Statement on the twentieth anniversary of
PRO-LIFE COMMITTEE OF U.S. BISHOPS
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
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
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
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
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
We conclude this pastoral statement by making our own the words of Pope John.
"…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