Humanae Vitae 45 Years Later: Is it Still Relevant?

Part 1: The Setting

by Bob & Gerri Laird

This week marks national NFP Awareness Week as well as the 45th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Part 1 of this series looks at the culture and context in which this famous document was introduced.

What is Humanae Vitae (HV)?

Humanae Vitae is the encyclical letter by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on the regulation of birth. It was issued on July 25, 1968.

What is the context in which Humanae Vitae (HV) was written?

The sexual revolution was well underway within society, and the Second Vatican Council was in session (1962-1965). The mood within the Church was similar to the mood within the culture – everything was changing. In addition to concerns about the growing world population and available resources, living and working conditions, economic needs, and the education of children, the role of women in society was changing along with the value of conjugal love in marriage.[1]

In addition, the contraceptive Pill was developed and marketed in the early 1960s, and was promoted as a means to liberate women from the inconvenience of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth. Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) appointed a commission of bishops and experts to study the question of contraception with regard to the new Pill. Pope Paul VI expanded the commission, resulting in a majority report (favoring birth control) and a minority report (upholding Church teachings). With that incentive, Paul VI issued the encyclical “On Human Life.” The Latin name, Humanae Vitae, is taken from the first words of the document, “The most serious duty of transmitting human life, for which married persons are the free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator, has always been a source of great joys to them, even if sometimes accompanied by not a few difficulties and by distress.”[2]

Why did HV cause rebellion both within the culture and within the Catholic Church?

“Protest and the climate of change, combined with great expectation that the Church would change its teaching on the question of contraception, created a culture within the Church similar to that in the wider culture. When the encyclical was issued, it might well be compared to a man standing on a train track trying to stop a roaring locomotive at more than a hundred miles an hour. In a certain sense, Paul VI’s teaching, while prophetic and absolutely consistent with the Gospel, had almost no hope of a legitimate hearing.”[3]

Humanae Vitae addressed the issue of birth control on the basis of consistent authoritative Catholic teachings and Natural Law. Natural Law is “present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and [with an] authority [that] extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties.”[4] This approach was objective, principled, and deductive; but the society was (and is) subjective, experiential, and inductive.

Thus, rather than turning to God to determine what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate as human persons made in His image and likeness, individuals follow their own inclinations and/or those of others. As a result, sexual behaviors that were once considered immoral are now accepted as natural and permissible.

To illustrate this, consider the United States Supreme Court 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Thus, society no longer considers life situations deductively and objectively by applying principled knowledge of right and wrong to determine what thoughts, words, and/or actions would be appropriate in any given situation. Instead, the culture is inductive – polls and votes decide personal beliefs and practices; subjective– reality is based on each individual’s perceptions and not on objective truth; and experiential – there are no set moral principles that apply to everyone. Individuals are now their own arbiters determining what is, and is not, acceptable human behavior.

Within the Church, priests, theologians, and even bishops rejected the encyclical; and outside the Church the document was considered to be “rather quaint and hopelessly outdated.”[5]

*    *    *

In Part 2: Pope Paul VI foretold that contraception is a dangerous weapon that can ultimately be imposed on women by governments. The Obama Administration has done just that by mandating free contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as part of preventative health care for women.

—      Bob and Gerri Laird have been a certified NFP teaching couple for the Couple to Couple League since 1984, and have written and spoken extensively on numerous topics related to family life, such as marital intimacy, natural family planning, parenting, chastity, post-abortion healing, reframing the abortion debate, and the HHS Mandate. 


[1]Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (HV) [On Human Life], #2.

[2]HV #1.

[3]Rev. Richard M. Hogan, “Theology of the Body as It Relates to Sexuality,” The Art of Natural Family Planning Student Guide®, Second Edition, 2007, 2011. The Couple to Couple League International, Inc., 55.

[4]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 (United States Catholic Conference, Inc.-Libreria Editrice Vaticana), no. 1956, 475.

[5]Hogan, The Art of Natural Family Planning Student Guide®, Second Edition, 55.