In late summer, 1968, Paul V1 released the encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Few church documents in recent centuries have caused the kind of stir that ensued. Almost immediately every kind of ecclesial, moral, and ideological tension constellated around it.

For conservative Catholics, it is all too often seen as the criterion of moral orthodoxy. You are a good Catholic only if you can live Humanae Vitae!  In the conservative mindset, Humanae Vitae is the last moral line in the sand, if Catholicism crosses this, if it allows contraception, then Catholic morality will have sold out. Liberal Catholics, conversely, tend to see it as the most serious mistake within recent Catholic history. For them, it has come to represent all that they feel is wrong within the church – flawed, outdated, medieval argumentation, brought down from on high by a celibate hierarchy which is speaking of something, sexuality, on which it has neither competence nor moral authority. In the liberal mind, Humanae Vitae is, singularly, responsible for the fact that the church as lost so much credibility and influence in the years since 1968..

What’s to be said about all this?  To my mind, these polarized positions are both unfortunate. The liberal temptation to see Humanae Vitae as a disaster that is best flushed away and the propensity of Conservatives to make of it the ultimate criterion of moral honesty are both wrong. Humanae Vitae is not an infallible church teaching which constitutes the dividing line between what’s moral for Roman Catholics and what’s not; nor is it the disastrous, backward, repressive document that liberals claim it to be.

What is it? It is, first of all, a call to conscience, not the criterion of moral orthodoxy. Like the social encyclicals, it presents an ideal – even if most people cannot meet it. Hence, the claim by liberals that it is wrong because the majority of Catholics have rejected it makes no more sense than to claim that the social encyclicals are wrong because most people also reject them. Conversely, Conservatives should only make it the criterion of moral honesty if they, too, give the social encyclicals that same status. As well, the liberal claim that the pope has no business in our bedrooms makes no more sense than the conservative claim that he has no business in our boardrooms. Held in parallel to the social encyclicals, one sees both the proper authority and the moral legitimacy of Humanae Vitae.

It contains a deep wisdom, enshrining three important ideals: 

  • Married life must be open to bringing new life into the world and genital sexuality is, in the end, tied to both of these: marriage and the openness to transmitting new life. Humanae Vitae does not affirm that each and every sexual act must intend procreation and be open to it. It does affirm that there is an inbuilt meaning to sexual intercourse and part of that meaning is an openness to the transmission of human life. This, I submit, is a deep truth that, if ignored, wreaks a hidden havoc within relationships. Relationships closed to new life are like stagnant waters, eventually life within them dies.
  • Sexual relationships should, ideally, regulate themselves from within, on the basis of the relationship itself,  without reliance on chemicals, rubbers, plastics, and the like. God told Moses: “Take off your shoes before the burning bush!”. Shoes are made of leather, rubber, and plastics. These, in the end, get in the way of naked encounter. I trust the metaphor is clear.
  • In the ideal, it is better to regulate something naturally than artificially. For example, it is better, obviously, to handle hypertension, naturally, through physical exercise, than it is through sedation by drugs. However it is not a sin to take medication or to use chemicals and drugs. However, anyone taking drugs to regulate hypertension longs for the day when this is no longer necessary. To admit this is to admit the wisdom of natural law. Ideally, one does not use chemicals and plastics!

In the end, like the social encyclicals, Humanae Vitae is a prophetic document. It beckons towards the ideal, towards the high ground. It puts eros under a high symbolic hedge. It represents the road less taken. It is a challenge to not settle for second best. It should be seen as such, a beautiful ideal. It goes without saying that, given the pressures of contemporary life, millions of very good women and men, persons of real moral sincerity, will, for all kinds or reasons, be unable live that ideal. To not be able to live Humanae Vitae is no sin – but to ignore it as medieval casuistry is to cheat oneself.