More on Humanae Vitae

A little-appreciated fact of the Pontificate of Pope Paul VI is that from 1968 onward, his Wednesday General Audiences were published in English translation. During the course of my studies, I came across this fact and recently had occasion to look at some of those Audiences, especially after my recent article on Medjugorje and Humanae Vitae.

On July 31, 1968, Paul VI gave an address about his famous (and last) Encyclical Humanae Vitae. As we approach the 50th anniversary of this Encyclical’s publication, I reproduce here for you the English translation as it appeared (sans a spelling error or two) in The Teachings of Pope Paul VI. Volume 1 1967-1968. (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), 115-119.


WE HAD NO DOUBT ABOUT OUR DECISION

There was a very large gathering at the General Audience at Castel Gandolfo on July 31st. The Holy Father spoke about the preparation, motives and background of his recent Encyclical, “Humanae vitae”.

Beloved Sons and Daughters!

Our words today are necessarily connected with the Encyclical entitled Humanae vitae, which We published this week regarding the regulation of birth. We take it for granted that you are acquainted with the text of this Pontifical document, at least in its essential points. It is not merely the declaration of a negative moral law that excludes every action aimed at rendering procreation impossible (n. 14), but it is above all the positive presentation of conjugal morality concerning its mission of love and fecundity “in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation” (n. 7). It clarifies a fundamental chapter in the personal, married, family and social life of man, but it is not a complete treatment regarding man in this sphere of marriage, of the family and of moral probity. This is an immense field to which the Magisterium of the Church could and perhaps should return with a fuller, more organic and more synthetic exposition.

This Encyclical is an answer to the questions, doubts and trends about which, as everyone is aware, there has been such wide and lively discussion in recent times. This is a matter in which We are greatly interested from a doctrinal and pastoral point of view. We will not speak now of this document because its theme is so delicate and serious that it transcends the popular simplicity of this weekly discourse. And moreover, publications concerning the Encyclical are already, or will be, available to those who are interested in it (For example: G. MARTELET, Amour conjugal et veau conciliaire). To you we shall say only a few words, not much on the document, as on some of the feelings that filled Our mind during the long period of its preparation.

Feeling of grave Responsibility

The first feeling was that of a very grave responsibility. It led Us into and sustained Us in the very heart of the problem during the four years devoted to the study and preparation of this Encyclical. We confide to you that this feeling caused Us much spiritual suffering. Never before have We felt so heavily, as in this situation, the burden of Our office. We studied, read and discussed as much as We could; and We also prayed very much about it.

Some circumstances relative to this are well known to you. We had to give an answer to the Church and to the entire human race. We had to evaluate a doctrinal tradition, not only centuries old, but recent, that of Our three immediate Predecessors, and all that with the seriousness and freedom of Our Apostolic duty. We had to follow the teaching of the Council promulgated by Ourself. We were disposed to accept as far as we could the conclusions, even though of a consultative nature, offered by the Commission instituted by Pope John, of venerated memory, and later enlarged by Us—but at the same time with all due prudence. We knew of the heated discussions with such feeling and also with such authority on this topic. We heard the clamorous voices of public opinion and of the press. We heard also the quieter voices reaching Our paternal and pastoral heart of so many people, especially of highly respected women who were distressed by this difficult problem and still more by their difficult experience.

We read the scientific reports about the alarming population problems in the world, often backed up by the studies of experts and by government programmes. Publications reached Us from all parts of the world, some inspired by the examination of particular scientific aspects of the problem, others by a realistic reflection on serious sociological conditions, and still others by the pressing considerations of the changes invading every sector of modern life.

How often have we felt almost overwhelmed by this mass of documentation! How many times, humanly speaking, have We felt the inadequacy of Our poor person to cope with the formidable apostolic obligation of having to make a pronouncement on this matter! How many times have We trembled before the alternatives of an easy condescension to current opinions, or of a decision that modern society would find difficult to accept, or that might be arbitrarily too burdensome for married life!

Aids to the final Decision

We consulted many people of high moral quality in the scientific and pastoral fields; and after imploring the light of the Holy Spirit, We placed Our conscience at the free and full disposal of the voice of truth. We sought to interpret the Divine law that flows from the very nature of genuine human love, from the essential structure of married life, from the personal dignity of husband and wife, from their mission of service to life, as well as from the sanctity of Christian marriage. We reflected on the firm principles of the traditional doctrine in force in the Church, and especially on the teaching of the recent Council. We pondered over the consequences of one or other decision; and we had no doubt about Our duty to give Our decision in the terms expressed in the present Encyclical.

Guided by Charity

In Our labours We were always guided by charity, by pastoral concern towards those who are called to integrate their individual personalities in married and family life. We willingly followed the personalist view, characteristic of the doctrine of the Council on conjugal society, thus assigning to love that brings it into being and nourishes it, the chief place that belongs to it in the subjective evaluation of marriage. We also accepted all the suggestions put forward, within the limits of what is lawful, to facilitate the observance of the law which We have reaffirmed. We wished to add to the doctrinal exposition certain practical directions of a pastoral character.

We honoured the work of the scientists for continuing their biological studies on birth, and for the correct application of therapeutic remedies and the moral principles inherent in them.

We recognized the responsibility of married couples and, therefore, their liberty, as ministers of God’s design for human life, interpreted by the teaching authority of the Church for their personal good and for that of their children.

We indicated the higher aims that inspire the doctrine and practice of the Church to help men, to defend their dignity, to understand them and support them in their difficulties, to train them to a watchful sense of responsibility, to a strong and serene self-mastery, to a courageous understanding of the great and common duties of life, and the sacrifices inherent in the practice of virtue and in the building up of a fruitful and happy home.

The Holy Father’s Hopes

Finally, a feeling of hope accompanied the laborious work of drafting this document. We hoped that it would be well received for its own intrinsic merit and for its humane truth, notwithstanding the widespread difference of opinion today and in spite of the difficulties which the path it traces can present to those who wish to follow it faithfully, and also to those who must frankly teach it, with the help of the God of life, of course. We hoped that scholars especially would be able to discover in the document the genuine thread that connects it with the Christian concept of life and which permits Us to make Our own the words of St. Paul: “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2, 16).

Lastly We hoped that Christian husbands and wives would understand that Our decision, however severe and arduous it may seem, is the interpreter of the genuineness of their love, called to be transformed by the imitation of the love of Christ for his mystical spouse, the Church. We hoped that they would be the first to support every practical move to assist the family in its needs, to make it flourish in its integrity, and to infuse into the family of today its own proper spirituality, a source of perfection for its individual members and a moral witness in society (cf. Apost. Actuos. n. 11; Gaudium et Spes n. 48).

As you see, dear sons and daughters, it is a question that deals with an extremely delicate and important aspect of human existence, and as We have tried to study and present it with the truth and charity that such a theme demands from Our teaching authority and Our ministry, so We ask you also, whether you are directly concerned or not, to consider it with the respect it deserves in the broad and radiant picture of the Christian life.

With Our Apostolic Blessing.