Cliffs Notes on Humanae Vitae

Human Life. That’s a pretty bold title. It’s what the latin phrase humanae vitae means in English. Humanae Vitae was an important and controversial encyclical when it was released in 1968 by Pope Paul VI even though it was simply making clear a centuries-old Christian teaching. It is even more important and more controversial now.

Humanae Vitae (HV) discusses the Church teaching on the regulation of birth. The encyclical was released at the time artificial birth control was first becoming popular in the United States to make sure Catholics knew where the Church stood on the subject. It reiterates that it stands on the side of life and family. Birth rates just a decade earlier were around 3.7 children per woman according to the National Center for Health Statistics. As the popularity and availability of artificial birth control grew, birth rates plummeted to about 1.8 by the time HV was written (the rate just to replace the population is 2.1 children per couple). Since bottoming out at around 1.7, we have yet to rebound above the important 2.1 children-per-couple average (these numbers are children per woman, meaning that children per couple are likely much less). An entire article could be written on the economic problems this drop in birthrate causes. We can look to Europe for a glimpse of our future; there is far less emphasis on (any) religion, birth rates are even lower, and the economy is spiraling out of control. But this blog post isn’t about the dire economic effects artificial birth control has contributed and is contributing to. This post is to point out some of the best parts of HV. HV shows us that the Church isn’t the anti-woman and anti-sex organization the popular media makes it out to be. HV shows us that the Holy Church loves women, sex and life so much that they consider it wrong to only enjoy parts of each. Catholics love and respect sex more than any other group of people in the world!

Young married couples (or those planning on ever getting married) should really take a look at some of the following key points even if they don’t have the time or desire to read the entire 15-page paper. I will interject some thoughts below a few passages, others I’ll let speak for itself. All direct quotes from HV will be slightly grey and italicized, any comments I make will be normal black text below the HV passage. We will begin with the first sentence of HV:

Section 1, Paragraph 1

The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.

We must approach our married life with this on our minds. We are becoming a “co-creator” with the…Creator. ‘Creating’ life is the most sacred thing we can do–we are mimicking what He is when we carry our “likeness” of Him into our actions.

Sec 7, Par 1

The question of human procreation, like every other question which touches human life, involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects.

We all love science (another thing Catholics may love more than any other group, despite the pop culture’s incorrect narrative). It is our way of discovering the order behind the universe. It is our longing to understand how God works. However, when we are dealing with human life, we cannot simply reduce what we are attempting to discover into a sterile experiment. We cannot carelessly push buttons to see what happens. When a human soul is involved we must be particularly careful that we do nothing to disrupt the inherent dignity of life. Cutting a tree in half to study how old it is is different than cutting a human in half to study how food is digested. Obviously that hyperbole is ridiculous. But why is it ridiculous? Because the human spirit is involved. Just as we cannot be careless with a human life, we cannot be careless with the sacred way human life is created. We must be thoughtful with the use of our bodies rather than reducing our bodily actions down to our primal desires.

God’s Loving Design

Sec 8, Par 2

…husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.

"I'm gonna make you so perfect tonight." - "Oh, I love it when you talk like that."
“I’m gonna make you so perfect tonight.” — “I love it when you talk like that.”

Spouses perfect one another. When two people make a marriage covenant between them and The Father, they do more than finish each other’s sentences. They finish each other’s bodies! When each of their bodies becomes perfected by the other, it becomes, well, perfect, it becomes whole, it becomes…one. No, I’m not quoting a Spice Girls song, I’m talking about the ‘one’ being a baby. A new human life.

Married Love

Sec 9, Par 2

This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.

Sec 9, Par 3

Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.

We must strive to hold nothing back when we love our spouse.

Sec 9, Par 4

Married love is also faithful and exclusive of all other, and this until death. This is how husband and wife understood it on the day on which, fully aware of what they were doing, they freely vowed themselves to one another in marriage. […] The example of countless married couples proves not only that fidelity is in accord with the nature of marriage, but also that it is the source of profound and enduring happiness.

The “nature of marriage” comes from natural law. When the unseen laws of nature are obeyed, joy and happiness will follow. Just as pain will follow if you try to break the physical law of gravity by jumping off a building, pain will surely follow if you break natural law and choose the path of infidelity with your spouse.

Sec 9, Par 5

It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”

New couples must understand that there is no marriage without being open to life. Marriage exists for the purpose of being the keystone to a family. It exists for procreation and building civilization.

Responsible Parenthood

Sec 10, Par 1

Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood…

Sec 10, Par 2

With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions.

Sec 10, Par 3

With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them.

We are called to control our drives and emotions. If we couldn’t control our desires, we wouldn’t be much better than an animal. We should avoid any man-made pill or medicine that attempts to block the natural outcome of our actions when a human life is involved. We must not desensitize ourselves to the absolute importance of true love and responsible self-giving. Now don’t get me (or Jesus) wrong, we must absolutely, without a doubt, fully enjoy sex with our spouses. We just must make sure it’s an act of complete self-giving. We must know that there’s more to the sex package than a wild and exhausting night with your wife (that’s a lot of it, but not ALL of it)! Just as we should feel free to enjoy eating food, we must realize if we eat ONLY for pleasure, while ignoring its ability to sustain life, we’re going to become fat asses and have physical problems. Full disclosure: I enjoy food too much and am arguably a fat ass. Again, just as we know the outcome when we try to ignore our physical laws, there are negative outcomes when we ignore natural laws. Wow, I just accidentally teed this up perfectly for the encyclical’s next subtitle.

Observing the Natural Law

Sec 11, Par 1

It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws.

Faithfulness to God’s Design

Sec 13, Par 1

But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.

Unlawful Birth Control Methods

Sec 14, Par 1

…to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, […], is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.

Sec 14, Par 2

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation

Tough Decisions: the pills last all month, but the condoms are a really pretty color.
Hard Choices: the pill lasts all month and subsidized by taxpayers, but the colorful condoms are soooo cute

Recourse to Infertile Periods

Sec 16, Par 2

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

The Church recognizes there are some situations where spacing births is the responsible thing to do while also understanding the joy and intimacy of sex is important to a healthy spousal relationship apart from its life-giving capabilities. External circumstances might be a dire money situation. People must be very careful with this circumstance because it’s used as one of the main excuses of young people today, “well, I just don’t have that much money saved up yet”. A child keeping you from buying a new riding mower isn’t a good reason. It should only be a reason if another child would pull you below the poverty line in your respective culture (Dr Taylor Marshall writes about it here). Another external circumstance would be social disorder like living in a country with concentration camps, one-child polices and so on.

Sec 16, Par 3

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious.

Sec 17, Par 1

[An] effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Does this sound familiar? Men viewing women as objects–objects than can be thrown away at the end of a fun night? Pope Francis would describe this as part of the “throwaway culture” we should avoid. You’d think modern-day feminists would be against something that allows a man to reduce a woman to a simple, soulless instrument of “getting off”.

Sec 17, Par 2

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

I think this is a very important and real consideration. In America, we’re free to have a family that’s open to life but some countries that’s not so. Other countries have forced sterilizations or one-child polices (social disorder). These methods of man-made family “control” (read: Planned Parenthood) are becoming so commonplace, we’re expected to pay for it by our taxes through things like Obamacare.

Sec 18, Par 1

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication.

Sec 18, Par 3

In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife.

Sec 21, Par 1

The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. […] For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. […] As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers.

True love is the giving of one’s self, right? To give someone something you must fully own it first, you must be in control and have ownership of yourself. How can you control or own yourself if you’re unable to practice any sort of self-denial. If your life is made up from a series of innate bodily reactions to desires, you have no control over yourself and are in no position to truly love somebody else.

Recourse to God

Sec 25, Par 4

Then let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance. In this way, for sure, they will be able to reach that perfection of married life which the Apostle sets out in these words: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church. . . Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. […] “let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Sec 29, Par 1, 2, 3

Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.

[…]Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness.

Always persevere, always strive, always evangelize, and “be not afraid!” is what I take from this final section.

Men, partake in God’s image as you are called, be open to creation and life. Women, see to it that the man in your life treats you like the dignified soul that you are–you have the ability to carry life and that should be respected rather than avoided. The Catholic Church reveres vessels of life. The ciborium (contains consecrated hosts), the tabernacle, the chalice, and women all are vessels of life. All vessels of life are sacred. We veil what is sacred. This is why the ciborium and tabernacle, which contain Christ’s living body, is always tented or veiled. This is why the chalice of Christ’s living blood is always covered. This is why women (traditionally) would wear veils to Mass. All of these are vessels containing life. All of these are sacred. And all of these should be treated as such.

Now go give your spouse a big wet kiss, put the kids to bed early, and open up a can of creation!

Remember that to be ‘pro-life’ means more than being against abortion. It means being completely open and in favor to, as St. JPII put it, the ‘Culture of Life’.


“Birth Control is a name given to a succession of different expedients by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself.”

-GK Chesterton

4 thoughts on “Cliffs Notes on Humanae Vitae

  1. No, your church does NOT respect women. You compare women to vessels; vessels are THINGS. Vessels serve a function but have no will or mind of their own. They exist for others to use. That is exactly the same idea you condemn when men use women for sex alone, but since the church uses women for breeding somehow that is better. Men didn’t respect women for our minds and abilities before 1968 and don’t respect our abilities in places where your ideas about sex are more influential. For evidence compare the economic and political,position of women in Protestant or secular countries to women in Catholic countries. Women didn’t get the vote in Catholic Europe until many years after we achieved it in the Protestant world.


    • Karen-

      I appreciate you reading and commenting. The “vessel” is simply an analogy pointing out the sacredness of life. I feel bad you are under the impression that there is some ultimatum between being completely open to life in marriage and staying home, not working, not using your God-given talents in the world. Both can be done and are done daily–including my own household!

      I’m not sure which Protestant or secular countries you’re speaking of. Yes, there are some poorer Catholic countries, but it’s not like just women are poor, everyone is–when you’re made up of 1.2 billion people, that’s going to cover some countries that are poorer–inevitable. It’s a correlation, not a causation, Karen.

      I can tell you with certainty that any true Catholic respects are cherishes the contributions the women in their lives make to not only their families but society.

      Again, I truly appreciate you commenting. I enjoy discussion about stuff like this! Have a great day.


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