Humanae Vitae at 50: Janet Smith Explains God’s Plan for Marriage

BOOK PICK: Self-Gift: Essays on Humanae Vitae and the Thought of John Paul II

(photo: Unsplash and book cover)


Essays on Humanae Vitae and the Thought of

John Paul II

By Janet E. Smith

Emmaus Academic, 2018

416 pages, $39.95 (hardcover)

To order: or (800) 854-6316



Fifty years after Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae was released, his warnings about the consequences of the contraceptive mentality are being fulfilled in our culture. Promiscuity, infidelity and premarital sex are commonplace. The #MeToo movement has shined a spotlight on our culture’s loss of respect for women and the resultant moral decline. Blessed Paul VI warned that abuse of power by governments would increase exponentially; and, today, the West frequently engages in oppressive financial and political pressure, in an attempt to force developing nations to promote abortion on demand, contraception and sterilization.

Now in time for the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, moral theologian Janet Smith has brought together her writings on birth control and sexual ethics in an exhaustive volume, Self-Gift: Essays on Humanae Vitae and the Thought of John Paul II. In its 17 chapters, Smith has organized her own scholarly essays, reviews of others’ writings on the vocation of marriage, human sexuality, contraception (for example, Smith devotes one chapter to a critique of the work of Germain Grisez, John Finnis and William May) and more.  

For more than 30 years, Smith has plumbed the depths of Catholic teaching regarding the dignity of the human person and the significance of the marital bond. She has shared her knowledge with students at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Dallas and Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where she holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics. Professor Smith has served the Church as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family, as a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission III, and as representative to the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order.

Smith spoke to the Register about the impetus for her research into the area of sexuality and pregnancy prevention. “I tend to believe the Holy Spirit inspired me,” she said, “... since it was no part of my graduate studies. I ‘drifted’ into this area because of my opposition to abortion and the epiphany that it was failed relationships, not failed contraception, that leads to abortion. If sex were confined to marriage, abortions would nearly disappear.”

For many Catholics, their first exposure to the teaching of Janet Smith was through a cassette tape of her popular lecture “Contraception: Why Not?” More than 2 million copies of that talk have been distributed in CD and MP3 format worldwide, and countless other individuals have heard that message through a friend or a sharing library. Even before that, Smith’s first book, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (The Catholic University of America Press, 1992) established her as a leading thinker on the topic of birth control and God’s plan for human sexuality.

Included in Self-Gift is Smith’s English-language translation of Humanae Vitae from the original Latin. Before she undertook the translation project, she explained, earlier versions had been translated from the Italian text, not the official Latin text. Her reading of the text in the original Latin revealed riches that had not been transmitted in the Italian-to-English version, beginning with the word munus in the first line of the document. The first phrase of Humanae Vitae in Latin reads, “vitae tradendae munus gravissimum,” which had been translated as “the most serious duty of transmitting human life.” Smith studied the original documents of Vatican II to learn that munus refers not to “duty,” as it had been translated from the older text, but, rather, to “gift” or “wealth and riches” or even “honor.”

“The word munus,” she writes, “... truly seems to be without negative connotations; in fact, a munus is something that one is honored and, in a sense, privileged to have.” Smith captures that deeper meaning in her updated translation, revising “most serious duty” to “extremely important mission.”


St. John Paul II

Much of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception and sexual love has been made explicit through the writings of Pope John Paul II, collectively referred to as the “theology of the body.” In Self-Gift, Smith has examined those important teachings in two essays: In “The Krakow Document,” Smith discusses a paper written when Karol Wojtyla was archbishop of Krakow, serving on the special commission that advised Pope Paul VI on birth regulation. And in “John Paul II on the Family as a Communion of Persons,” Smith unfolds St. John Paul II’s concern for the inviolable dignity and the transcendent destiny of the human person and the Pope’s view of the family as playing a key role in the economy of salvation. She quotes from his “Letter to Women” to spotlight his belief in what he called the “feminine genius” — women’s unique readiness to engage in services of love.


Contraception Consequences

There is much more to appreciate in Self-Gift, including Smith’s clear explanation of the principles that support natural family planning as an acceptable method of spacing births, whereas contraception is always wrong. And she aligns St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of natural law, with its focus on universal truth, with the personalism of John Paul II, which reveals that which is irreducible and unique in each of us.

There are many who dissent from Church teaching on contraception, citing what they call sensus fidelium or “sense of the faithful.” In response to those critics, Smith outlines the criteria by which a teaching is determined to be infallible, and she shows that Revelation, Tradition and the magisterial teaching of the Church have maintained the inseparability of the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage. To deny the Church’s authority in this important area is, according to Smith, “culturally myopic chauvinism.”

Perhaps the most compelling section of Self-Gift is Smith’s delineation of the medical, social, legal and environmental consequences of contraception. She cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fact sheet on condom effectiveness, which says: “The most reliable ways to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are to abstain from sexual activity or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.” In other words, Smith notes, the CDC echoes the Church’s teaching: recommending abstinence followed by fidelity in marriage.

Add to the physical risks noted above the fact that condoms and oral contraceptives have not lived up to their promise in preventing unintended pregnancies. And the hormones in the birth-control pill have serious consequences for women, ranging from depression to reduced sexual functioniong. Studies would seem to indicate that women who are “on the pill” have a higher interest in short-term sexual relationships, but that they are actually less attractive to the opposite sex. Finally, Smith reports the serious environmental damage caused by the pill, as the chemical ethinyl extradiol (EE2) infects the water supply, leading to the feminization of male fish and amphibians, with the result that they have less reproductive success and some populations have been decimated.

In contemporary society, one of the most harmful effects of contraception has been an astronomical increase in sex outside of marriage and, when contraception fails, a rise in single parenthood, increasing the risk of sexual abuse, criminality, truancy, emotional disorders and other childhood and adolescent harm. Sex without consequences can lead to a consumer mentality, encouraging men to regard women as mere sexual playthings and accelerating social decay.

The legal and cultural consequences that Smith delineates are clearly visible in today’s secular society: “When a large segment of society accepts contraception as a social good,” she writes, “it takes but a few short steps for governments to begin to force this ‘good’ on others.” The ideology of radical sexual autonomy leads to a threat to religious freedom; for example, government mandates requiring coverage of contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs by employers and insurance companies. This is true when a private business owner or religious nonprofit, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, follows their faith and refuses to collaborate in the provision of contraceptives. And the cultural consequences are evident in many African nations, where the Catholic Church has been subjected to pressure to support population-control measures. In some cases, the U.S. government under President Obama threatened to withhold food and health care unless the Church agreed to support contraceptive distribution projects.

Self-Gift is a confirmation of Blessed Paul VI’s prophetic warning that marriages and society would suffer if contraception became widespread.

Smith’s work is truly a gift to all those who would take seriously the Pope’s prediction of an exponential increase in infidelity, moral decline, loss of respect for women, and abuse of power by governments — all of which are evident in today’s world.

Kathy Schiffer writes from

Seneca, South Carolina.