Humanae Vitae

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The encyclical Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968, defined the position of the Roman Catholic Church on birth control and contraception. It came at a time of great turmoil in the world and in society, especially in the developed Western nations where there was a large Catholic population and especially also among women. At the time of its issuance, and since, it proved to be very controversial.

Background

There were a number of social and political forces at work in the late 1960s when the Encyclical was issued and in addition recent medical developments had occurred which impacted the issues addressed by the Encyclical.

These forces and events were mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the document and included:

  1. the growing world population and concern over this issue;
  2. changes in the status of women;
  3. the then recent development by the medical profession of contraceptive devices (especially the Pill).

Content of the Encyclical

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae defined the official Catholic position on contraceptive devices and the regulation of birth in general. This position is codified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which, quoting from HV, states:

"'every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible' is intrinsically evil" (CCC, 2370).

All methods of contraception or birth control are thus proscribed other than the so-called "rhythm method".

Response to the Encyclical

When the Encyclical was first promulgated, it generated a great amount of controversy and even outrage among certain sectors of the world Catholic population. One detailed point-by-point rebuttal, by the American Catholic author Garry Wills, can be found in his 1972 book Bare Ruined Choirs. A number of priests resigned their calling and opinion polls conducted in the United States in the aftermath showed widespread rejection of the teachings contained in HV.

Since that time, Catholic opinion not only in the United States, but worldwide has continued to be divided on the subject, with surveys showing that large numbers of Catholics reject the teachings of HV not only in theory but in practice with contraceptive usage among Catholics at or near the levels of such usage among non-Catholics.