes a means for birth control, because his general experience showed that people would marry later when their living conditions were improved and were more able to control themselves sexually. They would therefore have less children.


Neo-Malthusianism, which appeared in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, tried to put into practice the ideas of Malthus, but did propagate for this purpose - unlike Malthus himself – the use of contraception. An important representative of this movement in The Netherlands was Jan Rutgers, born in 1850, who was first a protestant pastor but later became a medical doctor after a personal faith crisis.[5] As a physician, especially in cooperation with his second wife, he promoted contraception, considered by him as the “liberation” of modern man from an unnatural morality. By the end of the nineteenth century, he started to hold office hours, particularly for giving information on contraception, like the first female physician in The Netherlands, Aletta Jacobs, already had done in the eighties of that century in a poor district of Amsterdam, called the ‘Jordaan’.[6] He argued in favor for a prohibition of child birth for people who lived in needy circumstances. Moreover, he viewed limitation of childbirth as a means to improve the human race and to realize medical, hygienic and cultural progress. In his time, a strong tendency existed to consider poverty, dipsomania and criminal or asocial behavior as consequences of an unfavorable genetic predisposition. He however declined the use of contraceptives for egoistic purposes, as well as its use outside marriage, and did not totally exclude the application of abstinence.


Among the members of the mainstream (Calvinistic) Dutch Reformed Church, the application of contraception gained much ground, and the families fast became smaller. The Anglican Church was the first Church to offer, officially, an opening for the use of contraception. The Anglican bishops declared at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 that total abstinence was the first means for birth control, but besides this they considered the use of contraception justifiable, when a moral obligation was clearly felt to limit the size of the family, and there was a sound moral reason to avoid total abstinence from sexual intercourse.[7]


The Anglican bishops maintained that procreation was the primary purpose of marriage, but also that sexual intercourse, by strengthening the bond of love between the spouses, was a value of its own. The Conference;

“acknowledges that intercourse between husband and wife as the consummation of marriage has a value of its own within that sacrament, and that thereby married love is enhanced and its character strengthened.”[8]

The Anglican bishops, though acknowledging that procreation is the primary end of marriage, thought that this end must sometimes yield to the second end of marriage, the strengthening of married love through sexual intercourse. In which case the use of contraception would be morally justifiable, if a moral obligation existed to limit family size. In this way, it is sometimes allowed, according to the Anglican bishops, for the spouses to have sexual intercourse for strengthening their bond of love, whereas preventing procreation by means of contraception.


Pope Pius XI reacted on the view of the Anglican bishops concerning the use of contraception on New Year’s Eve of the same year, 1930, in his encyclical letter Casti connubii.[9] In this he declared that procreation (bonum prolis), including the human and religious education of children, are the first of the goods of marriage (Casti connubii nrs. 11-18).[10] Because procreation is the first end of marriage, the use of contraception for the sake of preventing it is intrinsically evil. According to Pius XI;

“Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.” (Ibid., n. 54).[11]

The same was said by Pope Pius XII in an allocution in 1958 on the occasion of the introduction of hormonal contraception.[12] In this allocation, he stated that the overpopulation of the world, against which many frequently warned in that time, was not a valid reason to justify illicit means of birth control.[13] John XXIII repeated this in his encyclical, Mater et magistra,[14] in which he said that the disproportion between the increase of population and the supply of food should not be solved by “expedients which offend against the divinely established order and which attack human life at its very source” (n. 189),[15] but by technological improvement of food production and paying attention to deficient economic and social organizations and political situations, which do not guarantee “living conditions proportionate to the increase in population” (n. 190).[16] It was John XXIII who established the Pontifical Commission on Population and Birth Control. In the beginning, the Commission counted six persons, but his successor Paul VI would gradually increase the number of members to seventy-five. The Commission was asked to study the ethical aspects of birth control.


The Catholic families generally remained big till the end of the fifties, because most Catholics remained faithful to the Church’s tradition and doctrine concerning contraception. As the families among several Protestant denominations and in secular circles became much smaller from the end of the nineteenth century, the percentage of Roman Catholics increased. In the Netherlands, once a Protestant nation, the percentage of Catholics rose to more than 40% in the fifties. The availability of hormonal contraception would change that development very quickly. Many of the priests, who were frequently consulted about birth control by lay people, felt dubious at the beginning of the sixties about the question whether hormonal contraception could be morally acceptable or not. An important factor in nourishing their doubts were media reports about the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) arousing high, but false, expectations concerning changes of the Church’s doctrine which the Council would bring, perhaps also with regard to the question of contraception.


This confusion was enforced in the Netherlands by an allocution on television by one of the Dutch bishops, Msgr. Bekkers, Bishop of Den Bosch on Saturday night, March 21, 1963.[17] In this, he said that a decision on an addition to the family was a matter of conscience for the parents, “with which nobody is allowed to occupy himself,” not even the priest. It should regard a “well-formed” conscience, he later added, because of the critique of other bishops, among whom Cardinal Alfrink, then Archbishop of Utrecht, whom he had not previously informed or consulted. Many Catholics saw in this allocution a justification of the use of the contraceptive pill, which had just appeared on the market. Whether or not the use was morally licit was something about which the parents had to decide in conscience.



Not the most favorable moment


However, the most important problem was that at the moment that hormonal contraception came on the market, one of the deepest faith crises in Church history was about to break out. Already in the second half of the forties of the last century, it was clear that the ties of Catholics with the Church were weakening and were leaning more toward their social sense of belonging to the Church community than upon the contents of her doctrine. In addition, there came the very quick cultural changes of the sixties. Prosperity reached an unprecedented level. People suddenly disposed of sufficient financial means, by which they could live quite independently of one another, and so they did. Society became more individualistic and later, since social media came into use, even hyper-individualistic. 


Consequently, the social cohesion weakened very fast and that process did not pass by the door of the Church. While the contents of faith were already no longer the cement of the Church, neither were the social ties with the faith community. The individual has within this individualistic culture not only the “right” but even the obligation to distinguish oneself from others with regard to one’s philosophy of life, religious ideas and ethical values which one has to determine for oneself. In fact, most people allow themselves to be primarily guided by the mass media, the social media and advertisements. They are therefore actually not autonomous, but it is primarily about feeling autonomous and being oneself.


Within the framework of this individualist culture it is practically inconceivable that norms, though proposed by the Church for ages among others with regard to contraception, would be always and everywhere valid for everyone, without exceptions. This means that they are absolute moral norms, which prohibit essentially evil acts. In the culture described, people cannot understand that an act could be ‘intrinsically evil’ and therefore everywhere and always evil. And that this is so because the Creator, by creating man and with him marriage and human sexuality established that in this way for all ages. And what is completely incomprehensible for this culture is the thought that the highest Church leader, the pope, being guided the Holy Spirit, could explain and propose this created order and the moral norms stemming from it with authority.


The student revolutions of 1968 were at most a symptom of these cultural developments. Among all generations a rebellious mentality could be observed, albeit more among young people that the elderly. However, it was telling that Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae vitae exactly in that year. One would almost say he could not have chosen a worse moment.


Already before, during the Second Vatican Council, disagreement concerning the question of contraception appeared to exist among bishops. This induced the Pope to take this question to himself and have it studied, first by the Pontifical Commission on Population and Birth Control, instituted by his predecessor. However, it was exactly this commission which would finally embarrass Paul VI, because it could not reach agreement. Finally, it presented two reports with very different conclusions concerning contraception use in order to prevent procreation.


The vice-president, Cardinal Döpfner, the Archbishop of München-Freissing, presented him a majority report, undersigned by 64 members. In this report, though it rejected, like the minority report, procured abortion and direct sterilization (i.e. sterilization with the aim of preventing parenthood), artificial means for birth control were not qualified as intrinsically evil. Judgment on their use should be left to the spouses. On the contrary, the president, Cardinal Ottaviani, presented a minority report, formed apart from him by three other priest members of the commission. The minority thought that the Church could not change her traditional doctrine on contraception, which had always been taught by theologians until the beginning of the Second Vatican Council,[18] and has been proposed by the Roman Curia in its responses to questions concerning the morality of contraception between 1816 and 1929 and persistently by the Pontifical Magisterium since 1930.[19] Somewhat provocatively, the minority report remarks that a declaration that contraception is not intrinsically evil, would imply that the Holy Spirit assisted the Protestant Churches, especially the Anglican, in 1930, whereas Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii (and later Pius XII in his allocutions) would have gravely erred by declaring contraception intrinsically evil.[20]


Both reports leaked out to the media and became public.[21] The majority report nourished the expectation that a change of the Church’s doctrine in this field was at hand. Many Catholics discovered with dejection that Paul VI maintained in his encyclical, Humanae vitae, what the Church had always taught on the use of contraception for the sake of birth control. Against the background of the general call for more democracy in those years, most people would have thought that Paul VI would follow the advice of the majority report.


However, the Church is no democracy. She is guided by the Holy Spirit and that is the case in the highest measure in and through the Petrine ministry. The Pope, who as visible head of the Church and vicar of Christ, receives in this world the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the highest measure, can make in person, infallible and immutable pronouncements concerning the Church’s doctrine,[22] those on morality included. And infallible and immutable can also be those pronouncements which he does not declare in the form of a dogma (Lumen gentium, n. 25),[23] which, by the way, never happened with regard to moral values and norms. That the magisterium regularly proposes something, over a longer period and in serious terms, are signs that it concerns an immutable and infallible teaching, though this is not done in the form of a dogma. This is certainly the case with regard to contraception for the sake of birth control. As we saw above, the Roman magisterium regularly qualified contraception, for the sake of birth control, as an intrinsically evil.



Essence and ‘stone of stumbling’


The essential message, and at the same time the ‘stone of stumbling’ – at least in the eyes of many people, is found in the paragraphs 11 and 12 of the encyclical. In paragraph 11, Paul VI says that it is the immutable doctrine of the Church that “every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”[24] Continuing the line of the Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et spes (particularly n. 48),[25] he observes that the marital act confirms and enforces the marital love and the unity of the spouses, which constitute the essence of marriage and have procreation as their essential end.


Others, because of the declaration of the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, concluded that though procreation was the first end of the marital act, sexual intercourse by which marital love in strengthened, has a value of its own. A tendency existed prior to the Council to weigh both ends of the marital act against each other in order to justify the use of contraception in certain situations; the married couple could sometimes abstain in conscience from procreation by using contraception in order to safeguard marital love and unity. For instance, in situations in which it is necessary to limit the number of children, but by abstaining from sexual intercourse, marital love and unity could come under pressure, and because of that there was a risk that the husband would not be able to constrain himself and commit adultery.


The Council confuted these attempts by her doctrine on the relationship between marital love on the one hand and procreation on the other. Marital love and unity are no ends of marriage, according to the Council, but the very essence of marriage. And marital love has, as its essential end, procreation. According to the created order, in which the moral natural law is substantiated, marital love and unity as the essence of marriage are directed by nature to procreation as their end. On this doctrine of the Council, the specific teaching of Humanae vitae is founded; that the two significances of the marital act (i.e. the unitive significance and the procreative one) are inseparably connected to one another and the spouses are not allowed to separate them from each other on their own initiative;

“This particular doctrine (i.e. that every marital act should be directed at the transmission of human life, W.E.), 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. (Humanae vitae n. 12).[26]

The marital act can only be an authentic expression of marital love, when both significances are respected. The joining of the spouses in tender sexual intercourse is an essential dimension of marital love, and at the same time tender sexual intercourse brings the spouses nearer to each other. It is often a moment of reconciliation, and thereby enforces the mutual unity of the spouses and their love for each other. This unification as an essential dimension of marital love may not be separated from procreation on the initiative of the spouses, because marital love has procreation as its essential end. The essence and the end of things may not be played out against each other. In the same way, marital love and marital unity as the essence of marriage cannot be played out against its end, procreation.


The ground for the norm that the spouses are not allowed to separate both significances is constituted, according to Humanae vitae (n. 13),[27] by God’s plan of creation. God has instituted marriage in such a way that the sexual intercourse of married couples confirms and enforces marital love and is its authentic expression on the one hand and is directed at the transmission of human life on the other. Separating, on their own initiative, both significances by means of contraception implies that the spouses prevent God from realizing his plan of creation. In contrast to what one often thinks, procreation is no process in which only we people have control. God creates the soul by which the human embryo - conceived by the marital act - becomes a human being. God deploys the parents as collaborators in the creation of new human beings. Spouses, depriving intentionally the marital act, by way of contraception, of its fertility, switch roles and set themselves up having mastery of procreation, instead of being prepared to play the role they have according to God’s plan of creation, i.e. that of collaborators (Ibid., nr. 13). They then appoint themselves as arbitrators of God’s intentions within marriage and human sexuality (cf. Familiaris consortio n. 32).[28]



Arguments please


A number of factors which made acceptance of Humanae vitae difficult have above been mentioned. I would like to give extra attention to one factor, not yet mentioned. This concerns the fact that in 1968, at the moment that the encyclical was published, no philosophical or theological view and analysis of marriage and human sexuality had been developed to provide the arguments by which one could rationally explain the traditional doctrine of the Church on contraception. Humanae vitae itself mentions in n.13[29] only the creation argument, discussed in the preceding paragraph. In doing so the encyclical suggests using a biologistic argument, which implies that the significances of the marital act may not be separated on the initiative of the spouses, because it is, biologically considered, directed at procreation. This is not the reasoning in Humanae vitae, as seen from the fact that the Church does not refute the use of contraception and sterilization in animals. Humanae vitae teaches that the marital act transcends itself in this sense, that the spouses are collaborators with God in creating a new human being. This clearly shows that Paul VI does not limit himself to a purely biological consideration of the marital act.


It was only in the 70’s and 80’s that a group of ethicists and moral theologians developed a philosophical and theological analysis of marriage and human sexuality, the result of which were rational arguments for the norm of Humanae vitae concerning the use of contraception for the sake of preventing procreation (direct contraception). The leading figures in this were Pope Saint John Paul II who did so especially from a theological perspective by means of his “Theology of the Body”[30] , and Carlo Caffarra from a philosophical perspective.[31]


In doing so, both took as point of departure the description of marriage of the Second Vatican Council as “a mutual gift” (Gaudium et spes nr. 48)[32] of husband and wife to each other. John Paul II and Caffarra added to this that it concerned a total mutual gift of two persons, one to another.[33] The crucial question is; what is a total gift of the human person? The human being is a substantial unity of soul and body, thus not only the soul or only the body. The human being is described in Gaudium et spes as “corpore et anima unus “(n. 14: “Though made of body and soul, man is one”).[34] Both together constitute the human person. A total gift of husband and wife to each other therefore includes a gift at the spiritual level, the affective level and the bodily level.


The authentic gift at the physical level is constituted by the marital act, by which the husband gives the gift of motherhood to his wife and the wife gives the gift of fatherhood to her husband. Husband and wife, by having sexual intercourse with each other in the fertile stage of the wife but applying contraception with the aim to prevent the conception of a child, block the mutual gift of parenthood and the transmission of life to a new human person. They therefore affect the totality of their mutual total gift at the physical level. The gift at the physical level is an essential dimension of the total gift of husband and wife. Contraception, with the aim to prevent procreation, is therefore at variance with the essence of marriage as mutual total gift.[35] Contraception is therewith also an ‘unnatural’ act, in the sense that it is also at variance with the nature of the human being as a substantial unity of soul and body. 


Following on from this, contraception is also an ‘unchaste’ act. Chastity is the virtue bringing about a durable integration of the affective and physical sexual faculties in the whole of the human person, by which one has dominion over oneself and one is enabled to realize a total gift of oneself. Contraception is contradictory to the integration of the gift at the physical level in that of the total gift of the spouses to each other.





A misunderstanding, which one sometimes encounters, is that the Church would refuse every form of birth control. This is a mistake. Pius XI offered in his encyclical Casti Connubii an opening for the use of the method of periodic abstinence, discovered just before by the Japanese gynecologist, Ogino (1930), and the Austrian gynecologist, Knaus (1929). This method could be developed because by the end of the twenties the menstrual cycle of the woman was unraveled and one discovered that she is fertile only during a few days of the cycle. The fertile stage starts 48 hours before ovulation and finishes 24 hours afterwards. The cause is that the sperm cell is able to fertilize the ovum 48 hours after that the sexual intercourse has taken place and the ovum can be fertilized until 24 hours after ovulation. The calendar method of Ogino and Knaus requires that the woman records 6 to 12 menstrual cycles. Afterwards, she can calculate the first day of the infertile period by subtracting 18 days from the shortest cycle and the last day of it by subtracting 11 days from the longest cycle. The problem of this method is that it can be difficult to apply when the cycle is very irregular. By the way, in order to regularize the cycle, one may use the hormonal contraception pill for some months. This is acceptable, though fertilization is thereby prevented, because it here concerns a therapeutic use of hormonal contraception. In this situation, contraception may be justified as a collateral effect (in ethical terms an ‘indirect effect’), as is indicated in n. 15 of Humanae vitae.[36]


Obviously, the classic method of Ogino and Knaus had its limitations. By diverse additions and improvements, the method of periodic abstinence has become much more reliable. These additions include the temperature method, based on the fact that the average body temperature of the woman rises 0.2 to 0.5Celsius after ovulation. This rise endures till the next menstruation. The Billings method is based on the fact that the mucus of the cervix of the uterus becomes clear and thin circa two days before ovulation. Research by the World Health Organization has indicated that the Billings method is a reliable method of birth control.[37] The combination of both methods, the ‘sympto-thermal method’, offers the best assurance.[38] Apps have been developed by which the collected data can be statistically elaborated and analyzed, such that these methods become even more reliable.[39]


It is sometimes asked why contraception would be an intrinsically evil act, whereas periodic abstinence is considered acceptable under certain conditions, for the result is the same in both cases. That two acts have the same effect, does not imply that they fall under the same ethical judgment. Life can be shortened by administering a lethal doses of medicaments, but that same effect can also be realized by not applying life prolonging treatment (artificial respiration, radiotherapy or chemotherapy). When the ratio between the possibility of safeguarding life on the one hand and the possibility of collateral effects and complications on the other become disproportional, one may forego treatment, including when this could lead to an earlier death of the patient. There is no moral obligation to safeguard life with disproportionate means.[40] The same concerns procreation, when addition to the family leads to disproportionate consequences. The married couple is then not obliged to have sexual intercourse during the fertile stage of the wife and to transmit life (Casti connubii nr. 59;[41] Humanae vitae nr. 16[42]).


According to the doctrine of the Church there is no obligation for the spouses – in contrast to what is sometimes supposed – to have as many children as is biologically possible. Humanae vitae (n. 10) requires “responsible parenthood,” i.e. a parenthood according to one’s abilities, with a view to physical, economic, psychological and social circumstances. According to Humanae vitae, responsible parenthood is

“exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae vitae n. 10).[43]

A married couple, living for instance in a war situation in Syria or running the risk of transmitting a genetic anomaly to the offspring, has reasons to not conceive children. The spouses themselves on the basis of their well-formed personal consciences determine what responsible parenthood is under these circumstances, because it concerns the application of the norm that parenthood should be responsible. What conscience does not determine or change are the fundamental norms which are anchored in God’s created order and which forbids acts that are not allowed in whatever times or circumstances (in other words, the absolute moral norms that forbid to commit intrinsically evil acts). Analogically to the active termination of life it is always and everywhere illicit for the spouses to deprive sexual intercourse of its fertility at their own initiative to prevent procreation.



Perhaps a stone of stumbling, but most certainly a prophetic document


As the pronouncements of the prophets in the Old Testament and those of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament were a ‘stone of stumbling’ but turned out to be prophetic, the same applies to Humanae vitae. In 1968, this encyclical was a stone of stumbling for many, but today one thinks in a more nuanced way about the encyclical. And several, frankly, recognize its prophetic character for additional reasons, of which I would like to underline three.


Firstly, Pope Paul VI expressed the fear that - with a view to the weakness typical for human beings - the broad availability of contraceptive means could seduce, especially young people, to pre and extramarital sexual intercourse and adultery. The Pope also expressed the fear that husbands, by the frequent use of hormonal contraception, could lose respect for their wives and demand frequent sexual intercourse because procreation could be easily prevented (Humanae vitae n. 17)[44]. When Humanae vitae was published, the summer of love in San Francisco in 1967 was just one year past. This was one of the highlights of the hippy culture, which apart from the start of the grand scale resistance against the Vietnam War, also implied the promotion of drug abuse and so-called free love. The Woodstock festival, a hippy manifestation with the same tenor, would take place a year later. The sexual revolution in the second half of the 60’s showed that the fear of Paul VI was most certainly not unfounded.


Secondly, we are now facing the demographic consequences of the introduction of hormonal contraception more than half a century ago. From the 60’s, it brought about a rapid reduction in the birth of children and the postponement of the moment of conceiving the first child, which does in itself diminish the birth rate.  These are the main factors of the current ageing population in the Western world, apart from increases in life expectancy. This especially happened among the original population, less among migrants.[45] In the Netherlands, at least at the beginning of this century, the growth of the population was mainly a consequence of immigration and the fact that immigrants have bigger families.[46] Many elderly people make an appeal to health care, which is one of the factors making it ever more costly, whereas it is not always easy to find younger people to care for them. Many people in Western society may have difficulties with immigration, but in some parts of the West migrants are necessary to fill jobs, which are vacant because many baby boomers are now going into retirement and young Europeans are lacking to replace them (or do not feel themselves attracted those jobs). The risk is not fictitious that the Western world will be replaced by other cultures in the not so far future.


Thirdly, one should be aware of the fact that a declaration by the Pope that contraception is morally acceptable in some cases, would have far-reaching consequences for the Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexual ethics as a whole, because the diverse elements of this doctrine are closely connected with one another.

  1. Humanae vitae prepared the way for the documents Donum vitae (1987)[47] and Dignitas personae (2008),[48] two instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, among others on the ethical aspects of artificial reproduction. In artificial reproduction we find a kind of mirror-image of what happens in the case of contraception. Contraception implies sexual intercourse without procreation, whereas artificial reproduction implies reproduction without sexual intercourse. In both cases the two meanings of the marital act are separated from each other on the initiative of the spouses. If Pope Paul VI would have yielded to the heavy pressure exercised on him to change the Church’s doctrine on contraception, the Church, too, would have been perhaps confined to change her doctrine on artificial reproduction.
  2. By accepting that the two meanings of sexual intercourse, union and procreation, may be separated from one another at the initiative of the spouses, one will in the end accept that sexual acts which cannot lead to procreation are morally acceptable as well; like masturbation, anal coitus, homosexual acts and other sexual acts.[49] One would also automatically accept that the mutual gift of the spouses does not need to be total, which implies that marriage does also not need to be definitive; i.e. ‘until death do us depart’. By accepting contraception one thus paves the way for accepting divorce. It also paves the way for the moral acceptance of medical interventions, which make procreation definitely impossible, like sterilization and sexual reassignment, which includes sterilization, in cases of gender dysphoria, which paves in it turn paves the way for accepting the gender theory. This theory says that gender identity, the social role which one chooses, i.e. to be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual or transgender, is totally disconnected from the person’s bodily biological sex.[50]


The consequences of declaring contraception morally allowable, which one does perhaps not see at first glance, would undermine, in the end, the totality of the Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexual ethics. That these are truly the consequences is proven by the historical and cultural developments in the last half a century, in which the majority rejected the doctrine on contraception of the Church, courageously reaffirmed by Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae vitae. In the United States there was a peak of marriages ending in divorce at an average of 50% in the beginning of the eighties,[51] artificial reproduction techniques are widely used, and sexual reassignment and the gender theory are widely accepted and promoted by international and national organizations. Accepting contraception is, of course, not the only cause of these historical and cultural developments, but from the perspective of the moral natural law concerning the morals of marriage and sexual ethics, it is a fundamental one. 


Paul VI did perhaps not foresee all these consequences, but, guided by the Holy Spirit, he took the decision to reaffirm fifty years ago the traditional doctrine concerning contraception in his encyclical, Humanae vitae, for which he was reviled, like many of the Old Testament prophets, including Jesus Christ and the apostles. However, half a century later we see ever more clearly the prophetic character of this extremely precious document. Pope Paul VI will be canonized on October 14 this year. This will be the canonization of one of the greatest prophets of our time.



[1] This article is an adaptation of the text of a conference, held at the 25th congress of FIAMCI in Zagreb on May 31, 2018.

[2] Paul VI, “Esortazione Apostolica Evangelii nuntiandi (December 8, 1975),” AAS 68 (1975), pp. 5-76.

[3] The expression ‘stumbling block’ in the Holy Scripture refers in the first place to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Cf. Is. 8,14; Rom. 9,32-33.

[4] T.R. Malthus, An essay on the principle of population, London: J. Johnson, 1807 (4° ed.), Vol. I, Book I, Chapter II, p. 18: “A promiscuous intercourse to such a degree as to prevent the birth of children seems to lower in the most marked manner the dignity of human nature.” The first edition was published in 1798.

[5] Nabrink G., Seksuele hervorming in Nederland. Achtergronden en geschiedenis van de Nieuw-Malthusiaanse Bond (NMB) en de Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (NVSH), 1881-1971, Nijmegen: Socialistische Uitgeverij, 1978, pp. 82-96.

[6] Ibid., pp. 80-82.

[7] The Lambeth Conference 1930. Encyclical Letter from the bishops with resolutions and reports, London/New York: Society for promoting Christian knowledge/The Macmillan Company 1930, Resolution 15, in: ibid. page 43-44

[8] Ibid., Resolution 13, page 43.

[9] Pius XI, Litterae Encyclicae Casti Connubii (31 dicembre 1930), AAS 22 (1930), pp. 539-592.

[10] Ibid., pp. 543-546.

[11] Ibid., p. 559.

[12] Pius XII, “Allocution to the leaders of the association of the national Italian association for solidarity and large families (20 January, 1958),” AAS 50 (1958), pp. 90-96.

[13] Ibid., p. 94.

[14] John XXIIII, “Litterae Encyclicae Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961),” AAS 53 (1961), pp. 401-464.

[15] Ibid., p. 446.

[16] Ibid.

[17] He did this in a program with very high ratings of the Catholic Broadcasting Association (KRO) ‘Brandpunt’; see:

[18] J. T. Noonan, Contraception: A history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and canonists, Cambridge/Massachusetts/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986 (enlarged edition).

[19] “Conservative position: The teaching of the Church and its authenticity,” National Catholic Reporter 3 (1967), n. 25, April 19., pp. 9-12, particularly p. 9.

[20] Ibid., p. 10.

[21] Both reports were revealed except by the French Journal Le monde by the National Catholic Reporter in English: “Reveal papal birth control texts,” National Catholic Reporter 3 (1967), n. 25, April 19, pp. 1 and 12, “Nota praevia explicativa,” Ibid., pp. 3, “Birth Control Commission Texts: Translation of the final report to Pope Paul,” Ibid., pp. 8–9, “Conservative position: The teaching of the Church and its authenticity,” Ibid., pp. 9-12; a critical note on the position of the ‘conservatives’ is added: “Rebuttal to conservatives,” Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[22] First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution I on the Church of Christ (July 18, 1870), Chapter 4, DH n. 1839.

[23] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), AAS 57 (1965), pp. 5-75, particularly p. 30

[24] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968), AAS 60 (1968), pp, 481-503, particularly p. 488.

[25] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965),  AAS (1966), pp. 1025-1115, particularly pp. 1067-1069.

[26] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae …, op. cit., p. 488.

[27] Ibid., p. 489.

[28] John Paul II, Postsynodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (November 22, 1982), AAS 74 (1982), 81-191, particularly p. 119.

[29] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae …, op. cit., p. 489.

[30] John Paul II, Man and wive he created them: A theology of the body, M. Waldstein (transl), Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006.

[31] Carlo Caffarra, Etica generale della sessualità, Milano: Ares, 1992

[32] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et spes …, op. cit., p. 1068: “… mutua duarum personarum donatio …”

[33] John Paul II taught that continence for the kingdom of Heaven and conjugal love are both “’spousal’, that is, expressed through the complete gift of self.” See: John Paul II, “General audience of April 14, 1982,” in: John Paul II, Man and wive he created them …, op. cit., n. 4, p. 431; moreover, he points out to the analogy between the total gift of God of Himself to Israel and that of Christ to his Church on the one hand and that of spousal love on the other, see: Ibid., “General Audience of September 29, 1982,” in: Ibid., nn. 2 and 4, pp. 500-501; Caffarra founded this totality of the mutual gift especially on the Aristotelian-Thomist definition of the human person as a substantial unity of soul and body, according to which the soul is the substantial (subsistent) form of the body, which implies that both body and soul constitute the human person, see: C. Cafarra, Etica generale della sessualità, op. cit., Chapter I, pp. 9-19.

[34] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et spes …, op. cit, p. 1035

[35] John Paul II, “General Audience of August  22, 1984,” in: Man and wife he created them …, op. cit., n. 2, p. 631: “The human body is not only the field of reactions of a sexual character, but it is at the same time the means of the expression of man as an integrated whole, of the person, which reveals itself through the ‘language of the body’.” The language of the body as an expression of man as an integrated whole is falsified, when the gift at the bodily level is made incomplete by blocking fertility by means of contraception; Ibid., nn. 3-6, pp. 631-633 and John Paul II, Postsynodal Exhortation Familiaris consortio …, op. cit., n. 32), particularly pp. 118-129; cf. Chr. West, Theology of the body explained: A commentary on John Paul II’ “Gospel of the Body”, Leominster: Gracewing/North Melbourne: Freedom Publishing, 2003, pp. 422-424; C. Caffarra, Etica generale della sessualità, op. cit., p. 76.

[36] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae …, op. cit., p. 491. Moral theology then speaks of an indirect effect (a collateral effect), i.e. an effect neither willed as an end nor as a means to an end. It is licit to accept the risks of collateral effects of therapies at the condition that they are proportioned to the gravity of the disease. Indirect effects can be justified when the conditions of the principle of the act with double effect (the effect that one aims at, on the one hand and the collateral effect on the other). Contraception, used in order to prevent procreation, is a direct effect and therefore called ‘direct contraception’. Cf. Manual of Catholic medical ethics. Responsible healthcare from a Catholic perspective, W.J. Eijk, L.M. Hendriks, J.R. Raymakers, J.I. Flemming (red.), Ballarat: Court Connor Publishing, 2014, pp. 112-115.

[37] R.E.J. Ryder, "’Natural family planning': effective birth control supported by the Catholic Church," British Medical Journal 307 (1993), pp. 723-726. The Pearl-Index of the Billings-method is 1,8.

[38] P. Frank-Herrmann, J. Heil, C. Gnoth, E. Toledo, S. Baur, C. Pyper, E. Jenetzky, T. Storwitzki, G. Freundl, “The effectiveness of a fertility awareness based method to avoid pregnancy in relation to a couple's sexual behaviour during the fertile time: a prospective longitudinal study,” Human Reproduction 22 (2007), n. 5, pp. 1310-1319.

[39] H. Wettstein, “Die Frau im Dschungel der Fruchtbarkeitsapps: Welche Apps sind für die natürliche Verhütung geeignet?,” info@gynäkologie (2015), nr. 4, pp. 20-22 (; H. Wettstein, Z. Al-Shemmery, Chr. Bourgeois, “Quand les applications des Smartphones remplaceront la pilule contraceptive. Etude comparative des applications symptothermiques Android et iOS, état des lieux,” (2013) (;

[40] Cf. Manual of Catholic medical ethics …, op. cit., pp. 561-579.

[41] Pius XI, Litterae Encyclicae Casti Connubii …, op. cit., p. 561.

[42] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae …, op. cit., pp. 491-492.

[43] Ibid., p. 487.

[44] Ibid., pp. 493-494.

[45] R. Pucetti, I veleni della contraccezione, Bologna: Edizioni Studio Domenicano, 2013, pp. 340-345.

[46] J. de Haan, A van den Broek, P. Schnabel, Het nieuwe consumeren: Een vooruitblik vanuit demografie en individualisering, Den Haag: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, 2001, p. 8.

[47] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation Donum vitae (February 22, 1987),” AAS 80 (1988), pp. 70-102.

[48] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on certain bioethical questions Dignitas Personae (September 8, 2008),” AAS 100 (2008), pp. 858-887.

[49] It is interesting that the minority report, presented to Pope Paul VI by Cardinal Ottaviani in 1966), already warned for some of these consequences, see ”Conservatives on contraception,” op. cit., p. 11.

[50] “Kršćanska antropologija i ronda teorija,” in: U jedinstvu slobodi I ljubavi: Zbornik u povodu 25. obljetnice biskupske službe mons. dr. Želimira Puljića, zadarskoga nadbiskupa i predjesednika Hrvatske biskupske konferencije, Tomo Vukšić (ed.), Zadar 2015, pp. 241-258; the original Italian text has been published on the website of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “L’antropologia cristiana e la teoria del genere (Incontro delle Commissioni dottrinali europee, Esztergom, 14 gennaio 2015),”

[51] A modest decline of the percentage of marriages is observed in the last decades, probably because people are getting married for the first time later in life and marriage has progressively become relatively more frequent under the well-educated; cf. State of our unions, “Social indicators of marital health & well-being: trends of the past five Decades,” s.v. “Divorce,” see: