Humanae Vitae at 50: What can we learn from it?

Bl. Paul VI. Photo: Vatican News

Bl. Paul VI promulgated his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (The transmission of human life) 50 years ago on July 25, 1968.

Christopher Klofft. Photo: Assumption College,

To understand the document, its impact, and how it remains applicable today, Catholic Digest spoke with Christopher Klofft, an associate professor of theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Klofft’s areas of specialization include sexual ethics, marriage and family, gender, Catholicism and modernity, and the intersection of Christianity and popular culture. He has lectured across the country on a variety of topics.

Q: What is Humanae Vitae, what is it about, and why is it relevant to the contemporary Catholic world?

A: Humanae Vitae is an encyclical written by Bl. Paul VI that was promulgated on July 25, 1968. It was written as a response to both cultural conversations prevalent at the time as well as an ongoing conversation that had begun in the Catholic Church during Vatican II. The subject was ostensibly about the role of contraception in marriage, but the final product speaks more to the meaning of marriage and the distinctiveness of marital love. It’s a short document but it contains a lot.

The encyclical remains relevant in the contemporary Catholic world ironically because it was so seriously vilified and/or ignored upon its promulgation. Paul VI clearly articulated why the use of contraception was bad for marriage and therefore bad for human culture, but many people (both in and outside the Church) had their mind made up before the document ever saw the light of day.

As of a result of it being ignored, the prophetic utterances of paragraph 17 more vividly came to pass: an increase in divorce and marital infidelity, a general lessening of moral standards, especially among the young; a loss of respect for woman as women, and the possibility that states could intervene in the family life of married couples. The message of Humanae Vitae hasn’t found new circumstances for its application 50 years later; rather, it was never applied in the first place, and we’re seeing the results of it in our culture.

Q: Why was Humanae Vitae so divisive among Catholics at the time of its publication?

A: It’s still divisive now! It’s never not been divisive! At the time of its publication, however, the controversy came about because of misguided expectations. The rest of the Christian world had moved away from a teaching that had been consistently held by all Christians for almost 2,000 years. The sexual revolution fired its first shots in the 1950s and was in full swing in the 1960s. There were some Catholic thinkers who were publicly advocating for a change. All these factors contributed to the reaction to the encyclical.

The biggest contributor to the Catholic reaction, however, was probably due to the commission started by St. John XXIII and expanded by Bl. Paul VI to investigate the Church’s consistent teaching on the issue of contraception.

After years of work, the commission compiled two reports: a majority report and a minority report. The majority view suggested a change to permit married couples to use contraception for serious reasons. This report found its way to the news media before Paul VI had even promulgated Humanae Vitae. As a result, there were expectations in place. Those expectations did not come to pass and the sudden and vocal result was division.

Q: What are the typical arguments against Humanae Vitae? Where do these arguments come from?

A: I would divide the typical arguments against the encyclical into two categories.

The first category would include philosophical and/or theological arguments against the document’s methodology. It is not unfair to say that, while the conclusions about married love and the marital act are truthful and consistent with the tradition of the Church since the beginning, the actual argumentation present in the brevity of Humanae Vitae is not as strongly developed as it could be. It relies on natural law argumentation; there’s nothing wrong with that.

Some critics, however, have accused the document of using a very simplistic account of natural law. Even granting this criticism, the writing of many, many people since 1968, most especially St. John Paul II, have taken the core argument of the encyclical and grounded it in a richer theological anthropology.

The second category — certainly the much larger category — are practical arguments against the teaching. For most people, the virtue of chastity is hard and self-mastery is seen as too much work compared to the convenience of contraception.

This is compounded by the erroneous perspective that hormonal contraception in particular is “medicine” used for “reproductive health.” Many argue that “shouldn’t we use the best medical technology available to make our lives easier?” Except that contraception is not medical technology: It doesn’t actually heal or repair anything.

Q: Do you believe that Paul VI’s predictions as to the fate of a contraceptive society (the degradation of women, breakdown of morality, government involvement, and so on) have been vindicated, or were his predictions hyperbolic?

A: Let me address the last part of the question first: In no way could his predictions be seen as hyperbolic. The predictions were contained in just a few short sentences of paragraph 17 without excessive detail. They simply stated the likely social results of the adoption of what would later be called a “contraceptive mentality” (that phrase is not found in the encyclical).

As for whether or not the predictions have been vindicated, I think it’s hard to argue against the idea that everything Paul VI said has come to pass. Since 1968, it is demonstrable that both divorce and adultery occur at higher rates. People are deaf to the notion of objective moral truth — this is especially evident among young people, many who lack the tools to engage in serious moral reasoning.

All of the revelations from Hollywood and Washington in the past couple of years clearly demonstrate a profound lack of respect for women. And since 1968, we have seen the adoption of, for example, China’s one-child policy (now two, and soon to be hopefully eliminated altogether) and in the United States, the HHS mandate that attempted to force employers to pay for contraception even against their consciences.

Critics of the document are quick to point out that correlation is not causation, and this is definitely true to a certain extent. I’m not placing responsibility for all of these social changes solely on a contraceptive mentality. But to deny that the separation of the sexual act from the procreative possibility has had a profound effect on the way we understand sex and relationships is naïve.

Q: How should the contemporary Catholic respond to criticism of Humanae Vitae? What should be the role of the document in the modern Catholic world?

A: I think the first and best thing every Catholic can do is actually read the encyclical. It is not long and it is not written in difficult theological language. So much criticism has been offered without knowledge or understanding of what Paul VI actually wrote.

Beyond that, the best response to criticism is the demonstration of the truth of the document by the lived experience of Catholics everywhere. This is obviously most important for married couples, who can experience the joy of authentic married love and share the benefits of it in their families, their parishes, and their communities. But everyone else — priests, religious, single people, and widows — can support the teaching of the document by standing up for marriage itself.

The Catholic Church in the 21st century finds itself to be, as it always has been, a sign of contradiction to the world. The way in which it serves thus, however, differs from age to age. Now is the time of greater confusion about the meaning and purpose of marriage and intimate human relationships. Humanae Vitae can’t be the last word of the Church’s response to these confusions, but it is a critical starting point for grounding our approach.

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