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Magazine • Humanae Vitae at 50


The Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life has been the same since the beginning

This article is adapted from Cardinal Burke’s keynote address at the Catholic Answers National Conference “Faith and Science” on September 29, 2018.

At a critical moment in the history of Christianity, when the very order of human sexuality established by God at the creation of man and safeguarded and promoted in the teaching of the Catholic Church was under severe attack, the Holy Spirit, working through Pope St. Paul VI, came to the defense of the fundamental teaching regarding the contraception of the conjugal act. The Church, in obedience to the plan of God written upon the human heart, declared:

The doctrine that the Magisterium of the Church has often explained is this: there is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning [of the conjugal act], and both are inherent in the conjugal act. This connection was established by God, and Man is not permitted to break it through his own volition (Humanae Vitae 12).

The moment was critical, for the Catholic Church alone, among all Christian bodies, held firm to the teaching on human sexuality as it is known through both natural and supernatural revelation and as it had been handed down to us in an unbroken line from the apostles.

In declaring what the Church had always taught and practiced regarding contraception, Pope St. Paul VI, with deepest fatherly love, gave warning about the destructive results of a rebellion against the good order placed by God in the human body. In a prophetic manner, after commenting upon a number of the grave consequences of the practice of contraception, the Roman Pontiff wrote:

Therefore, if we do not want the mission of procreating human life to be conceded to the arbitrary decisions of men, we need to recognize that there are some limits to the power of man over his own body and over the natural operations of the body, which ought not to be transgressed. No one, neither a private individual nor a public authority, ought to violate these limits (HV 17).

Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, we are profoundly conscious today that Humanae Vitae is a teaching that is fundamental to the Church’s service of mankind, of its work for the salvation of the world.

The perennial teaching

In order to illustrate the fundamental importance of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception of the conjugal act, I present some examples, from among many, of the expressions of that teaching throughout the Christian centuries. Space does not permit an exhaustive presentation, but I can assure you that the examples I present are multiplied in every age of the Church’s life from its foundation by Our Lord.

A good summary of doctrinal texts on the immorality of contraception is found in a pamphlet by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., titled The Catholic Tradition on the Morality of Contraception.

The first example is taken from the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an early manual on Christian morals and Church practice. The exact date of its writing is not known, but it was most likely written in the first century. The second chapter takes up the teaching on human life and its origin in the conjugal act. It addresses “the prevalent non-Christian custom of destroying unwanted human life or preventing its generation by physical or magical means” (Hardon, 4).

The commandment reads:

Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not engage in pederasty, do not engage in sexual immorality. Do not steal, do not practice magic, do not use enchanted potions, do not abort a fetus or kill a child that is born (The Apostolic Fathers: I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, tr. Bart D. Ehrman, 419).

The two precepts pertaining to the question of contra-ception and abortion concern the use of magic or of drugs. The two terms in Greek, mageia and pharmaka, “were understood to cover the use of magical rites and/or medical potions for both contraception and abortion” (Hardon, 5). The commandment refers to the essential relationship between sexual union and the generation of new human life.

Another document of the first century, the Epistle of Barnabas, condemned practices involving the conjugal union coupled with actions which prevent conception (The Apostolic Fathers, 49). In the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr, in his Apology, addresses the marital difficulties of a young woman whose husband insisted upon practicing unnatural sexual acts, so that she was forced to separate from him rather than engage in his “impious conduct” (Hardon, 5).

Augustine and Caesarius

The second example is the teaching of theologians and bishops St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and St. Caesarius of Arles (470-542). Augustine is often presented in a distorted way as viewing sexual relations, even within marriage, as sinful and therefore as seeing virginity as the only possible way to live in purity. In fact, in his works on marriage and virginity, it is clear that Augustine had a high regard for marriage. Fr. Hardon, for instance, reminds us that his reverence for his mother, St. Monica, described in his Confessions, “is an eloquent witness to how highly Augustine thought of marriage and conjugal relations” (Hardon, 13).

His teaching is directed toward the practice of purity and continence, both by those who are unmarried and by the married. Lack of self-control over the strong sexual passions leads the unmarried to practice fornication and the married to engage in sexual acts that do not respect the inherently procreative nature of the conjugal union. Contraception is the elimination of an essential good of marriage—namely, the good of offspring.

Caesarius treats the morality of sexual union in his sermons. In Sermon 51, he takes up the situation both of couples who are having difficulty in conceiving and of those who strive to prevent conception. He declares:

Therefore, those to whom God is unwilling to give children should not try to have them by means of herbs or magic signs or evil charms. It is becoming and proper for Christians especially not to seem to fight against the dispensation of Christ by cruel, wicked boldness. Just as women whom God wants to bear more children should not take medicines to prevent their conception, so those whom God wishes to remain sterile should desire and seek this gift from God alone. They should always leave it to divine Providence, asking in their prayers that God in His goodness may deign to grant what is best for them… Therefore, women do wrong when they seek to have children by means of evil drugs. They sin still more grievously when they kill the children who are already conceived or born, and when by taking impious drugs to prevent conception they condemn in themselves the nature which God wanted to be fruitful (Sermons, vol. 1, Catholic University of America Press, 258-259).

The introduction of chemicals or physical devices into the conjugal union with a view to prevent conception is a violation of nature and therefore manifests a lack of faith in Divine Providence.

Second Council of Braga

The third example is the legislation found in the acts of the Second Council of Braga (June A.D. 572) in Portugal, in which is included a condemnation of contraception on the part of Pope Martin I. The text reads:

If any woman has fornicated and has killed the infant who was born of her; or if she has tried to commit abortion and then slain what she conceived; of if she contrives to make sure she does not conceive, either in adultery or in legitimate intercourse – regarding such women, the earlier canons decreed that they should not receive Communion even at death. However, we mercifully judge that both such women and their accomplices in these crimes shall do penance for ten years (canon 7).

The text of the legislation makes it clear that ecclesial authority had condemned contraception already for some time. In fact, as the first example shows, the Church had always condemned it.

A similar piece of ecclesial legislation is found in the Decretals of Burchard (965-1025), bishop of Worms in Germany, which expresses the constant teaching and practice of the Church in the matter of contraception. He writes:

Have you done what some women are accustomed to doing when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring? They act with their poisons (maleficia) and their herbs to kill or cut out the embryo, or if they have not yet conceived, they contrive not to conceive. If you have done so or consented to this, or taught it, you must do penance for ten years on legal ferial days. Legislation in former days excommunicated such persons from the Church till the end of their lives (Burchardi Wormatiensis Episcopi, Opera Omnia, ed. J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 972).

The seriousness with which the Church viewed the manipulation of the conjugal act, contrary to the order placed in human nature by the Creator, is evident. The gravity of the penance imposed for the commission of such acts indicates the importance of a repentance by which the soul is cured of disordered acts and is strengthened in virtues of continence and chastity by which disordered passions are effectively disciplined.

Aquinas, Gregory, Sixtus

The fourth example is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) on contraception, which is found in his Commentary on the Sentences, a comprehensive theological work of Peter Lombard (1100-1160), Bishop of Paris. Aquinas distinguishes the natural pleasure experienced in the conjugal union from the use of a marital partner to obtain pleasure outside of the nature and end of the conjugal act. His argument against contraception, which he relates to abortion in the sense that both are aimed at the avoidance of the generation of a new human life, is centered upon its frustration of the nature and end of the conjugal act.

He states that those “who use poisonous drugs (venena) for sterility are not spouses but fornicators” (quoted in Hardon, 26). He further makes clear the grave sinfulness of the use of one’s spouse “against nature,” so that “children cannot possibly follow.”

The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX are a collection of all of the Church’s legislation, undertaken by Pope Gregory IX with the irreplaceable assistance of St. Raymond of Penafort, a Dominican. They, as is characteristic of law, simply identify contraception as whatever is done to a man or woman, whether to satisfy the passions or out of hatred, in order that new human life cannot be generated and call it homicide or an act against human life (Decretals, book V, title XII, ch. 5).

Furthermore, they declare that the intention to use contraception, in order to avoid all offspring in the act of consent on the part of one or both of the marriage partners, is one of the conditions against the substance of marriage. Such an intention renders the seeming valid marriage consent invalid, that is, without effect (Decretals, book IV, title V, ch. 7).

A fifth example is the papal bull of Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), Effraenatam, published Oct. 27, 1588, in order to address the immorality of his time. He condemns first abortion and then contraception with these words:

Who does not abhor the lustful cruelty or cruel lust of impious men, a lust which goes so far that they procure poisons to extinguish and destroy the conceived fetus within the womb, even attempting by a wicked crime to destroy their own offspring before it lives, or, if it lives, to kill it before it is born? Who finally would not condemn with the most severe punishments the crimes of those who by poisons, potions and evil drugs induce sterility in women, so that they might not conceive or, by means of evil-working medication that they might not give birth (quoted in Hardon, 27).

The legislation of Pope Sixtus V continues a consistent
teaching by which the Catholic Church condemns contra-ception as anti-life and, as such, views it as frequently associated with abortion.

Pope Pius XI

The last example is the encyclical letter of Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, which sets forth in a complete manner the beauty of the Church’s teaching on holy matrimony. Casti Connubii, published Dec. 31, 1930, sets forth what the Church has always taught and practiced. “It declares that contraception or sterilization is against a law of nature and therefore intrinsically evil” (quoted in Hardon, 30). It is a point of reference both for the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the teaching in Humanae Vitae.

Pope Pius XI confronted the mentality of his time, which viewed children as a burden and would engage in responsible parenthood in a way other than the practice of the virtues of continence and chastity. Such a departure from the apostolic Faith was manifested at the Lambeth Conference of the Anglicans in 1930. Pope Pius XI declared the constant teaching of the Church with these words:

But no reason whatever, even the gravest, can make what is intrinsically against nature become conformable with nature and morally good. The conjugal act is of its very nature designed for the procreation of offspring; and therefore those who, in performing it, deliberately deprive it of its natural power and efficacy, act against nature and do something which is shameful and intrinsically immoral. . . .Wherefore, since there are some who, openly departing from the Christian teaching which has been handed down uninterruptedly from the beginning, have in recent times thought fit solemnly to preach another doctrine concerning this practice, the Catholic Church, to whom God has committed the task of teaching and preserving morals and right conduct in their integrity, standing erect amidst this moral devastation, raises her voice in sign of her divine mission to keep the chastity of the marriage contract unsullied by this ugly stain, and through her mouth proclaims anew that any use of matrimony whatsoever, in the exercise of which the act is deprived by human interference of its natural power to procreate life, is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and that those who commit it are guilty of a grave sin (quoted in Hardon, 31-32).

The perennial teaching of the Church, as illustrated by Pope Pius XI, continued to be attacked as one Christian denomination after another abandoned the apostolic Faith. His exposition of the faith of the Church regarding Holy Matrimony, however, defended the faith against the constant attacks even from within the Church. It is a most worthy statement of the faith as we have witnessed it in the various examples that I have treated.


We are witnesses in our culture to the moral devastation that results from a rebellion against the good order God has placed in nature and specifically in our human nature. Such devastation, manifested in so many gravely disordered sexual acts, is destroying individuals and families and will eventually destroy the nation.
It is my hope that my little reflection will confirm you in the truth about the right order of sexual relations and of the necessary respect for that order so that the good of the individual, of the family, and of society itself may be served and promoted. I close with the words with which Pope St. Paul VI concluded his great encyclical letter Humanae Vitae:

Venerable Brothers, most beloved sons, and all men and women of goodwill, we now call you to the splendid work of education and growth in charity. Relying on the unshakable teaching of the Church, we, as the successor to Peter together with the whole brotherhood of bishops, faithfully guard and interpret it. Truly this is a great work, for it affects the good of the world and the Church. None can achieve true happiness, the happiness that they desire with the strength of their whole soul, unless they observe the laws inscribed on their nature by the Most High God. To be happy man must prudently and lovingly cultivate these laws (HV 31). n

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