Letters & Op-Eds 2008
The Times (UK)

Love, life and the failure of Humanae Vitae

Background briefing:


In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, a teaching document for Catholics subtitled “on the regulation of birth”. This re-affirmed the traditional ban of the Roman Catholic Church on the use of artificial contraception within marriage. It caused shock waves in the Catholic world and beyond. Calls for the Church to re-examine its stance on birth control with the arrival of the pill in the ealry 1960s had led a previous Pope to set up a 72-member commission to re-evaluate the Church’s ban on artificial contraceptives. Early reports from the commission suggested the ban would be liberalised and that the use of contraceptives by married couples was not “intriniscally” evil. Public outcry was therefore widespread when the document was eventually published and the ban re-affirmed.. Forty years later, Faith Online re-examines the issue for the modern Catholic.


Like many Catholics who disagree with the Vatican’s decision to ban modern contraception, I reflect on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae with sadness, but also with hope. I believe Catholics should have the freedom to decide on when, whether and how they will form families, based on conversations with their partner and using the gifts of their own conscience. I hope that one day, couples will have the support of their bishops as they decide how to plan their families, thoughtfully and in good conscience.


I do not consider these issues lightly. I have spent many years working on and thinking about these and related issues—as a student of theology and canon law, an advisor to the US bishops’ conference, vice president of Catholics for Choice, and a married Catholic. Like many Catholics, I base my thoughts on theology, doctrine and my conscience. I have not ignored my church’s teaching on contraception, but I do not agree with it.


Most Catholics use modern contraceptives and believe it is a moral choice. They are good Catholics and many wish the Catholic hierarchy would respect their decisions, taken in good conscience, about what is best for themselves, their relationships, families and children.


While it is clear that Humanae Vitae has been unsuccessful in convincing many Catholics to abandon modern methods of contraception, those of us who have access to healthcare, education, finances and support systems are not my greatest concern. We have the means to follow the dictates of our conscience. It would be disingenuous to think that everyone has these same benefits. Of greater concern to me are the women who are more persistently and detrimentally affected by the effects of Humanae Vitae.


The Catholic hierarchy actively lobbies around the world, in places like the Philippines, Nicaragua and Rwanda, from making family planning available. This is not just an internal church matter; it affects public health policy around the world. The ban has contributed to an unmet need for modern family planning methods around the world, in many areas leading to increased abortion and maternal death, and to avoidable difficulties for Catholic families. The hierarchy’s opposition to condom use has also resulted in risks to the health and life of discordant couples (where one partner is HIV-positive) if they choose to express their love through sexual activity.

As the Church teaches, “Human sexuality is an integrating part of the concrete capacity for love which God has inscribed in man and woman.” Marriage is about more than merely procreation. It is about the intimate bond between two people and about nurturing their marriage and their family—with or without children.

It is essential that our bishops listen to and learn from the laity, especially about issues so important within marriage—sexuality and reproduction. Catholics believe now—as they did 40 years ago—that the Vatican needs to end its opposition to contraception, including condoms, recognizing the reality of our lives and respecting the agency and responsibility granted to us by God in making decisions that are best for our families.


This article originally appeared in the Times on August 15, 2008.

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