Updated: Jan 19
When Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae to the world it brought forth a maelstrom of controversy. Critics were quick to plead away its authority to promote the unfettered reign of human reason to undo the damage caused by the fall. In Humanae Vitae, we find the juxtaposition of grace and nature, especially regarding the natural law and how that law should be considered in the entirety of the human person, both earthly and supernatural (HV 7). The proper understanding of the ends of man enables the appropriate use of human sexuality, responsible parenthood, and how every human person should relate to one another.
The natural law brings to light the responsibilities of a man toward other persons and this nature is intimately linked to human freedom (Veritas Splendor 50). While this could be seen as an obligation or duty, the moral law guides us toward the perfect love that enables man to pursue his ultimate end. Rather than being imposed from without, the law of love is written on the heart and originates from God who is love (HV 8). This guide helps us to see how we should will the good of the beloved and pulls us away from inordinate love of self. Man is incomplete without being in relation with another which is most perfectly expressed in the gift of self. This kind of selfless love has no more perfect model than marriage through which spouses die to themselves to perfect one another (HV 8).
Married love images Divine love in a way unique to physical beings. The persons of the Trinity give themselves to one another totally because God is love. God, in turn, gives man the institution of marriage to enable us to image that love in a way that is not possible in solitude, enabling us to give ourselves fully to another. This gift of self brings about human fulfillment through love, shared between spouses and God (HV 9). To give of oneself completely necessitates a permanent, exclusive, and fruitful union. Man and woman are united in both body and soul, giving fully to “enrich the other with the gift of” self (HV 9). Marriage is a special responsibility that entails these characteristics by its nature and the lack of any of these would require that marriage be something other than what it is.
The duty of marriage, the “munus,” is not a burden imposed upon the couple. Rather, the goods of marriage are a gift given to us to enable the most perfect relationship possible between human creatures (Smith 138). By virtue of our baptism, each of us is called to share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices of Christ, fulfilling the munera and mission given to us (Smith 139). The love of man and wife contributes to the sanctification of the world in a special way and “manifests Christ to others” (LG 31).
Marriage is unlike other relationships because of the conjugal love experienced between spouses. Each spouse gives of themselves, and this love binds them together. The power of this union is such that their love is personified in the child that can result from such a union. The denial of the act's unity or life-giving nature is to fundamentally deny the very essence of conjugal love. To do otherwise is to communicate a performative deception. It is to offer the body without love, to impose oneself without consideration for the beloved, or to hold back a part of the self. This prevents the possibility of the total gift of self. Thus, misuse of the conjugal act is not a true act of love and “offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife” (HV 13). The mutual love of spouses, offering all that they have to one another, enables the formation of the family.
Family formation requires responsibility. Husbands and wives are required to “recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families, and human society” (HV 10). Spouses are not free to act in any way whatsoever but must act in accord with the love of God and neighbor. Thus, the human person is not a mere automaton who must reproduce insistently without thought or care for their duties. Rather, a person must exercise their reason to fruitfully cooperate with the divine plan for marriage which “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24).
However, like all enterprises in which man is involved, marriage is not free from suffering and trials. The love of marriage is the gift of self, but there are times when self-sacrifice is the greatest way to offer this gift. When reasons arise that the gift of children should be spaced for the good of the spouse or family, the couple should refrain from the conjugal act (HV 16). This denial need not be permanent, but through the use of human reason may coincide with the fertile cycle of the spouses. Thus, spouses love each other through the perfect gift of themselves and through self-denial, but always by upholding the dignity of the entire human person through which the meaning of the body can be understood (Veritatis Splendor 50). Other methods of spacing births cause a rejection of part of the human person which prevents the authentic gift of self from being offered. Rather, this objectifies the person and turns them into a means of pleasure, rather than a person to be loved (HV 17).
Humanae Vitae rightly posits that marriage is a relationship that enables husband and wife to image God's perfect love. Married love is the complete gift of self-whereas each spouse completely and totally offers themselves to each other without reservation. A marriage cannot exist without consenting to that gift and any attempt to hold back part of that gift frustrates the divine plan for marriage which is not a human institution but a cooperation in God’s plan for creation. Each of us must cooperate with the grace of God and the law of love written upon the human heart.
John Paul II. Veritatis Splendor. The Vatican. The Holy See, 1993. 26 Sep. 2021, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. The Vatican. The Holy See, 1968. 26 Sep. 2021, http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.
Gaudium et Spes. The Vatican, The Holy See, 1965. 26 Sep. 2021, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html
Janet E Smith. Humanae Vitae, a Generation Later. Catholic University of America Press, 1991. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sjcme.edu:2106/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=46095&site=ehost-live&scope=site.