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article • Humanae Vitae at 50

How Contraception Thwarts Love

This week we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitaethe encyclical that confirmed longstanding Catholic teaching on birth control and warned prophetically of the social evils of a contraceptive culture.


When specifying to whom the encyclical Humanae Vitae was addressed, Pope Paul VI included “all men of good will.” This means that the Church’s teaching on the “inseparable connection between the procreative and unitive” ends of sex is not just for Christians, as if it were a mystery of faith revealed supernaturally; it’s for all people who actively pursue what is good.

This is especially true of married couples who seek to express their love in the sexual act, but who, through contraception, thwart the procreative end of sex.

What if it were possible to show that thwarting the procreative end of sex also undermines love? This might be of interest to many couples.

Let’s think through how we might show this connection.

Our first step is to get a hold of what love is. In the Summa, Aquinas defines love as “to wish good to someone” (I-II:26:4) as to oneself. For Aquinas, true love apprehends the other “as his other self.”

Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) concurs with Aquinas’s view of love. In his book Love and Responsibility, he asserts that the “true essence of love” is realized when it is “directed toward a genuine good” in “the way appropriate to the nature of that good.” To emphasize this view of love, Wojtyla juxtaposes it to a false love: “one that is directed toward a specious good, or, most often, to a genuine good in a way which does not correspond to but is contrary to its nature.” He goes so far as to call such false love an “evil love.”

True love, therefore, involves a constant commitment of the will to the true good of another person. Philosopher J. Budziszewski sums it up nicely:

If I delight in the good that you are, then I must want you to experience all the good that you can: I want you to exist well and beautifully…I want good things for you, I want to do good things to you, I even want to do good things because of you. Good itself seems better because of you.

The key theme that stands out in these reflections on love is the good. Genuine sexual love will be consistent with what constitutes the good for human beings in the sexual arena. This means that authentic sexual love involves willing what is good relative to the beloved’s sexual powers.

I have argued that procreation, along with union, constitutes the good for our sexual faculties because it is the end to which nature directs such powers. This argument is based on the principle that the ends (goals) for which our natural faculties exist determines what is good for us. As Aquinas teaches, the essence of good is that which “perfects another as an end.”

For example, the intellect has truth as its natural end, and inasmuch as it knows truth it is perfected. So truth is the intellect’s good. And since the intellect is a power of a person, truth is the person’s good.

Since the good has the nature of an end, and procreation is an end of sex, it follows that to engage in sex while voluntarily thwarting the achievement of the procreative end (that is, contraceptive sex) is nothing less than a rejection of the order of the good inscribed in the nature of the sexual act. Such an act expresses contempt for the order of the human good for sex, viewing it as a kind of evil to be supplanted or an obstacle to be removed.

The perversity of such behavior would be similar to a doctor who tries to make someone ill. In such a scenario, the doctor would be positively rejecting his good as a doctor—namely, health—viewing the order of a good doctor as an evil to be avoided. A doctor who rejects the order of a good doctor can only merit the charge of being an evil doctor.

It is not hard to see contempt for the order of the human good for sex in the example of sexual coercion, since the man who sexually coerces a woman rejects the order to the good of spousal friendship. Obviously, such an act cannot in principle be an expression of love.

But contempt for the human good for sex is no less present in sexual acts that voluntarily reject the end of procreation, since that is constitutive of man’s sexual good. Therefore, the love that men and women intend to express in sex that perverts the procreative end, no matter how sincerely they intend it, merits the charge of an “evil love.”

Acts that positively reject the order of a human good cannot possibly be expressions of authentic love, even if they are done in the name of love. In fact, they are directly opposed to love, showing disdain for the beloved instead.

To say that a couple can express authentic love while engaging in sexual activity that voluntarily thwarts the procreative end of sex is like saying a person can express love by voluntarily crushing another person’s windpipe. Love is by nature opposed to the rejection of another’s good, as well as one’s own good. And since that good includes man’s biological good (procreation) just as much as it includes his rational good, love demands reverence for the procreative dimension of sex.

On this golden anniversary of Humanae Vitae, let us pray that couples of “good will” will be inclined to accept such a truth, since everyone of “good will” is inclined, above all, to love.


For more on the many dimensions of wisdom found in Humanae Vitae, check out the new book Inseparable from Catholic Answers Press, available now at a special introductory price.

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