Humanae Vitae at 50: A BreakPoint Symposium

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential and controversial religious documents of the 20th century. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, formally declared the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception and has become a definitive foundational document for many Christians in confronting the various challenges of the sexual revolution.

Humanae Vitae prophetically warned that the wide acceptance of contraception was “opening wide the way to infidelity,” and would lead to the lowering of moral standards, the devaluing of women as “a mere instrument for the satisfaction” of men, and the imposition by civil authorities on growing populations (foreshadowing China’s brutal one-child regime.)

This is an issue of great concern to Christians of all sorts, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. For the Roman Catholic Church, Humanae Vitae remains the binding statement of the Catholic Magisterium on the subject—no matter how many or few Roman Catholics follow its teaching. Protestants widely accept non-abortifacient artificial contraception as permissible for the faithful while sharing concerns predicted by Humanae Vitae.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this document, we asked Christian thought leaders to reflect on the significance of Humanae Vitae, it’s warnings for the church, and to offer how Christians might live faithfully by recapturing a Christian vision of sex, procreation, and marriage.

Alysse ElHage; Angela Franks; Mark GalliKristan Hawkins; Frederica Matthewes-Green; G. Shane Morris; Warren Cole Smith; Glenn Stanton; John Stonestreet; Carl R. Trueman; Andrew Walker

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Although I grew up in church and attended Christian schools all my life, I never heard anything negative (moral or otherwise) about the birth control pill (most of the Christian women I knew were contracepting). That changed in my mid-20s, when a co-worker gave me the tape, “Contraception: Why Not?” featuring a Catholic professor named Janet Smith. What I heard on that tape, and later discovered through Humanae Vitae, led me on a journey that expanded my thinking about sex and marriage and our responsibility to children as Christians.

Thanks to Humanae Vitae, I rejected chemical birth control as unhealthy for my body and embraced more natural methods. The knowledge I gained about my body empowered me as a woman and helped me and my husband easily start our family.

On a deeper level, Humanae Vitae presented a counter-cultural and refreshing vision of married sex as something beautiful and sacred and consequential—a vision that gave me, a child of divorce, something to aspire to. Not only was this vision radically different from the pleasure-focused sex the world offered, but it was different from what I’d learned in the evangelical community. Even though I’d been taught that God created sex for marriage, it felt more like a list of “dos” and “don’ts” to me than a “theology” of sex, and I longed for more. (Later, I discovered Protestant writers, like Nancy Pearcey, who do articulate a holistic view of sex.)

I am proof that you need not be Catholic to value the truths in Humanae Vitae. Through Humanae Vitae, I gained a richer understanding of and appreciation for the sacredness of sex, the blessings of children, and marriage as an institution worth preserving.

Alysse ElHage is a writer and editor and a member of Women Speak for Themselves.

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Humanae Vitae was correct in its predictions of the contraceptive future because Paul VI understood what contraception does to sex. God gave sex certain purposes, including the power to create a new human being. Contraception eliminates sex’s God-given purposes and allows the couple (or an individual) to substitute other purposes. Those subjective purposes might be loving and selfless, but the history of sexuality–only confirmed by our #MeToo moment–shows that people very often have selfish purposes for sex. By eliminating the God-given power of sex for procreation, contraception structures sex’s purposes according to self-referential goals and opens sex to selfishness.

Instead of using birth control, Paul VI called couples to discern the use of natural family planning in order to be responsible parents. NFP entails respecting the fertile times of the woman’s cycle by abstaining from sex at those times (usually around ten days a month), rather than trying to make fertile sex infertile. Instead of changing sex through contraception, couples change their sexual behavior. In other words, Paul VI called for self-control rather than birth control. Although difficult, self-control is better for persons, better for couples, and better for society–because unselfishness and receptivity to God’s plans are always the better path.

Angela Franks is a professor of theology at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary in Boston and the author of Contraception and Catholicism.

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As hard as it might be for a Protestant to admit, Pope Paul VI got it right in my personal view—as the fragmentation of the family and the unraveling of sexual ethics, not to mention the acceleration of abortion, sadly witness.

What Humane Vitae requires to work, of course, is self-discipline, especially in the area of sex. But self-discipline is hardly the mantra of our age, and thus the steady refusal to follow this teaching by nearly everyone, including Catholics.

One might ask, “If the idea is nearly impossible or unworkable, might it suggest the need to revise the teaching?” Tell that to Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount is nothing but a series of impossible and unworkable ideas. Following Jesus is just hard. Really hard.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. His views expressed above are his personal convictions, not that of the magazine.

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On the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the words of this encyclical are just as important today as they were 50 years ago. As the president of a national pro-life student organization, we see the importance for a clear message about the sanctity of sex and procreation every day on high school and college campuses. Because of a broken sexual culture and a culture of death, most students can probably easily find a local Planned Parenthood, but can’t find a lactation room or affordable daycare near their own school.

This creates a perverse culture where the message is sent that a free sexual culture also means freedom of responsibility; after all, people will argue, if you didn’t want a baby you could always have an abortion. The contraceptive mentality that pervades college campuses is one where college administrators actively promote Sex Week, free birth control, and sometimes, even abortion on campus, and then turn around and wonder why their students feel devalued, or why their students struggle with feelings of depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

But, the Pro-Life Generation is fighting to change that and create a culture of life that respects human life and dignity and understands the importance of the family as the most effective way to build a morally and economically strong country that allows all to flourish, as well as one that promote healthy, positive relationships.

Kristan Hawkins is the President of Students for Life of America, the nation’s largest pro-life student organization.

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Fifty years later, it is clear that Humanae Vitae was not only prescient, but prophetic. At that time, many thought artificial contraception sounded like a reasonable and useful thing; Pope Paul VI’s opposition to it looked needlessly old-fashioned. But, fifty years later, the dramatic increase in abortion, divorce, broken families, and sexual disease can’t be denied or dismissed. At this point, we’re moving from tragedy to surrealism; having crashed through all the categories of comprehensible sexual inclinations, we are moving on to incomprehensible ones. A few months ago, a much-forwarded news story said that a Google employee, giving a talk at a company event, explained that he identifies (sexually) as “an expansive ornate building” and “a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin.”

It’s my guess that a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin would have trouble finding a date. It may find someone willing to pair his or her own colorful identity for an evening’s fun, but there’s something inherently solitary in cultivating such a rare, precise self-concept. The social experiment of recent decades confirms the human talent for racing ever-farther into realms of sexual fantasy; but that necessarily means racing into the imagination, into the mind, away from others, away from the world we share in common. The determination to be utterly free, to have obligations to no one, means that no one has any obligations to you. That’s how we end up with epidemic levels of loneliness.

Sex is the most literal way two people can connect with each other. It is one of the popular ways that humans try to relieve the desolation of loneliness. A brief encounter between a yellow dragon and—say, a green refrigerator—doesn’t solve that problem very long.

Perhaps, as an Orthodox Christian, I can best contribute to this discussion by quoting one of our favorite Eastern Christian preachers, St. John Chrysostom (349-407). He once reflected in a sermon on Jesus’ words, “the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8), and noted that it takes us back to the beginning, to the creation of the human race. “God’s ingenuity in the beginning divided one flesh into two…[the woman] was made from [the man’s] side, so they are two halves of one organism.” He went on to say that, when a child is conceived, it is beautiful evidence of a couple’s union; but even when there is no child, “their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.”

The yearning for sex is undeniably strong, but it’s just one aspect of a much deeper yearning—to be known, embraced, loved for a lifetime. For “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). That deeper reality is no doubt what Pope Paul VI was aiming to preserve. For when husband and wife are one, Chrysostom wrote, “they have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God himself.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a leading author and speaker on topics related to Eastern Orthodox belief and practice. She holds a degree in Theological Studies from Virginia Theological Seminary

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It’s become the norm for married couples the age of my wife and I to put off children for about half a decade. When these peers find out she and I are celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary with three kids, they often respond the way fans respond to Catholic comedian Jim Gaffigan on finding out he has five children: “Well, that’s one way to live your life.”

Millennial couples have traveling to do, dogs to pamper, degrees to finish. Children aren’t seen as natural fruits of marriage but as decisions that need to be justified. The default after you leave the altar is childlessness. If you have your first baby barely a year after the wedding, as my wife and I did, well, something must have gone wrong.

Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI issued one of the clearest reminders that fruitful young marriages mean something has gone right, not wrong. In his encyclical, Humanae Vitae he argued that Christians (who have spent centuries resisting ideology that would decouple sex from marriage), should also resist the new ideology symbolized by artificial contraception, which decouples sex and marriage from children.

I am Protestant, not Catholic. I also don’t entirely accept Paul VI’s conclusion that no means of family planning save fertility awareness are morally licit. But standing on the other side of the Sexual Revolution, it’s impossible to describe Humanae Vitae as anything but prophetic, particularly in how it links the rise of contraceptive sex to the objectification of human bodies, the rise of sexual licentiousness, and the assault on marriage, itself. What God has joined together, man has attempted to put asunder, and the consequences have been disastrous.

Christians who consider the moral stand of this half-century-old encyclical extreme should understand that it is modernity, not Humanae Vitae, advancing the extreme and unprecedented position. In asserting an “inseparable connection” between sex and children—a connection “established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break,” Paul VI was expressing the consensus of the Christian Church throughout the ages, both Catholic and Protestant. Luther, Calvin, and the other fathers of the Reformation unequivocally held the same position as the Roman Catholic Church on sex and procreation. It is we who have deviated in seeing children not as gifts and natural fruits of marital love to be welcomed, but as consumer choices that play second fiddle to travel, pets, and career. We are the radicals.

G. Shane Morris is a Senior Writer for The Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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The poet, novelist, and literary critic Marion Montgomery said the prophet is one who calls us to “known but forgotten things.” Montgomery also advised his students: “It’s possible great books are being written today, but we won’t know which ones they are for another 50 years.”

Of course, Humanae Vitae was no ordinary document even when it was new. It called us to “known but forgotten” truths about God, His creation, and us humans – the pinnacle of His creation, made in His image, called to multiply and have dominion.

That the document led to a resurgence of biblical theology in the Catholic Church is well documented. But it also articulated for many evangelical Christians the deeply biblical, indivisible connection between marriage, sex, and procreation. We Protestants should be grateful for Humanae Vitae. It is a gift not just to Catholics, but to the world.

The future belongs to the fruitful. In the long run, no civilization can survive if it severs the bonds between marriage, sex, and procreation. Said another way, Humanae Vitae is a blueprint for healthy people, healthy families, and healthy civilizations. Those civilizations not built around the truths in Humanae Vitae, or that forget those ideas, ultimately and inevitably die and are replaced by those that do.

Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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Humanae Vitae is as powerful and prophetic as it is misunderstood and ignored. It is not merely a document about contraception, but an uncompromising and unapologetically Christian view of male and female, conjugal love, and the wonder of marital sexuality. It prophesied with profound accuracey the devastating carnage of the sexual revolution. It calls us to remember there is an objective and divine moral law related to our procreative possibilities and the ends of marriage itself. Who doesn’t recognize this as a major center of the culture war?

Let me highlight just one predictive aspect of the document: the reduction of feminine dignity. Pope Paul VI, the encyclical’s author, said when man forgets “the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce[s] 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.”

Precisely ten years later, a feminist sociologist coined the phrase “the feminization of poverty” lamenting that “poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem,” and for all the gains women had made in society, “the economic status of women has declined.” A Nobel Prize-winning economist, Georg Akerlof, gives a research-based reason for this: while the pill and legal abortion placed fertility control in the hands of the woman for the first time, it also contributed to a dramatic decline in shot-gun marriages where were simply men stepping up, taking responsibility for their actions and “doing right by the woman.” When women gained “control” of their fertility through the pill and the back-up of abortion, the man had an excuse to walk away from his responsibility and he did, by the millions. Thus, single motherhood became a national crisis and created the feminization of poverty. Pope Paul VI warned of this on the front end before sociologists lamented it on the back end.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of many books on gender, marriage and sexuality.

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While you can disagree with Paul VI’s rejection of contraception, it’s difficult to argue with his prediction of where the contraceptive mentality would lead us.

The encyclical was prompted by a convergence of worldviews: The historical Christian view of marriage and childbirth, and the one emerging from the intersection of medical technology and the sexual revolution, which divorced sex from marriage and procreation. Which of these principles yields to the other? In 1968, the expectation in many circles, inside and outside of the Catholic Church, was that the ancient view would yield to the modern. Instead Pope Paul VI surprised many people when he affirmed nearly two millennia of Christian teaching on the subject.

Note that I said “Christian,” not “Catholic.” For 1900 years, all Christians — Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox — condemned artificial birth control. Martin Luther called contraception a manifestation of the wickedness of fallen human nature. In his Commentary on Genesis, John Calvin wrote that “When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime.” Then, at its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion opened the door to artificial contraception. It tried to hedge its bets by condemning it when “for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” but that was meaningless. No one would ever cop to these kinds of motives. By 1968, the contraceptive mentality had taken hold in our culture.

John Stonestreet is the President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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Reading Humanae Vitae as a Protestant, there is much with which one can agree. The emphasis on natural law, the conscious location of sexual ethics within the broader understanding of marriage, and the requirement that conjugal love be understood as no mere passing sentiment but rather as assuming exclusive, lifelong fidelity and obligation are all points to which Protestants should respond “Amen!” Further, the encyclical’s prognostic elements, pointing to the sexual chaos which was to come, and to the connection between birth control and increasingly expansive views of the moral authority of the secular state over against that of families, seem now indisputable. In a post Obergefell world, it is a truism that the sexual revolution and the secular revolution are symbiotic in a manner which Humane Vitae clearly anticipated.

Nevertheless, a number of critical reflections are in order. Whether contraception necessarily leads to the objectification of women is disputable. There have always been men of the ‘love them and leave them variety’ — lack of contraception was not really a hindrance to male sexual activity. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it was one necessary precondition for facilitating the notion of sex as recreation for both genders. Also, it was not foreseeable in 1968 that pornography would be as widely available as it now is in society. Porn arguably plays the key role in contemporary degraded views of sex. And the rise of no-fault divorce is surely far more corrosive of the notion of love and marriage as being merely sentimental in essence than contraception.

In short, Humanae Vitae is remarkable in being both profoundly prophetic regarding what was to come and (in retrospect at least) rather simplistic about why.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Humanities and Letters at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

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The contraceptive mindset is the air that Christians breathe in the West, and for this, we should grieve. Why? Because, even as Protestants, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae crystal ball proved prescient: Abortion, divorce, moral decadence, and the objectification of women are norms wrought by redefining the purpose and goods of marital intimacy. This means the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae ought to cause Protestant Christians to pause and reflect more critically on the ethics and consequences of contraception when mainstreamed in society.

Pause and reflection are initial steps in evaluating something that some Protestant Christians may never have thought needed further reflection in the first place, and that’s a part of the central problem. Protestant Christians are largely unaware that church history presents an unambiguous witness against contraception, and the fact of such consensus ought to concern Christians who understand the value of moral tradition and wisdom.

Protestant Christians see the Bible’s witness on this subject through various interpretive and ethical frameworks. Regardless of how one may understand the relationship between biblical hermeneutics and natural law, the use of contraception should include discernment, wisdom, caution, self-evaluation of one’s motives, and investigation into the Bible’s pattern for ordering one’s marriage and family. As Christian influence first arose, its moral witness contradicted the surrounding pagan culture. The fiftieth anniversary of this controversial encyclical provides an opportunity to retrieve the tradition that sees Christian ethics contradict the spirit of the age.

Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., Director of Policy Studies, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

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