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The Clarifying Light of Humanae Vitae   


Twelve years ago this summer, Tina Turner belted out her song about “love,” asking, What’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a sweet old-fashioned notion? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” Her question is a fitting commentary on the current state of confusion over conjugal love and the resulting decline of marriage. But, no one, it seems, is willing to speak to the root causes of this decline.

Recently, I attended a presentation by Maggie Gallagher on her new book titled, The Abolition of Marriage. When I asked her if we could learn anything from Margaret Sanger and company’s miscalculation in the early 1930s that the family would be the bulwark against promiscuity which widespread access to contraception might cause, she would not concede the point that the separation of sex from marriage wrought by contraception was the main cause of the decline of the family.

Intellectual clarity is so refreshing and I must admit I find Tina Turner’s question about love more illuminating as to the state of marital decline than Maggie Gallagher’s book, which, well researched though it is, refuses to recognize that it is precisely the separation of sex from marriage in our society that has wrought what she boldly proclaims to be the “abolition of marriage” and the resulting material and spiritual poverty. By the same token, I would grant that powerful forces have conspired to blind our culture to this very obvious fact and that intellectual clarity is difficult to attain without reference to the truth about man’s nature and the purpose of his existence.

Sixteen years before Tina Turner’s question, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), provided just such clarity. In layman’s terms, his answer to Tina Turner’s question was, Love has everything to do with it (i.e. conjugal union).

Most Catholics and non-Catholics alike, we are led to believe, regard Humanae Vitae as the equivalent of the Republican platform on abortion — not relevant to current reality. When Humanae Vitae was issued in July 1968, it was the product of “mature reflection and assiduous prayers.” Many both in and outside of the Church, however, did not have such a correspondingly reflective response, preferring to adopt the stance that the Vatican had just announced the equivalent of “The party’s over!” I would argue that such a reaction is the product of Madison Avenue-like brainwashing, and that intelligent, mature reflection is precisely what is required.

When Pope John Paul II came to the United States last Fall, he said that the 21st century should be one of “persuasion.” It is very important to consider the need to bring people along the paths of truth, gradually, in incremental steps to counter such Madison Avenue brainwashing. Today’s confusion is the product of a lack of understanding based on a lack of knowledge of the moral code which is composed of both divine and natural law. In that spirit, let me highlight the main elements of Humanae Vitae to show why, rather than eroding the joy of love, this landmark encyclical provided the road map for a fuller and richer conjugal love and stronger family life.

By 1968 society had evolved to the point where certain key changes1 gave rise to new questions concerning human love and the transmission of life. In response to these questions, Pope Paul VI considered the “problem of birth ... 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.” Attempts to justify artificial contraception at that time were made by appealing to the demands of both conjugal love and “responsible parenthood.”

Accordingly, the Pope clarified both in Humanae Vitae in the following inspired way:

Conjugal love reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme origin, God, who is love, “the Father, from whom every family in Heaven and on earth is named.” Marriage is not, then, the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love. By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives ... This love is first of all fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit at the same time ... Then, this love is total, that is to say, it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations. Whoever truly loves his marriage partner loves not only for what he receives, but for the partner’s self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself... Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents ... Hence conjugal love requires in husband and wife an awareness of their mission of responsible parenthood ... which implies that (they) recognize fully their own duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values.

Having laid this groundwork, Pope Paul VI then reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the Church:

God has wisely disposed the natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation of births. Nonetheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life ... By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man’s most high calling to parenthood ...

To use this divine gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will. On the other hand, to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.

As one reflects on the logic and beauty of Humanae Vitae, its truth is compelling, albeit no less difficult to live. “Like all beneficent realities,” Pope Paul VI wrote, “it demands serious engagement and much effort, individual, family and social effort. More than that, it would not be practicable without the help of God, who upholds and strengthens the good will of men. Yet, to anyone who reflects well, it cannot but be clear that such efforts ennoble man and are beneficial to the human community.” For those who are unmoved but recognize that the fraying social fabric has everything to do with the weakening of the marriage bond, the following passage sheds immense light. Indeed, it was like a flashing light warning that an accident would occur down the highway if contraception became an established cultural norm:

Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men — especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point — have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

Let the persuasion begin!


  1. Pope Paul VI enumerates these changes as follows: rapid demographic developments; difficulty of educating an elevated number of children related to working and lodging conditions, as well as increased exigencies in both the economic field and in that of education; changes in both the manner of considering the person of woman and her place in society, and in the value to be attributed to conjugal love in marriage, and also in the appreciation to be made of the meaning of conjugal acts in relation to that love; and man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature (which) tends to extend this dominion to his own total being.


Kendall, Mary Claire. “The Clarifying Light of Humanae Vitae.” The Catholic Faith (November/December 1996).

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.


Mary Claire Kendall writes from Bethesda, Maryland.

Copyright © 1996 The Catholic Faith



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