Humanae Vitae at 50: The Encyclical Still Needs to Be Properly Taught

Professor Stephan Kampowski argues the most important development of the document is for it to be better explained and understood.

Professor Stephan Kampowski.
Professor Stephan Kampowski. (photo: Edward Pentin)

As the Church marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae today, professor Stephan Kampowski of the Pontifical St. John Paul II Theological Institute contends that the document needs to be taught “repeatedly and with confidence.” 

If any change at all is required, Kampowski says, it is a “deeper understanding” of the encyclical's “reasons, motivations, and repercussions” rather than changes to its teaching.

The professor of philosophical anthropology adds that the objection that its teaching must be changed because people do not follow it “is inadmissible for discussion, since it presupposes that one had actually tried to present the encyclical’s teaching to people and failed to convince them.” Given that this has not been the case, Kampowski believes the argument is absurd. 

Published in 1968, Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition of contraception, approved natural family planning (NFP) methods in certain circumstances, and developed the Church’s teaching to stress two essential meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative, which are “inseparably connected” to each other.

Ever since its publication, dissenters inside and outside the Church have tried to soften its teaching to allow contraceptive use while many others, especially in the pro-life movement, have long upheld Humanae Vitae as prophetic, especially in light of the breakdown of marriage and the family which they attribute to widespread use of birth control. 

In his comments below, some of which were included for this recent Register article, Kampowski explains that the encyclical leaves “no room” for uncertainty, that there is “no conflict” between the natural moral law and conscience, and alerts readers to beware of an error long used against the encyclical: that as marital life can be fruitful in general, so sometimes, for good reasons, the marital act can be deliberately rendered sterile. 


Professor Kampowski, in view of the Vatican commission and other signals of possible changes to Paul VI’s encyclical regarding artificial contraception, what kinds of changes would be permissible for you and what would not be? 

I think the greatest need for development with respect to the message of Humanae Vitae lies with teaching it repeatedly and with confidence. At the same time, certainly one can and must come to a deeper understanding of its reasons, motivations, and repercussions, as did, for instance, Saint John Paul II in his Wednesday Catecheses on Human Love (the “theology of the body”), which are one grand reflection on and development of what Humanae Vitae has to say. 


A view often heard by those pushing for a softening in its teaching is that few Catholics follow the Church’s teaching on this issue. Is this a viable argument for reinterpreting the document and if not, why would it not be? 

The argument that one needs to change the encyclical’s central teaching because it has not been accepted is inadmissible for discussion, since it presupposes that one had actually tried to present the encyclical’s teaching to people and failed to convince them. For the most part, however, the encyclical’s message has not been taught. Thus what is the argument’s major premise — that “few Catholics follow the Church’s teaching” — is really the consequence of failing to present this teaching. The consequence of this failure is now used to justify one’s persisting in this failure, a procedure that to my mind seems absurd. 

In the few places where the encyclical has indeed been taught and accepted, the spiritual fruits are abundant (see for instance, the Neocatechumenal Way, or other ecclesial movements, but also some flourishing parishes even in Western countries like the United States); in the many places where its teaching has been ignored, the spiritual harm is rampant (see, for instances, the empty pews in the nations, like Germany, where the bishops were among the first to relativize Paul VI’s encyclical).

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI pointed out that we human beings are weak and vulnerable (HV 17), which is true particularly in the field of sexuality. But the solution cannot be to declare vice a virtue. Rather, what we need is moral encouragement. Now the teaching of Humanae Vitae about marital chastity and the connected immorality of contraception is difficult and countercultural. In order to be able to observe such a teaching, the faithful need to hear a clear message and receive encouragement from the clergy. The English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe sees a strict connection between the widespread unchastity practiced by Catholics after the rejection of Humanae Vitae and the spiritual dearth of our time (cf. Faith in a Hard Ground, 206-213). I think she has a point. 


Another argument used is that it is not infallible document, but could it be argued that its prophetic nature shows that it is?

Neither Pope Paul VI nor Pope John Paul II wanted to make a solemn definition ex cathedra that contraception is immoral. From this fact, some infer that the Successors of Peter were not sure about the issue or deliberately wanted to leave things open for further discussion. This is not a very convincing argument. A much more plausible explanation for why Paul VI and John Paul II did not want to make such a definition is that such a step would have undermined the authority of the Church’s ordinary magisterium. Even in ordinary human interactions we would make analogous considerations. If you believe me only if I swear to you that I do not tell you a lie (which is analogous to making a solemn, infallible definition), then implicitly you tell me that my ordinary words have no longer any weight for you. If I accept this logic, I will deprive all my sayings not uttered under oath of their importance. 

Now, about the Church’s ministry of teaching morals: ever again there are times and places when people have moral blind spots. They may not be able to see anything wrong with slavery, abortion, concubinage or tax evasion. If the Church’s magisterium were to make a solemn declaration every time a moral truth falls into practical or even theoretical oblivion, there would be an inflation of solemn oaths, which would then become ever less significant. 

On top of this, the popes have indeed spoken clearly ever since the issue of contraception first became a question at all, which was only in 1930. Before that time, no Christian denomination had ever taught that contraception was good (cf. Noonan, Contraception). Ever since the ancient Egyptians, people have come up with ways of practicing it. It thus wasn’t a matter of simply not having the techniques. No, along the ages, there had been barrier methods, potions and vaginal washings, some of which even had a certain effectiveness. And Christians, too, made use of these, just like Christians also practiced fornication and adultery. It’s just that they never claimed that what they did was morally acceptable or even required.

They practiced contraception as they practiced adultery or committed theft, knowing that it was bad. When at the 1930 Lambeth Conference the Anglicans claimed that the use of contraception was permissible under certain circumstances, this was a complete novelty and immediately called for the intervention of Pope Pius XI who in Casti Connubii found very strong language to express that contraception is wrong. Let me quote: 

“But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. 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” (54).

Pope Pius XII reiterated this teaching with extremely solemn words:

“Every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and … no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one. This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law” (Allocution to midwives, October 29, 1951). 

Pope Paul VI confirmed the matter in Humanae Vitae. It was reconfirmed by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. In one of his allocutions, John Paul II found a strong way of expressing himself, saying that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not “a doctrine invented by human beings [...] To put it into question, therefore, is tantamount to refusing God himself the obedience of our intelligence” (Allocution, November 12, 1988, AAS 81 [1989], p. 1207). Benedict XVI, too, has reconfirmed this teaching on numerous occasions, and Pope Francis has said that “the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 10-14) and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 28-35) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life” (Amoris Laetitia, n. 222). Here the paragraph numbers referred to are precisely those that include the normative content. 

To sum up: there has not been a solemn definition, but there have been repeated declarations using quite solemn words. There is no room here for uncertainty, and thus no need for a definition, especially given the weight of a unanimous sense among all Christians for almost 2000 years and given the exceedingly clear words of the Roman Pontiffs after that consensus had come to naught in 1930. 

For a teaching to be infallible, by the way, one does not necessarily need a solemn declaration. Also truths taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, that is by the pope and the bishops in union with him across all times and places, are taught infallibly, even if they are not solemnly defined (cf. Vatican I, Dei Filius, 3; Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25). Even though as the type of document that it is, Humanae Vitae is not formally infallible, it is not implausible to claim that its teaching is indeed infallible, inasmuch as it is part of the universal and ordinary magisterium. 

Independent of the question of the degree of authority with which Humanae Vitae intends to teach, it is undeniably true that it is a prophetic document. In HV 17, Pope Paul VI lists what to his mind will be the negative consequences of the rejection of his teaching: the general lowering of morality, the rise of marital infidelity, a lessening of men’s respect for women, and the possible imposition of the methods of birth regulation by civil governments. For people in the 1960s, these were not necessarily obvious consequences. For us today, these consequences are so evident that we even fail to appreciate the prophetic nature of Paul VI’s predictions. That they have indeed come true certainly speaks for the truth of the document. 


How concerned are you that this anniversary will be used to reinterpret the document, despite assurances it won’t be?

Some of those who would like to promote a reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae reassure the public that no one intends to touch the Encyclical’s core insight, namely, as they say, the indissoluble relationship between conjugal love and fruitfulness. The problem here is only that by thus identifying the document’s core teaching, they are slightly off the mark. By speaking about the indissoluble relation between conjugal love and fruitfulness, most likely they intend to refer to the so-called inseparability principle, which is presented in Humanae Vitae 12, and which most people would agree is indeed the nucleus of Paul VI’s teaching. But Humanae Vitae’s inseparability principle is not about the indissoluble connection between marital love and fruitfulness in general and in the abstract. The encyclical does not speak about marital love here, but about marital acts. This is crucial. Only from 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 norm against contraception, as taught in HV 14, will follow. 

To affirm that married love and fruitfulness are inseparably connected is to say something certainly true, but also, at least among Catholics, much less controversial. Simply on the basis of the inseparable connection between marital love and fruitfulness, one could coherently propose that it is enough for a couple’s love to be fruitful in general, for them to have children, to be rich in virtue and good works, so that they can – and maybe even should – every now and then deliberately render themselves sterile when they come together as husband and wife. 

Such musings have recently been presented as new insights that honor the fundamental intentions of Humanae Vitae, while “developing” the encyclical further in its practical consequences. But the fact is that this argument is not new at all but has been discussed precisely in these terms even more than fifty years ago, i.e., even prior to the publication of Humanae Vitae. In fact, already Paul VI had the occasion to respond to this proposal in the document itself.  In no. 14 he clearly states: “It is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong” (HV 14). Now therefore, those who today claim that it is enough for married life and love to be fruitful in general and that sometimes, for good reasons, the marriage act can be deliberately rendered sterile, do not propose a new argument and certainly do not develop further Humanae Vitae’s teaching. Rather, they are proposing a thesis that directly contradicts what Humanae Vitae says. 


Some see a tension between Humanae Vitae and Vatican II, claiming that the Council has privileged the conscience of the couples over the intangibility of the norm, while Paul VI’s encyclical, or at least certain interpretations of it, go back on the Council’s achievements. What do you think of this argument?

The idea that one can privilege the conscience over the intangibility of the norm presupposes that there can be a conflict and even an opposition between the conscience and a moral norm. To posit such conflict or opposition one needs to have a specific understanding both of conscience and of moral norms, one that is proper to a particular school of moral theology, namely the so-called voluntarist or Ockhamist tradition. Conscience is here understood as a faculty by which human beings make their own decisions about good or bad, while the moral norm is seen as an external, mostly arbitrary, imposition by some authority that limits the freedom of conscience. Norms are necessary as far as they go but should be reduced to the minimum. Conscience is the realm of freedom and should be allowed the greatest extension possible. 

One does not, however, need to share such ideas of conscience and norm. For instance, one can think of the norm or, as in other traditions one would say, the law, not as an arbitrary imposition by an external authority, but rather, as Pope Francis does, as “a gift of God which points out the way” (AL 295), a sort of street sign that shows us the road to where we really want to go. In other words, the law can be understood as expressing a truth about the good. Conscience, while being a most intimate personal reality, is then understood not as a decision, but as a judgment. In my conscience I am not the creator of good and evil, I do not decide about what is good and bad. Rather, I am confronted with reality, and I make a judgment about it. This is also the perspective of the Second Vatican Council. It is true that in its n. 16, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes says that “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” But nothing is said here about conscience being an inner oracle or a personal decision: the voice that echoes in conscience is, after all, the voice of God. Then it will also be helpful also to read the preceding phrases: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged” (GS 16). Gaudium et Spes clearly says that in their conscience human persons are confronted with a law that they did not give to themselves. For this document, conscience could not possibly be a decision, since conscience calls us to obedience. Conscience is called to obey a law written in the heart by God himself. In Gaudium et Spes, there is thus clearly no opposition or conflict between conscience and norm. Rather, it is the dignity of conscience to obey the law, a law, to be sure, that is not arbitrary or external, but a law that tells us to do the good and to shun evil, a law that expresses a truth about what is good and bad, a law that shows us the way to where we truly want to go. 

The passage in which Gaudium et Spes specifically speaks about the conscience of married couples can serve even less to sustain the case that Vatican II privileges conscience at the expense of the norm or that the Council and Humanae Vitae stand in a sort of tension. We read in Gaudium et Spes 50: “But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.” There is no conflict here between the norm and conscience. For the Council it is rather the spouses’ duty to conform themselves to the divine law as interpreted by the Church’s magisterium.