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Statement on the twentieth anniversary of "Humanae Vitae "


The following statement was issued on 25 July 1988 by the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the U.S.A. to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Twenty years ago Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Church's teaching on conjugal love, responsible parenthood and the transmission of human life.

The encyclical reviewed the Church's teaching on marriage, family life and sexuality, advancing the Second Vatican Council's vision of conjugal love as human, total, faithful and exclusive, and ordered to the begetting and education of children. Humanae Vitae exalted marriage as a sacrament whose grace could transform the normal, day-to-day aspects of married life into opportunities to grow in holiness and become witnesses for Christ in the world. And it defended an inseparable link between the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexual intercourse within marriage, concluding that every such act "must remain open to the transmission of life" (Humanae Vitae, 11).

Humanae Vitae was issued at a time when there was wide concern and confusion about world population growth, when "the Pill" was a relatively new scientific discovery, and when people in many parts of the world were still reeling from the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. Pope Paul was aware of the climate within which he spoke. In fact, on the document's tenth anniversary, he recalled the suffering it entailed for his Pontificate not only because of the seriousness of the subject, "but also, perhaps more, because of a certain climate of expectation which had given rise, among Catholics and in the wider circle of public opinion, to the idea of presumed concessions... in the moral and matrimonial doctrine of the Church" (to the Sacred College of Cardinals, 25 June 1978).

Today's social climate is different again. Looking back over the past twenty years in our own country, we see a gradual decline in family size and an increase in divorce, both notably pronounced among Catholics, and an overwhelming assault on the sacredness of human life in judicial decisions and social policies regarding abortion. We find in our society a growing ambivalence in attitudes regarding children, and an increasing tendency to equate the bond of marriage with more cohabitation.

The twentieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae offers Catholics a special opportunity to reflect on the encyclical's teaching and on its defense of the dignity of Christian marriage and family life.

Pope Paul VI reminded us that decisions about the transmission of human life are not merely decisions about the most efficient way to pursue a particular goal. Such decisions must be considered in light of an integral understanding of the nature and dignity of the human person, and the eternal destiny to which each of us has been called by God.

Conjugal love, that special type of love that exists between married partners, is only fully appreciated when considered in terms of its origin in a God who is love, and in terms of that fundamental vocation of every human person "to love one another as God has loved us" (Jn 13:34). Marriage is much more than a universally accepted social institution. It is, in the words of Pope Paul VI, "the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind his design of love" (Humanae Vitae, 8).

Within this broad vision of marriage as a path to holiness, Humanae Vitae focused on responsible parenthood as part of the "mission" of husband and wife. This mission calls for an openness to life -- more precisely, an openness to childbearing and childrearing. It is grounded in the innate value and dignity of every child from conception on --a dignity that flows from God's creative love and providential care. Each child is a unique person who, from the first moment of existence, shares in God's own life and is called to an eternal destiny with him in heaven. To parent a child is to share in a special way in God's plan of creation and redemption. As Pope John Paul II notes:

"In its most profound reality, love is essentially a gift; and conjugal love, while leading the spouses to the reciprocal 'knowledge' which makes them 'one flesh', does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother" (Familiaris Consortio, 14).

Pope Paul VI also emphasized that in their efforts to make responsible decisions about the timing or limiting of births, married couples should do so in full awareness of "their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values" (Humanae Vitae, 10). Respect for the procreative dimension of human sexuality demands that one does not directly act to render procreation impossible, but allows married couples for serious reasons to reserve sexual union to the infertile periods of a woman's reproductive cycle.

Pope Paul recognized that some would find this teaching difficult indeed, that it is only realizable with God's help, coupled with the good will of each person. In this context he recalled the mercy of Jesus who had "compassion on the crowds", and urged married couples to make frequent recourse to prayer and to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. But he also recognized his responsibility to set before Catholics a clear statement of moral principle that could serve as a guide to the pursuit of Christian virtue and holiness. As Pope John Paul II has reminded us, "it is one and the same Church that is both teacher and mother" (Familiaris Consortio, 33) one and the same Church that promotes moral truth, and that offers care and support as well as compassion for those who find it arduous to understand and live up to that truth.

Today the Church continues in its efforts to help married couples by making them aware of the richness of the teaching of Humanae Vitae and by providing them with the proper information and motivation they need to strengthen their conjugal love. Natural family planning involves individual couples intimately in decisions that are at the center of their married life. The willingness of each partner in marriage to help the other, to develop sensitivity to the other's needs, and to make sacrifices that will strengthen their love helps solidify the marriage relationship. Efforts to live their sexuality in accord with the teaching of the Church brings to married couples' peace of mind and conscience. It also deepens their faith and affirms their reliance on God's providential care as they meet the other responsibilities of marriage and family life.

As bishops we reaffirm our commitment to encourage, establish and strengthen natural family planning programs so that they will be available to all married couples who desire them. Our own recent national survey on natural family planning provides assurance that efforts in this area have been fruitful. It indicates as well that the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood is important to faithful Catholic couples, and that when quality instruction is available, couples want to, and can, learn to practice natural family planning successfully.

Twenty years after the issuance of Humanae Vitae we see ever more clearly the prophetic wisdom of the Church's consistent teaching on marriage and responsible parenthood, and the courage of Pope Paul VI in reaffirming that teaching. We commit ourselves to a renewed effort to explain this teaching to our Catholic people and to encourage them to develop attitudes and values enabling them to live the Church's teaching in their marriage and family relationships.

We conclude this pastoral statement by making our own the words of Pope John. Paul II:

"…We are not able to make the obstacles to Christian living disappear, we are not in a position to lift all the burdens that weigh upon our Christian families; and much less are we authorized to attempt to remove the Cross from Christianity. But we are in a position to proclaim the great dignity of marriage, its identity as an image and symbol of God's everlasting and unbreakable covenant of love with his Church. We are able to love the family and in this pastoral love to offer it the only criterion for the real solution to the problems that it faces. This criterion is the word of God; the word of God in all its purity and power, in all its integrity and with all its demands -- the word of God as transmitted by the Church" (to Canadian bishops, 28 April 1983).

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

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