On Human Life

Humanae Vitae

On Human Life, also known by the Latin name Humanae Vitae, made headlines worldwide. Everybody talked about the document when it was issued in 1968 but few people actually read. It is perhaps the most controversial document in modern Church history. Why?

The advent of the birth control pill left many moralists wondering: could its use be reconciled with the two-thousand-year-old Christian teaching against contraception? After years of study and despite widespread expectations otherwise, the Catholic Church rejected the pill, as it had other forms of contraception, as contrary to God's purpose and therefore as harmful to genuine human good.

On Human Life: Humanae Vitae is Pope Paul VI's explanation of why the Catholic Church rejects contraception. Paul VI referred to two aspects or "meanings" of human sexuality-the unitive and procreative aspects. Neither the person-uniting aspect (the unitive meaning) nor the person-begetting aspect (procreative meaning) may deliberately be separated from the other in the act of sexual intercourse, argued Paul VI, without acting against God's purpose and damaging the conjugal relationship.

Paul VI also warned of the consequences if contraception became widely practiced-consequences that have since come to pass: greater infidelity in marriage, confusion regarding the nature of human sexuality and its role in society, the objectification of women for sexual pleasure, compulsory "family planning" and contraceptive policies by government, and the reduction of the human body as an instrument of human manipulation. Other dangers such as genetic engineering and human cloning are on the horizon.

Greeted by a firestorm of opposition, On Human Life: Humanae Vitae greatly shaped debates in the Catholic Church. A movement of dissent emerged. While some Catholic leaders and others openly rejected Catholic teaching, others reaffirmed it and even developed it. St. John Paul II's popular "theology of the body" drew deeply on the insights of Paul VI. Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have upheld the long-standing teaching. Indeed, a new generation of Catholics are embracing the truths of On Human Life: Humanae Vitae.

"[Pope Paul VI's] genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake' on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism."
- Pope Francis

Giovanni Battista Montin

Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) led the Catholic Church from 1963 until his death in 1978. The former Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Italy, he succeed Pope John XXIII and oversaw the Second Vatican Council, bringing it to completion in 1965. Many commentators described Paul VI as the first modern pope because of his extensive global travels and wide use of electronic media. In many respects, he laid the foundation for how subsequent popes would exercise the papal office in the modern world. On Human Life: Humanae Vitae is his final and best-known encyclical letter. In October, 2014, Pope Francis declared Paul VI "blessed", the first step toward his being recognized as a saint throughout the Catholic Church.

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