Now that the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae vitae banning contraception is upon us, I have two questions. First, how could Pope Paul write what he did when he could foresee that many people would reject it? And second, are Catholics free to follow their conscience if it leads them to justify the use of contraception?
As you say, the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae fell on July 25. You ask questions that have been in the minds of many people over the last 40 years, including at present. The answer to the first question, in brief, is that when Popes write encyclicals they do not seek to satisfy popular opinion, but to teach the truth. And they do this, even if they foresee that many people will reject their teaching.
Jesus Christ Himself did this on numerous occasions. When he taught that a man could not divorce his wife and marry another, his own disciples said: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Mt 19:10) And when he taught about the Real Presence in the Eucharist, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (Jn 6:66)
This questioning of His teaching by His own disciples did not move Jesus to change his teaching.
He made an effort to explain it to them, but if they chose to reject it He could only let them leave.
Pope Paul VI could do nothing other than write what he did 40 years ago, in view of the fact that the Church has opposed contraception from the beginning. St Augustine, who died in 430, wrote: “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.” (De coniug. adult., lib. II, n. 12)
We should remember that until 1930 all the Christian denominations were opposed to contraception. In August of that year, the Church of England in its Lambeth Conference was the first denomination to break ranks and allow contraception.
Later that year, on December 31, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s constant opposition to contraception in his encyclical Casti connubii: “Any use whatsoever of marriage exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.” (CC IV)
It should be noted that the Pope was invoking as the basis for his teaching “the law of God and nature”, ie the natural law.
Both of these laws come from God and are immutable.
This is not a matter of a Church law, which could be changed, but of a divine law.
Thus when Pope Paul addressed the same issue in 1968, he was not in a position to allow the use of contraception.
After stating that abortion and sterilisation are excluded as lawful means of avoiding childbirth, he went on to say: “Similarly excluded is every action 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 as a means, to render procreation impossible.” (HV 14)
He based his teaching once again on the natural law, that is on the very nature of marriage and the marriage act. (cf. HV 4) Interestingly, he predicted that if the use of contraception became widespread the following consequences could be foreseen: increased marital infidelity and the general lowering of morality, a loss of respect for women by men, seeing them merely as instruments for selfish enjoyment, and the favouring or even imposition of contraception by governments on certain people as a means of social policy. (cf. HV 17)
It is obvious that all of these have resulted.
Are Catholics free to invoke their conscience to act against this teaching? Catholics must form their conscience, using Scripture and especially the teachings of the Church, so that they make judgments of conscience which are in conformity with the law of God. If they do this, and they come to know the Church’s stand on this issue, their conscience will not allow them to use contraception. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, making reference to Humanae vitae, teaches that the use of contraception is “intrinsically evil” (cf. CCC 2370). That is, it may not be used in any circumstances.
The bishops of Australia confirmed this in a statement in 1976, saying that “the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church contained in Humanae vitae … binds the consciences of all without ambiguity and excludes the possibility of a probable opinion opposed to this teaching.”
Now that 40 years have passed since the publication of this momentous encyclical, it is a good time to take up the document once again and savour its rich fare of wisdom.
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