From the 1998 Inside the Vatican 

Special Supplement on Humanae Vitae

Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader

By Dr. Janet Smith

Ignatius Press $24.95

Reviewed by Nick Bagileo

Professor Janet Smith of the University of Dallas has put together a remarkable book of essays on one of the most important yet neglected teachings of the Church. In reading through the articles,

it occurred to me that Dr. Smith is much like St. Therese of Lisieux.

St. Therese is the patron saint of missionaries even though she never left her convent. Janet Smith could be considered the patron saint of families (though not married herself) because she has been in the forefront proclaiming the truth of the Church’s teaching on conjugal love.

Dr. Smith’s book gathers together in one volume some of the finest essays on Paul VI’s great encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Contributors include: Fr. Paul Quay, Dietrich von Hildebrand, G.E.M. Anscombe, Cormac Burke, William May and Ralph McInerny. The articles not only answer the attacks on the encyclical, but they convincingly express the positive, life-fulfilling aspects of married life. Also included is Dr. Smith’s new translation of the encyclical which may certainly be considered the best available in English.

Smith’s own essay, entitled “Paul VI As Prophet,” explains that Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae to present fully the beauty and dignity of married life, not to be “prophetic.” As Smith notes, “the Church teaches not that contraception is wrong because it has bad consequences, but that because contraception is wrong, it will have bad consequences.” Still, Smith argues, Paul’s encyclical was prophetic, pointing to four “general” areas that would suffer as a result of the increasing contraceptive mentality.

Paul VI’s first prophecy was that the widespread use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” That this has occurred no one can deny. The numbers of abortions, divorces, out- of-wedlock pregnancies and cases of venereal diseases has sky-rocketed in the past 30 years. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II taught that the dominant attitude of civilization today can be called “a culture of death.” He continues by noting the decline in moral responsibility concerning human sexuality. “Despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connect- ed, as fruits of the same tree... The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus be- comes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.” (#13)

The second prediction stated that “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

God created man in His own image and likeness: male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27). Man and woman are equal in dignity before God because each is a person; a unique and unrepeatable someone, not something to be used. This is the very heart of Humanae Vitae. Dr. Smith explains that “Christians understand marriage to be an elevated calling whereby God enlists spouses in the all- important enterprise of bringing forth new human life.” Human procreation is uniquely human. The difference between human pro- creation and that of other living beings is 

enormous. If this is not understood, the Church’s teaching will make no sense. Human procreation is not a mere biological act. It is a personal act, a human act which is at once a biological and spiritual act.

In marriage, the spouses give and receive each other as a gift. If you hold back your fertility, you do not give yourself completely to your spouse. In contracepted intercourse the human body can no longer express sincere self-giving (love); rather, it manipulates “the other” as a mere object of pleasure.

In his article, “Marriage and Contraception,” Cormac Burke explains this loss of friendship between spouses this way. “Now if one deliberately nullifies the life-orientation of the conjugal act, one destroys its essential power to signify union. Contraception in fact turns the marital act into self-deception or into a lie: “I love you so much that with you, and with you alone, I am ready to share this most unique power....” But what unique power? In contraceptive sex, no unique power is being shared, except a power to produce pleasure. But then the uniqueness of the marital act is reduced to pleasure. Its significance is gone.

“Contraceptive intercourse is an exercise in meaninglessness,” Burke writes. “It could perhaps be compared to going through the actions of singing without letting any sound of music pass one’s lips.” (page 158)

Paul VI’s third prophecy suggested that widespread acceptance of contraception would be a “dangerous weapon... in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” Remember the Clinton Administration’s so-called health care reform that wanted to include abortions as medical service? As if being pregnant is a disease. At the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Catholic Church stood virtually alone in opposition to contraceptives and abortion. The conference appeared to have as its first priority a plan to attack fertility rates, especially in third world countries. Foreign aid by the United States to these countries was offered contingent on more widespread availability of contraceptives. 

The last warning Pope Paul VI gave in Humanae Vitae was that the more contraception was accepted the more man would believe he had unlimited sovereignty over his body. The widespread use of sterilization as the first choice in contraception has become the norm. As Dr. Smith notes, “the desire to have unlimited dominion over one’s body extends beyond contraception. We see it in many areas of life. The making of babies in test tubes is another indication of a refusal to accept the limitations of the body, as is euthanasia and the use of organs for transplantation from the nearly dead.” The mentality of people like Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the leading advocate of “physician-assisted suicide,” is the logical outgrowth of the reasoning that man, not God, is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong concerning the human body.

In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II articulated the problem this way: “The body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world,” and as a result “sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other’s richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.” (#23)

Pope Paul VI did not only teach against the negative consequences of artificial birth control. He highlighted the positive effects of conjugal chastity as well. The discipline that conjugal chastity requires “bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.”

In Humanae Vitae there is a passage that is mentioned so infrequently that Pope John Paul II reiterated it in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. The greatest act of charity persons can do for one another is to tell one another the truth. Concerning marriage, John Paul II teaches that “the concrete pedagogy of the Church must always remain linked with her doctrine and never be separated from it. With the same conviction as my predecessor, I therefore repeat: ’To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.’” (FC, #33, see HV #29)

This excellent book should be required reading in all college marriage and human sexuality courses, premarriage programs at the diocesan and parish level, and RCIA programs.

Bagileo is Director of the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, USA

Supplement Index