Humanae Vitae – Fifty Years On

Bishop John Wilson - Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster

Bishop John Wislon‘I think, first, that it is important to realise that most people have got the contraceptive aspect of Humanae Vitae entirely out of proportion. As Cardinal Heenan said: If the Pope had wanted to confine himself to a prohibition of contraception, he could have done it in a simple sentence. Instead, he wrote a lengthy document which covered a much wider field and we should all realise that there is a great wealth of positive teaching to be found in Humanae Vitae which has considerable relevance.’[1] With these words Bishop William Gordon Wheeler of Leeds began an address to his clergy following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Letter on the subject of how spouses are to properly regulate the transmission of new human life.

To say that Humanae Vitae was controversial would be an understatement. The well documented response and ensuing crisis sent shock waves which still reverberate today. For those eager for change in Church teaching it was a tragic missed opportunity to extend the aggiornamento of Vatican II into the sexual ethics of marriage. For those convinced by the pre-existing tradition and teaching, it confirmed an essential and integral vision of the human person and spousal relationships.

Sadly, disagreement led some to depart from ministry and from membership of the Church. Despite best attempts to maintain unity, the fallout opened deeper questions about magisterial authority, the exercise of conscience, the place of lay consultation, the status of human experience, and pastoral strategy. The negative reaction was forceful and outspoken. Yet, there was also another narrative, that of those who believed Pope Paul VI was speaking a timeless truth, even if few doubted it was not an easy one to live by. For couples and clergy who embraced the message of Humanae Vitae, there was more here than a prohibition of artificial contraception.

The fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae will inevitably bring forth a rehearsal of the history and arguments of 1968 and its aftermath. The most convincing witnesses to the beauty of its teaching are spouses who inhabit the divine and human truths it sets forth. The spiritual and moral virtues required are not to be underestimated and those who struggle must always be the subject of the Church’s compassionate and merciful accompaniment. To whatever degree claims are made that Humanae Vitae is ignored in practice, there are, nonetheless, husbands, wives, and families who, today, fifty years on, make Pope Paul’s words become flesh.

The ‘wealth of positive teaching to be found in Humanae Vitae’ was highlighted by the philosopher and theologian Janet E. Smith in her 1991 treatise Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later. [2] Two particular insights help to tease out the richness of Pope Paul’s affirmation. The first concerns the concept of munus.[3]

‘God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important (munus) of transmitting human life. In fulfilling this mission spouses freely and deliberately render a service to God, the Creator’ (HV 1)

The Latin word munus can be translated in a variety of ways and is used often in Church teaching on marriage. We find it both in Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and in Humanae Vitae: ‘Let all be convinced that human life and [the munus of] its transmission are realities whose meaning is not limited by the horizons of this life only; their true evaluation and full meaning can only be understood in reference to man’s eternal destiny.’ (GS 51) ‘God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important [munus] of transmitting human life. In fulfilling this mission spouses freely and deliberately render a service to God, the Creator.’ (HV 1)

Smith notes that munus could be translated as ‘gift,’ ‘wealth and riches,’ ‘honour,’ or ‘responsibility.’ It could also be rendered as ‘duty,’ ‘role,’ ‘task,’ ‘mission,’ ‘office’ or ‘function.’ She states that both in Scripture and in St Thomas Aquinas, munus is linked with the grandeur and distinction of mission, ministry, and apostolate, and with duty in the sense of holding an important office. In relation to spouses, munus conveys the special assignment of childbearing which God entrusts to them. Translations of Humanae Vitae which begin speaking of the ‘serious duty’ given by God to parents therefore set the wrong tone. While one may perform a duty reluctantly, out of obligation or responsibility, the invitation here is to achieve something far more honourable and majestic.[4]

Munus could be translated as ‘gift,’‘wealth and riches,’ ‘honour,’ or ‘responsibility.’ It could also be rendered as ‘duty,’ ‘role,’ ‘task,’ ‘mission,’ ‘office,’ or ‘function.’

Smith traces how this varied understanding of munus, as mission, role, office and vocation, is used in the documents of Vatican II; but always with the emphasis on its God-given nature and origin. It is prevalent throughout Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and in Gaudium et Spes in the sections dedicated to marriage and conjugal relations. Spouses are described as having a ‘lofty calling’ (‘praecellenti...munere, 47), and the ‘sublime office’ (‘sublimi munere,’ 48) of parenthood, fortified by their loving conjugal relations. Spousal parenthood is depicted as having specific roles and obligations (munera), dignity and office (munus), strengthened by the sacrament of matrimony (48-49). [5]

It is Gaudium et Spes 50 which draws together the implications: ‘Married couples should regard it as their proper mission (missio) to transmit human life (officio humanam vitam transmittendi) and to educate their children; they should realise that they are thereby co-operating with the love of God the Creator and are, in a certain sense, its interpreters. This involves the fulfilment of their role (munus) with a sense of human and Christian responsibility...’ [6] Further emphasis follows on the ‘duty (munus) of procreating’ and of carrying out such a ‘God- given munus (mission or task, commissio a Deo) by generously having a large family’ (GS 50). For ‘...human life and its transmission (munus eam transmittendi) are realities whose meaning is not limited by the horizons of this life only…’ (GS 51).

The marital munus conferred externally by God on spouses has, for those who accept and attempt to live it out, corresponding ‘internal benefits’ namely ‘the growth in virtue and perfection.’ The tremendous good for spouses of begetting and raising children in turn helps them advance virtuously in holiness. [6]

This ‘internal aspect’ of the munus draws upon the personalist philosophy of Karol Wojtyla, subsequently Pope St John Paul II, which emphasises the development of the ‘self ’ as closely connected to the moral choices we make. It is through our moral choices, through personalist values, and especially the values of generosity and self- mastery, that we can progressively and continuously transform ourselves into better and more authentic human beings. This is not some kind of ‘muscular Christianity,’ but the exercise of the virtues and the practice of chastity. In this process of self-transformation, through our good moral choices, we not only become more like Christ, but we participate in Christ’s office and task, his munus, as priest, prophet and king. Thus, to share in Christ’s mission, his munus, is not just a matter of external action, but also of internal attitude: ‘to be a priest, one must be self- sacrificing; to be a prophet, one must evangelise; and to be a king, one must govern - and govern one’s self above all.’ [7]

For Smith, numerous and great goods result from the munus of transmitting life, from the experience of parenting, and from establishing a family, and raising children. Besides being a place for the cultivation of www.cmq.org.uk virtues and Christian values, the family helps parents to mature as human beings and provides a valuable and stable reservoir of love for the whole of society. When spouses impede the procreative power of their sexual acts they impoverish the full grandeur of the munus entrusted to them. Smith says this undervalues the position of the family, leads to selfishness, and, by limiting God’s action, therefore spouses also limit his blessing of children consequently removing a source of their own human and Christian maturation and perfection. Through marriage God offers spouses a share in the goods of his kingdom and calls them to co- operate in the munus of initiating new life, so benefiting themselves and society. This is not merely biology, but providence. Conjugal sexual intercourse, furthering both the unitive good, the strengthening of the spouses, and the procreative good, in having children, forms the essential component of this munus, ordered by God to the flourishing of spousal love and the creation of new sharers in his kingdom.[8]

A second insight from Janet Smith into Humanae Vitae concerns the notion of openness to life. What is often described as the core teaching of Humanae Vitae occurs in paragraph 11 which Smith translates as: ‘…it is necessary that each and every conjugal act remain ordered in itself (per se destinatus) to the procreating of human life.’ The phrase ‘ordered in itself,’ replaces the more common translations based on the Italian text which read: ‘…each and every conjugal act must be open (from the Italian ‘aperto’) to the transmission of life.’ [9]

The latter translation can cause confusion. Smith comments that some understand this to mean that Humanae Vitae teaches that whenever a couple engage in sexual intercourse they must be open to new life being conceived, that is, they must be intending and desiring to have a child.[10]

The teaching that each and every conjugal act must be ‘ordered in itself to procreation’ refers not to the subjective nature of the act in terms of what the spouses desire or intend. It is not about whether they want a child or not when they make love. The teaching that each and every conjugal act must be ‘ordered in itself to procreation’ refers to the objective nature of the act of sexual intercourse. It is about respecting procreation as an essential aspect of why God made us male and female destined for one flesh union. Spouses should, therefore, do nothing themselves to artificially inhibit this natural end of procreation.

It is about respecting procreation as an essential aspect of why God made us male and female destined for one flesh union. Spouses should, therefore do nothing themselves to artificially inhibit this natural end of procreation.

Thus, a couple who use thermo-symptomatic family planning, for instance, and a couple who use barrier or hormonal methods may both have the same subjective desire that they do not wish to conceive a child at the present time. Similarly, both consciously intervene to effect this desire, and to the same extent given the capacity for objectively similar rates of success or failure. For Smith, however, the distinction arises in that the couple using the former methods co-operate with God-given nature – that is to say with the natural programme of fertility/infertility - to conceive or space births. Natural fertility awareness respects the processes God has created, and engenders in the couple the virtues of mutual respect, self-restraint and generosity. It offers a distinct and unique approach to conjugal living and loving.

More recent theological exposition of Humanae Vitae, through the work of scholars like Janet Smith, and especially through Pope St John Paul II’s monumental Theology of the Body, provide an articulation of the Encyclical’s teaching to new generations. Within a spirituality of spousal communion, those born decades after 1968 are finding wisdom and beauty in its truths, summarised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of spouses takes place are noble and honourable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude. Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure.’ (CCC 2362)

The most recent endorsement of Humanae Vitae comes from Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on the joy of love in the family. It emphasises Humanae Vitae’s teaching on ‘the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life.’ This, he writes, is a message ‘we need to return to,’ one in which the methods used to regulate birth are based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility,’ thus respecting ‘the bodies of the spouses,’ encouraging ‘tenderness between them,’ and favouring the ‘education of an authentic freedom.’[11] Spouses who live this teaching are the expert witnesses and teachers of the Church in this arena.

In 1968, Bishop Wheeler asked people to consider Humanae Vitaefrom the point of view of God and eternity,’ making room for those ‘spiritual values,’ which take us beyond ‘a merely materialistic outlook.’ This remains good and pertinent advice fifty years on.


  1. Rt Rev William Gordon Wheeler, Address to the Clergy on Humanae Vitae, 8 October 1968.
  2. Janet E Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, CUA Press, Washington, 1991.
  3. Smith, 136.
  4. Smith, 137.
  5. Smith, 137-138.
  6. Smith, 138-140.
  7. Smith, 140.
  8. Smith, 141.
  9. Smith 141.
  10. Smith, 143.
  11. Smith, 145-148.
  12. Smith, 281, 321.
  13. Smith 118-128.
  14. Amoris Laetita, 68, 82 and 222