Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4) November 2017

Humanae vitae: 50 years on.

Adrian Treloar

AuthorNext year sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Humanae Vitae”. We have never known a time when “Humanae Vitae” has not been controversial. Before its publication the Church was widely expected to change its teaching on contraception.

After its publication the controversy surrounding it led to the disowning of “Humanae Vitae” by some Bishop’s Conferences. Many Episcopal conferences were silent and others directly opposed.

In 1968 the controversial "Winnipeg Statement" [1] issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stated:

 ”that individuals can in good conscience use contraception as long as they have first made an honest attempt to accept the difficult directives of the encyclical”.

And the Dutch Catechism effectively left out Natural Family Planning stating that

“As everyone can ascertain nowadays, there are several methods of regulating births. The Second Vatican Council did not speak of any of these concrete methods... This is a different standpoint than that taken under Pius XI some thirty years ago which was also maintained by his successor ... we can sense here a clear development in the Church, a development, which is also going on outside the Church." [1].

At that time 90% of Dutch Catholics went to Mass each Sunday. In 2017 the Dutch Bishops wrote to Pope Francis explaining that falling numbers (only 5% now attend each week) mean that many Churches will have to close [2].

I remember reading many years ago that Archbishop Warlock and Cardinal Hume were going to Rome to tell Pope John-Paul II to change the teaching on contraception. They had forgotten one suspects, a few details of St John-Paul’s steadfast and unflinching approach in the context of Nazi and Communist persecution of himself and the Church. The pews in which I sit have almost never heard the message of “Humanae Vitae” discussed or explained.

So it is in that context, that we see something of a bumper crop of letters about “Humanae Vitae” in this issue. Personally, I find that all the letters contain real and compelling truths. The correspondence started with a statement from the Wijngaards group opposing Humane Vitae and then a response affirming the Church’s teaching which we published [3].

Dr Flood[4] rightly points out in his letter that the explanation given for “Humanae Vitae” failed to convince many people. And he also shows his deep awareness of the challenges faced by couples who are asked to combine their faithfullness to Holy Mother the Church while also living married life in the 21st Century. It is not the easiest combination to achieve. And, as he says, Holy Mother the Church clearly points towards the ideal. While I absolutely agree with him on both those points, I do struggle with the conclusion that he draws from it. People have, for years advocated “accepting non-destructive methods where personal circumstances mean the married couple cannot match the ideal”. And while that has been happening within the Church and within society, we have witnessed great destruction of the family.

Conversely, others have written warmly in favour of “Humanae Vitae” [5,6,7] and Natural Family Planning [8,9]. “Humanae Vitae” is both intellectually sound, follows from human logic [7], spiritually sound and also works in medicine and family life. Michael Delaney’s warm appreciation of “Humanae Vitae” was honed upon the anvil of General Practice just as surely as Drs Duddy, Flood and Jessiman and others’ views have been honed by their own experiences in General Practice and elsewhere. For my part, as a former GP and someone who has seen at both first and second hand the great blessings of Natural Family Planning, I should add that I too, firmly believe, that “Humane Vitae” is right.

While the association of “Humanae Vitae” with Homo­sexual marriage was not expected [10], Dr Thevasathan [11] states in the last issue that “logically, once we accept contraception, we have to accept ‘gay marriage.’” That was said by Elizabeth Anscombe herself and the reality that contraception deconstructs intercourse into an act that is intentionally separated from procreation gives strong credence to that claim. If sex is seen purely as recreative, then there may not be a logical reason to think that homosexual sex is different from sex within marriage. Indeed the claim that homosexuality becomes more acceptable once sexual intercourse is divorced from its procreative function is hard to refute. In his excellent treatise on “Humanae Vitae” (published on the CMA website) Professor Pullicino [12] shows eloquently how divorce and the destruction of stable family life follows in the wake of contraception. It really does look as if contraception has been a cornerstone in creating moral challenges society now faces. The prophecies made by Blessed Paul VI do indeed appear to bear tragic fruit in the demographic studies of today. Make no mistake, marriage and family life are in deep trouble. And these things have gone wrong on our watch. It is we who have tried to hold firm but who, realistically, have lost the argument in the public forum. When in September Jacob Rees-Mogg humbly and gently stated that he is opposed to abortion in all circumstances [13] he was almost universally condemned and pilloried . He could not become a prime minister with views like that. And on BBC question time the questioners stated that people with religious views should be prevented from becoming an MP. Julian Savulescu [14] has recently written that conscience should be banned in medicine (at least upon reading the article more carefully in circumstances where conscience would go against what he thinks is right!). But almost no-one “out there” in society thinks “Humanae Vitae” is right. And even fewer dare to say so.

A beautiful vision of love and family life.

In the context of all that, “Humanae Vitae” remains central to the Church’s vision of family life. The vision of stable love and family life, open to children, and creating the next generation is also centrally important to society. But “Humanae Vitae” remains surrounded by dissent and controversy. Dr Flood is right:- while the Church has a clear (and beautiful) vision of married and family life, that is not easily seen by the laity. The Church struggles to express her view effectively. As Dr Jessiman [15] says “if there is only one truth then it should be accessible and not concealed by arcane language”. And as Dr Thevathasan says (after Chesterton) "“Humanae Vitae” has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried”.

I would go further. In my view the sum of all that has been said is that the Church has a beautiful vision of married love and family life. God’s creation of mankind in his own image brings the hope and beauty of fertility and creativity within marriage. When we damage that beautiful gift of marriage, we damage ourselves, our families and our society. The huge divorce rates, single parent families and many other poor social outcomes are expressed in people who are the victims of a contraceptive culture and a society that no longer values marriage.

YOung Family PictureWhile the Church does teach clearly that sexual relations outside of marriage and those which are not open to life are wrong, perhaps we should reflect upon what that means for individuals. It certainly means that such acts may be sinful, when deliberately done in the context of a clear knowledge of the Church’s teaching on these matters. But we should find ourselves unable to judge individuals. Mortal sin requires that it is “committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (CCC 1857 [16]). And “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense” (CCC 1860 [16]. It is clear to me that many people who use contraception were never effectively offered the Church’s vision in a credible way. That failure to communicate means that very many people and couples cannot have “full knowledge ” of that vision of married love. People, couples and society have been let down. It follows that we absolutely must not judge individuals who use contraception.

As Fr Mackenzie points out, departure from “Humanae Vitae” has and does lead so often within societies (and also within individual marriages) to family breakdown and many other challenges [7,12] means that they are the victims of a society and a Church which has failed to explain that vision of family life. While some turned the message down, others were never offered it in the first place. How can you deliberately reject a message that you were never effectively offered?

50 years ago, Drs Flood and Brennan, (along with many others) experienced the inability to explain the Church’s vision of family life. With the accumulated evidence that task is easier now than it was then. To paraphrase Chesterton a second time ‘the alternative to Humane Vitae has been tried and found utterly devastating’. After 50 years of extraordinary failure to explain and show the beauty of married and family life, we must change. Without using arcane language, now is the time for us to teach, explain and take forward the message of “Humanae Vitae”. The hope of the young MUST be expressed in something better than the chaotic and fractured relationships of a “post-Humanae Vitae” Society. Our society needs it more than ever before. It is a truly beautiful vision. Blessed Paul VI told scientists that they “can considerably advance the welfare of marriage and the family and also peace of conscience, if by pooling their efforts they strive to elucidate more thoroughly the conditions favorable to a proper regulation of births.". He then asked that “scientists, especially those who are Catholics, will by their research establish the truth of the Church's claim that "there can be no contradiction between two divine laws—that which governs the transmitting of life and that which governs the fostering of married love" [17].

Blessed Paul VI’s appeal to doctors and nurses and other men of science to do the work of explaining and developing the vision of marriage, family life and Natural Family Planning remains as urgent today as it has ever been.

We will welcome many more submissions on this issue, especially around how we take that message to society.


  1.  Canadian Bishops' Statement on the Encyclical "“Humanae Vitae”". (1968)
  2. Lifesite news. Dutch Catholics brace for ‘future without churches’ after abandoning evangelization: Vatican Radio Apr 14, 2015­after-abandoning-evangeli
  3. WWatt H. (2017) An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(2), 10-11
  4. Flood J. (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3), 24.
  5. Farmer A. (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3), 25
  6. Delaney M, (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3), 26-7
  7. Mckenzie Fr H. Humanae Vitae Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4).
  8. Kerr C, (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4).
  9. Duddy O, (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4),
  10. Brennan S. (2017) H umanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teach ing on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4),
  11. Thevasathan P. (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3), 24
  12. Pullicino P. (2016) Oral contraceptive effects and Humanae Vitae. Published Catholic Medical association, UK. London.
  13. Horton H (2017) Jacob Rees-Mogg sets out anti-gay marriage and abortion beliefs - but won't rule out leadership bid. Daily Telegraph 6th Sept­-gay-marriage-abortion-circumstance/
  14. Savulescu J. Schuklenk U. (2017) Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Med ical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception. Bioethics: 31 (3)
  15. Jessiman I. (2017) Humanae Vitae. An affirmation of the Church’s teaching on the gift of sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4)
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1857).
  17. Blessed Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. Pub Vatican 1968.