ON HUMAN LIFE
A pastoral letter to the people of God of northern Colorado
on the truth and meaning of married love
By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
I. The World Since 1968
II. What Humanae Vitae Really Says
III. What We Need to Do
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
1. Thirty years ago this week, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter
Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which reaffirmed the Church’s constant
teaching on the regulation of births. It is certainly the most misunderstood
papal intervention of this century. It was the spark which led to three decades
of doubt and dissent among many Catholics, especially in the developed
countries. With the passage of time, however, it has also proven prophetic. It
teaches the truth. My purpose in this pastoral letter, therefore, is simple. I
believe the message of Humanae Vitae is not a burden but a joy. I believe this
encyclical offers a key to deeper, richer marriages. And so what I seek from the
family of our local Church is not just a respectful nod toward a document which
critics dismiss as irrelevant, but an active and sustained effort to study
Humanae Vitae; to teach it faithfully in our parishes; and to encourage our
married couples to live it.
I. THE WORLD SINCE 1968
2. Sooner or later, every pastor counsels someone struggling with an
addiction. Usually the problem is alcohol or drugs. And usually the scenario is
the same. The addict will acknowledge the problem but claim to be powerless
against it. Or, alternately, the addict will deny having any problem at all,
even if the addiction is destroying his or her health and wrecking job and
family. No matter how much sense the pastor makes; no matter how true and
persuasive his arguments; and no matter how life-threatening the situation, the
addict simply cannot understand—or cannot act on—the counsel. The addiction,
like a thick pane of glass, divides the addict from anything or anyone that
3. One way to understand the history of Humanae Vitae is to examine the past
three decades through this metaphor of addiction. I believe the developed world
finds this encyclical so hard to accept not because of any defect in Paul VI’s
reasoning, but because of the addictions and contradictions it has inflicted
upon itself, exactly as the Holy Father warned.
4. In presenting his encyclical, Paul VI cautioned against four main problems
(HV 17) that would arise if Church teaching on the regulation of births was
ignored. First, he warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to
"conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." Exactly this has
happened. Few would deny that the rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown,
wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out of wedlock births have all
massively increased since the mid-1960s.
Obviously, the birth control pill has not been the only factor in this
unraveling. But it has played a major role. In fact, the cultural revolution
since 1968, driven at least in part by transformed attitudes toward sex, would
not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable
contraception. In this, Paul VI was right.
5. Second, he also warned that man would lose respect for woman and "no
longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium," to the point that
he would consider her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer
as his respected and beloved companion." In other words, according to the Pope,
contraception might be marketed as liberating for women, but the real
"beneficiaries" of birth control pills and devices would be men. Three decades
later, exactly as Paul VI suggested, contraception has released males—to a
historically unprecedented degree -- from responsibility for their sexual
aggression. In the process, one of the stranger ironies of the contraception
debate of the past generation has been this: Many feminists have attacked the
Catholic Church for her alleged disregard of women, but the Church in Humanae
Vitae identified and rejected sexual exploitation of women years before that
message entered the cultural mainstream. Again, Paul VI was right.
6. Third, the Holy Father also warned that widespread use of contraception
would place a "dangerous weapon . . . in the hands of those public authorities
who take no heed of moral exigencies." As we have since discovered, eugenics
didn’t disappear with Nazi racial theories in 1945.
Population control policies are now an accepted part of nearly every foreign
aid discussion. The massive export of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization
by the developed world to developing countries—frequently as a prerequisite for
aid dollars and often in direct contradiction to local moral traditions—is a
thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering. Again,
Paul VI was right.
7. Fourth, Pope Paul warned that contraception would mislead human beings
into thinking they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies, relentlessly
turning the human person into the object of his or her own intrusive power.
Herein lies another irony: In fleeing into the false freedom provided by
contraception and abortion, an exaggerated feminism has actively colluded in
women’s dehumanization. A man and a woman participate uniquely in the glory of
God by their ability to co-create new life with Him. At the heart of
contraception, however, is the assumption that fertility is an infection which
must be attacked and controlled, exactly as antibiotics attack bacteria. In this
attitude, one can also see the organic link between contraception and abortion.
If fertility can be misrepresented as an infection to be attacked, so too can
new life. In either case, a defining element of woman’s identity-- her potential
for bearing new life—is recast as a weakness requiring vigilant distrust and
"treatment." Woman becomes the object of the tools she relies on to ensure her
own liberation and defense, while man takes no share of the burden. Once again,
Paul VI was right.
8. From the Holy Father’s final point, much more has flowed: In vitro
fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation and embryo experimentation are all
descendants of contraceptive technology. In fact, we have drastically and
naively underestimated the effects of technology not only on external society,
but on our own interior human identity. As author Neil Postman has observed,
technological change is not additive but ecological. A significant new
technology does not "add" something to a society; it changes everything—just as
a drop of red dye does not remain discrete in a glass of water, but colors and
changes every single molecule of the liquid.
Contraceptive technology, precisely because of its impact on sexual intimacy,
has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility and
marriage itself. It has detached them from the natural, organic identity of the
human person and disrupted the ecology of human relationships. It has scrambled
our vocabulary of love, just as pride scrambled the vocabulary of Babel.
9. Now we deal daily with the consequences. I am writing these thoughts
during a July week when, within days of each other, news media have informed us
that nearly 14 percent of Coloradans are or have been involved in drug or
alcohol dependency; a governor’s commission has praised marriage while
simultaneously recommending steps that would subvert it in Colorado by extending
parallel rights and responsibilities to persons in "committed relationships,"
including same-sex relationships; and a young east coast couple have been
sentenced for brutally slaying their newborn baby.
According to news reports, one or both of the young unmarried parents "bashed
in [the baby’s] skull while he was still alive, and then left his battered body
in a Dumpster to die." These are the headlines of a culture in serious distress.
U.S. society is wracked with sexual identity and behavior dysfunctions, family
collapse and a general coarsening of attitudes toward the sanctity of human
life. It’s obvious to everyone but an addict: We have a problem.
It’s killing us as a people. So what are we going to do about it? What I want
to suggest is that if Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences
deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception
itself. In seeking to become whole again as persons and as a people of faith, we
need to begin by revisiting Humanae Vitae with open hearts. Jesus said the truth
would make us free. Humanae Vitae is filled with truth. It is therefore a key to
II. WHAT HUMANAE VITAE REALLY SAYS
10. Perhaps one of the flaws in communicating the message of Humanae Vitae
over the last 30 years has been the language used in teaching it. The duties and
responsibilities of married life are numerous. They’re also serious. They need
to be considered carefully, and prayerfully, in advance. But few couples
understand their love in terms of academic theology. Rather, they fall in love.
That’s the vocabulary they use.
It’s that simple and revealing. They surrender to each other. They give
themselves to each other. They fall into each other in order to fully possess,
and be possessed by, each other. And rightly so. In married love, God intends
that spouses should find joy and delight, hope and abundant life, in and through
each other—all ordered in a way which draws husband and wife, their children,
and all who know them, deeper into God’s embrace.
11. As a result, in presenting the nature of Christian marriage to a new
generation, we need to articulate its fulfilling satisfactions at least as well
as its duties. The Catholic attitude toward sexuality is anything but
puritanical, repressive or anti-carnal. God created the world and fashioned the
human person in His own image. Therefore the body is good.
In fact, it’s often been a source of great humor for me to listen incognito
as people simultaneously complain about the alleged "bottled-up sexuality" of
Catholic moral doctrine, and the size of many good Catholic families. (From
where, one might ask, do they think the babies come?)
Catholic marriage—exactly like Jesus Himself—is not about scarcity but
abundance. It’s not about sterility, but rather the fruitfulness which flows
from unitive, procreative love. Catholic married love always implies the
possibility of new life; and because it does, it drives out loneliness and
affirms the future. And because it affirms the future, it becomes a furnace of
hope in a world prone to despair. In effect, Catholic marriage is attractive
because it is true. It’s designed for the creatures we are: persons meant for
communion. Spouses complete each other. When God joins a woman and man together
in marriage, they create with Him a new wholeness; a "belonging" which is so
real, so concrete, that a new life, a child, is its natural expression and seal.
This is what the Church means when she teaches that Catholic married love is by
its nature both unitive and procreative—not either/or.
12. But why can’t a married couple simply choose the unitive aspect of
marriage and temporarily block or even permanently prevent its procreative
nature? The answer is as simple and radical as the Gospel itself. When spouses
give themselves honestly and entirely to each other, as the nature of married
love implies and even demands, that must include their whole selves—and the most
intimate, powerful part of each person is his or her fertility. Contraception
not only denies this fertility and attacks procreation; in doing so, it
necessarily damages unity as well. It is the equivalent of spouses saying: "I’ll
give you all I am—except my fertility; I’ll accept all you are—except your
fertility." This withholding of self inevitably works to isolate and divide the
spouses, and unravel the holy friendship between them . . . maybe not
immediately and overtly, but deeply, and in the long run often fatally for the
13. This is why the Church is not against "artificial" contraception. She is
against all contraception. The notion of "artificial" has nothing to do with the
issue. In fact, it tends to confuse discussion by implying that the debate is
about a mechanical intrusion into the body’s organic system.
It is not. The Church has no problem with science appropriately intervening
to heal or enhance bodily health. Rather, the Church teaches that all
contraception is morally wrong; and not only wrong, but seriously wrong. The
covenant which husband and wife enter at marriage requires that all intercourse
remain open to the transmission of new life. This is what becoming "one flesh"
implies: complete self-giving, without reservation or exception, just as Christ
withheld nothing of Himself from His bride, the Church, by dying for her on the
cross. Any intentional interference with the procreative nature of intercourse
necessarily involves spouses’ withholding themselves from each other and from
God, who is their partner in sacramental love. In effect, they steal something
infinitely precious -- themselves—from each other and from their Creator.
14. And this is why natural family planning (NFP) differs not merely in style
but in moral substance from contraception as a means of regulating family size.
NFP is not contraception. Rather, it is a method of fertility awareness and
appreciation. It is an entirely different approach to regulating birth. NFP does
nothing to attack fertility, withhold the gift of oneself from one’s spouse, or
block the procreative nature of intercourse. The marriage covenant requires that
each act of intercourse be fully an act of self-giving, and therefore open to
the possibility of new life. But when, for good reasons, a husband and wife
limit their intercourse to the wife’s natural periods of infertility during a
month, they are simply observing a cycle which God Himself created in the woman.
They are not subverting it. And so they are living within the law of God’s
15. There are, of course, many wonderful benefits to the practice of NFP.
The wife preserves herself from intrusive chemicals or devices and remains
true to her natural cycle. The husband shares in the planning and responsibility
for NFP. Both learn a greater degree of self-mastery and a deeper respect for
each other. It’s true that NFP involves sacrifices and periodic abstinence from
intercourse. It can, at times, be a difficult road. But so can any serious
Christian life, whether ordained, consecrated, single or married. Moreover, the
experience of tens of thousands of couples has shown that, when lived
prayerfully and unselfishly, NFP deepens and enriches marriage and results in
greater intimacy—and greater joy. In the Old Testament, God told our first
parents to be fruitful and multiply (Gn 1:28). He told us to choose life (Dt
30:19). He sent His son, Jesus, to bring us life abundantly (Jn 10:10) and to
remind us that His yoke is light (Mt 11:30). I suspect, therefore, that at the
heart of Catholic ambivalence toward Humanae Vitae is not a crisis of sexuality,
Church authority or moral relevance, but rather a question of faith: Do we
really believe in God’s goodness? The Church speaks for her Bridegroom, Jesus
Christ, and believers naturally, eagerly listen. She shows married couples the
path to enduring love and a culture of life. Thirty years of history record the
consequences of choosing otherwise.
III. WHAT WE NEED TO DO
16. I want to express my gratitude to the many couples who already live the
message of Humanae Vitae in their married lives. Their fidelity to the truth
sanctifies their own families and our entire community of faith. I thank in a
special way those couples who teach NFP and counsel others in responsible
parenthood inspired by Church teaching. Their work too often goes unnoticed or
underappreciated—but they are powerful advocates for life in an age of
confusion. I also want to offer my prayers and encouragement to those couples
who bear the cross of infertility. In a society often bent on avoiding children,
they carry the burden of yearning for children but having none. No prayers go
unanswered, and all suffering given over to the Lord bears fruit in some form of
new life. I encourage them to consider adoption, and I appeal to them to
remember that a good end can never justify a wrong means. Whether to prevent a
pregnancy or achieve one, all techniques which separate the unitive and
procreative dimensions of marriage are always wrong. Procreative techniques
which turn embryos into objects and mechanically substitute for the loving
embrace of husband and wife violate human dignity and treat life as a product.
No matter how positive their intentions, these techniques advance the dangerous
tendency to reduce human life to material which can be manipulated.
17. It’s never too late to turn our hearts back toward God. We are not
powerless. We can make a difference by witnessing the truth about married love
and fidelity to the culture around us. In December last year, in a pastoral
letter entitled Good News of Great Joy, I spoke of the important vocation every
Catholic has as an evangelizer. We are all missionaries.
America in the 1990s, with its culture of disordered sexuality, broken
marriages and fragmented families, urgently needs the Gospel. As Pope John Paul
II writes in his apostolic exhortation On the Family (Familiaris Consortio),
married couples and families have a critical role in witnessing Jesus Christ to
each other and to the surrounding culture (49, 50).
18. In that light, I ask married couples of the archdiocese to read, discuss
and pray over Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio and other documents of the
Church which outline Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. Many married
couples, unaware of the valuable wisdom found in these materials, have deprived
themselves of a beautiful source of support for their mutual love. I especially
encourage couples to examine their own consciences regarding contraception, and
I ask them to remember that "conscience" is much more than a matter of personal
preference. It requires us to search out and understand Church teaching, and to
honestly strive to conform our hearts to it. I urge them to seek sacramental
Reconciliation for the times they may have fallen into contraception.
Disordered sexuality is the dominant addiction of American society in these
closing years of the century. It directly or indirectly impacts us all.
As a result, for many, this teaching may be a hard message to accept. But do
not lose heart. Each of us is a sinner. Each of us is loved by God.
No matter how often we fail, God will deliver us if we repent and ask for the
grace to do His will.
19. I ask my brother priests to examine their own pastoral practices, to
ensure that they faithfully and persuasively present the Church’s teaching on
these issues in all their parish work. Our people deserve the truth about human
sexuality and the dignity of marriage. To accomplish this, I ask pastors to read
and implement the Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the
Morality of Conjugal Life, and to study the Church’s teaching on marriage and
family planning. I urge them to appoint parish coordinators to facilitate the
presentation of Catholic teaching on married love and family planning—especially
NFP. Contraception is a grave matter. Married couples need the good counsel of
the Church to make right decisions. Most married Catholics welcome the guidance
of their priests, and priests should never feel intimidated by their personal
commitment to celibacy, or embarrassed by the teaching of the Church. To be
embarrassed by Church teaching is to be embarrassed by Christ’s teaching. The
pastoral experience and counsel of a priest are valuable on issues like
contraception precisely because he brings new perspective to a couple and speaks
for the whole Church.
Moreover, the fidelity a priest shows to his own vocation strengthens married
people to live their vocation more faithfully.
20. As archbishop, I commit myself and my offices to supporting my brother
priests, deacons and their lay collaborators in presenting the whole of the
Church’s teaching on married love and family planning. I owe both the clergy of
our local Church and their staffs—especially the many dedicated parish
catechists—much gratitude for the good work they have already accomplished in
this area. It is my intention to ensure that courses on married love and family
planning are available on a regular basis to more and more people of the
archdiocese, and that our priests and deacons receive more extensive education
in the theological and pastoral aspects of these issues. I direct, in a
particular way, our Offices of Evangelization and Catechetics; Marriage and
Family Life; Catholic Schools; Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries; and the
Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to develop concrete ways to better
present Church teaching on married love to our people, and to require adequate
instruction in NFP as part of all marriage preparation programs in the
21. Two final points. First, the issue of contraception is not peripheral,
but central and serious in a Catholic’s walk with God. If knowingly and freely
engaged in, contraception is a grave sin, because it distorts the essence of
marriage: the self-giving love which, by its very nature, is life-giving. It
breaks apart what God created to be whole: the person-uniting meaning of sex
(love) and the life-giving meaning of sex (procreation). Quite apart from its
cost to individual marriages, contraception has also inflicted massive damage on
society at large: initially by driving a wedge between love and the procreation
of children; and then between sex (i.e., recreational sex without permanent
commitment) and love. Nonetheless—and this is my second point—teaching the truth
should always be done with patience and compassion, as well as firmness.
American society seems to swing peculiarly between puritanism and license.
The two generations—my own and my teachers’—which once led the dissent from
Paul VI’s encyclical in this country, are generations still reacting against the
American Catholic rigorism of the 1950s.
That rigorism, much of it a product of culture and not doctrine, has long
since been demolished. But the habit of skepticism remains. In reaching these
people, our task is to turn their distrust to where it belongs: toward the lies
the world tells about the meaning of human sexuality, and the pathologies those
22. In closing, we face an opportunity which comes only once in many decades.
Thirty years ago this week, Paul VI told the truth about married love. In doing
it, he triggered a struggle within the Church which continues to mark American
Catholic life even today. Selective dissent from Humanae Vitae soon fueled broad
dissent from Church authority and attacks on the credibility of the Church
herself. The irony is that the people who dismissed Church teaching in the 1960s
soon discovered that they had subverted their own ability to pass anything along
to their children. The result is that the Church now must evangelize a world of
their children’s children—adolescents and young adults raised in moral
confusion, often unaware of their own moral heritage, who hunger for meaning,
community, and love with real substance. For all its challenges, this a is
tremendous new moment of possibility for the Church, and the good news is that
the Church today, as in every age, has the answers to fill the God-shaped empty
places in their hearts. My prayer is therefore simple:
May the Lord grant us the wisdom to recognize the great treasure which
resides in our teaching about married love and human sexuality, the faith, joy
and perseverance to live it in our own families -- and the courage which Paul VI
possessed to preach it anew.
+ Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
July 22, 1998
Statements of other Bishops on Human Life