Blog Post

A Millennial Look at Humanae Vitae

This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.” Blessed Paul VI

When we think of giants in the history of the Church, we often compile similar lists: St. Gregory the Great, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross.  But when I stop and think of individuals who have had an impact on my life as it exists in this current history as a woman, I am reminded of Blessed Paul VI.  He’s a hero for many reasons but largely because he stood up for each of us when we couldn’t think critically for ourselves.  Indeed, his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, has had a vast impact on how we view the procreation of life and the sacrament of marriage; and as a woman who appreciates true feminism, I am forever grateful for the man who said no when the world said yes.

In Humanae Vitae, which celebrates its 50th birthday this Wednesday, July 25, Blessed Paul VI surprised the world, who was urgently awaiting doctrinal change within the Roman Catholic Church in regards to contraception. Instead of “going with the times”, Blessed Paul VI upheld Church teaching, which condemned artificial birth control.  It was a difficult time in the Church, as many Church leaders rejected the encyclical, and thus, Blessed Paul VI’s authority.  Yet, years later, then Pope John Paul II reaffirmed what was stated in Humanae Vitae.

Blessed Paul VI in Humanae Vitae provided, “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.”

Humanae Vitae answered many questions, one of which is still at odds with our current society.  That question is: should our intellect and personal will, rather than the natural rhythm of our bodies, regulate the transmission of life?

At World Youth Day, in 2002, then Pope John Paul II stated, “The greatest deception, and the deepest source of unhappiness, is the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility.” How beautiful this depicts what true freedom is not—the exclusion of God from our decisions.  St. John Paul II also stated, "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

When Blessed Paul VI reminded the world it was "wrong when it thought it was right”, he acted as our Father would have—courageous, fearless, and protective.  Not only did he stand for women, he stood for men and all of life from conception through natural death.  He boldly proclaimed Truth, even when so many of our Church leaders denied it.  And, as St. John Paul II once commanded, “The truth is not always the same as the majority opinion.”

As a woman in today’s society, I am thankful that I have a home that doesn’t fall prey to the culture’s whim; a Church that stands on firm ground, protecting the good of life and the beauty of marriage; an Institute that doesn’t allow me to crumble to my own desires, but rather, holds me up within Her wings.  She protects my virtue as a woman, She encourages true femininity, and She strengthens my desires to be a mother in all its many forms.  Equally, She persuades men to be all that they were created to be, as husbands and fathers and reminds them of their true dignity as sons of God.

To surrender fertility means to let go of control of the most intimate part of oneself.  To allow God to make the ultimate decisions in regards to the womb means to embrace true freedom.  And in selflessly giving of self in the sacrament of matrimony, aside from receiving the Eucharist, one will be rewarded quite possibly the greatest joy this side of heaven.

“It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner's own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.” Blessed Paul VI


Betsey Sawyer is an attorney and adjunct professor in Mississippi, and works for Women of Grace as the Mission Advancement Coordinator.   She can be reached at (Photo courtesy of Eliza Kennard Photography)