The Wisdom of Blessed Paul VI and the Church

Last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae (Latin for “Of Human Life”) by Blessed Pope Paul VI.

To recognize that occasion, this article and the next will give a brief commentary on the teaching of Blessed Paul VI and the Church on marriage. We will resume reflections on the life of Mary in two weeks as the Solemnity of the Assumption approaches.

In Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI reflected upon the heroism and challenges of married life and in particular upon openness to new life in children. He praised couples for generously and courageously raising children with virtue, wisdom and faith. And he also recognized that there may be serious reasons for couples to defer childbearing for the present. In such cases, he affirmed, consisted with the entire history of Church teachings, and with the entire Christian tradition until 1930, that when a couple prayerfully discerns that they should defer having children for the present, they should use natural, rather than artificial means of achieving that end. That conclusion drew great opposition from the world, then as now.

But there have been many sophisticated defenses of Blessed Paul VI’s wisdom and that of the Church, most famously in the series of talks given by St. Pope John Paul II entitled Theology of the Body. We will begin with three points here, with regard to love, marriage, and analogy to other fields. Starting with the idea of love, almost all would agree that love should be natural. We can make things (e.g., cars, furniture, and computers) artificially because they are things. But artificiality is no part of love. And to introduce artificiality into marriage is to diminish the couple’s love.

Furthermore, one of the things that set marriage apart from other human loves is its totality; in marriage, a man and wife give themselves to each other completely. Artificial means of family planning involve implicitly saying to the other, “I accept you, but not all of you” or “I give myself to you but not all of myself”; for fertility is artificially excluded.

By contrast, natural means of family planning allow love to be natural and affirm the totality of the human body. By analogy, it is legitimate for an athlete to excel by using scientific, but still natural means, such as precise nutrition and exercise. But artificially altering the body by such means as steroids is cheating against the game and against nature. Likewise, couples should always respect the grammar of love and the nature of marriage.

Next week’s article will describe some principles that constitute such nature.