Fr. Lanzetta: The Theological Importance of Humanae Vitae and Its Prophecy for Our Time

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By Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta, 

This address was delivered on 28 October 2017 at Voice of the Family’s conference, “Humanae Vitae: Setting the Context” which marked the approach of the 50th anniversary year of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae.

The theological importance of Humanae vitae and its prophecy for our time

By Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta

1. Humanae vitae has faced acute problems

Humanae vitae (HV), Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical on the solemn duty of the transmission of human life, spoke loud and clear at a troubled historical and cultural moment. 25th June 1968, the day on which Paul VI signed the Encyclical, marked the beginning of a major controversy in the Church. One objection put to the Magisterium was that pronouncements could not be made on moral questions beyond the scope of Divine Revelation, for example the natural moral law, in particular artificial birth control, that is, contraception. However, HV 4 states from the outset that it is beyond dispute – as moreover taught by Paul VI’s predecessors –

“that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation”.

Some theologians were also of the opinion that, if the principle of totality[1] (a part in relation to a larger whole) was extended to the moral sphere of matrimony, it could be claimed that the procreative purpose belongs to the entirety of conjugal life and is therefore unaffected by individual acts intended to prevent conception. Individual matrimonial acts would hence be sterilising in material terms, but fertile in formal terms, invoking right intention and separating fertility from an order defined as merely bodily and material, linking it instead to a rational, and hence superior, order. Reliance was in fact placed on a morality of effects and consequences combined with convenience, an approach whose grave repercussions continue to this day.

The doctrinal vision presented by HV rests on two principles, abused to favour artificial birth control, but explained by Paul VI in the light of the Revelation as a whole. These two principles are: a) human love and b) responsible parenthood.

a) It appeared in fact that human love, said by many to have been restricted by Casti Connubi because it focused on marriage whose sole purpose was the transmission of life, was an alternative approach to a static notion of “nature”, favouring instead the dynamic of the “person” and “communion”. HV 8 teaches that “husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives

b) Responsible parenthood, however, was not to be defined merely as the predominance of right judgement in the couple’s openness to fertility, but also as a decision either to have additional children or “for serious reasons and with due respect to natural law, not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (HV 10). Further clarifying the limits of responsible parenthood, HV 10 sheds new light on true human love which guides a couple, stating that parents:

“are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out”.

True human love unites parents and hence makes them capable of transmitting the gift of life; the gift of life is in turn an expression of human love.  This will be important in avoiding a division between union and procreation (a binomial which remains indigestible). In fact, Paul VI was to observe in HV 11 – a significant magisterial step forward, in particular from the Second Vatican Council and Gaudium et spes (here authentically interpreted) and holding fast to Pius XI’s Casti Connubi – that

“the Church […] in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”[2].

Here, always with the primary aim of procreation, the truths of love and union are welded together. HV 12 further states, on the indivisibility of these two aspects, that:

“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. […] 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”.

This indivisibility leads us to reflect on the fact that the binomial – first expressed by Paul VI and linking Gaudium et spes to Casti Connubi as a result of a reappraisal of the important contribution of human and sacramental love to marriage – brings together union and procreationin the same moral principle, in fact showing it to be a procreative union. Marriage makes a couple one in love with the aim of begetting new life. Hence, the matrimonial union is intended for procreation and procreation perfects the union in a circular relationship of truth and love: the truth of the union finds its completion in love which begets new life and the fertility of love is in turn built on the indissoluble unity of the couple; if this were not the case, the love would be false, a deceit. As there is no procreation without union, so there is no union without procreation. So too love and fertility go hand in hand and are a reflection of love and unity.

As correctly noted by Stephan Goertz and Caroline Wittin in a recent book of collected essays entitled Amoris laetitia. Un punto di svolta per la teologia morale? (Amoris laetitia. A turning point for moral theology?), invoking HV 12, “contraception is no longer only contrary to nature, but also contrary to love[3].

2. To what extent does HV interpret and authentically complete Gaudium et spes while holding fast to Casti Connubi?

To begin this brief excursus, we must refer to the doctrine of the blessings of marriage, formulated by Augustine, taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas[4] and proclaimed in Casti Connubi. “All these – says St. Augustine – are the blessings which make marriage good: procreation, faith and the sacrament”.[5] According to Pius XI, these three blessings constitute a splendid compendium of the entire doctrine on Christian marriage.  However, Casti Connubi affirms that, of the three, procreation has prime place. Marriage is intended by the Creator and elevated by the Redeemer for the procreation of life and enrichment of the Holy Church through the begetting of new citizens, that is the procreation of “fellow citizens of the Saints and members of God’s household” (Eph 2:19).

The discourse on the blessings of marriage is joined and intertwined with the discourse on the purposes of marriage (and its properties): the primary purpose which is procreation and the secondary purpose which is mutual aid associated with the blessing of fidelity (bona fidei) and the allaying of concupiscence associated with the blessing of indissolubility (bona sacramenti). These precepts were originally formulated in the theology of Saint Isidore of Seville. The 1917 Code of Canon Law attaches importance to expression of the three purposes of marriage, primary and secondary (cf. Canon 1013, § 1), continuing a long-standing scholastic and controversialist tradition. The relevant theological works endorsed this approach adopted in Canon Law and formulated the discourse on the blessings of marriage on which Casti Connubi rests.

However, tension was frequently noted, having developed after Casti Connubi, between a vision of marriage as “an institution given by nature” and a vision of marriage as a “communion of persons” founded on conjugal love. This tension was said to have been triggered by the neoscholastic thinking which underlies Pius XI’s Encyclical on marriage, where the Encyclical states:

“This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches [ch. VIII, q. 13], be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof”.[6]

At Vatican II, there was a confrontation between two different motivations in the writing of Gaudium et spes, one defined as institutionalist and the other as personalist. The former, bolstered by the hierarchy of the purposes of marriage, continuously invoked Holy Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, while the latter, rooted in the centrality of conjugal love, exhorted a broader interpretation of traditional and scriptural works on the three purposes of marriage, seeking the inclusion of love and sexuality in the original plan of the Creator, giving rise to the exigencies of marriage.

It is indeed opportune to note that, in Casti Connubi, Pius XI refers to the Catechism of the Council of Trent which, even at that date, placed an emphasis on love in marriage.[7] For Pius XI, the love in married life which permeates all functions of conjugal life “holds pride of place in Christian marriage”.[8] Indeed Casti Connubi perceives no opposition between nature and the communion of persons, that is between the natural/sacramental aspect of matrimony and the communion/personalist dimension. This division, arising from an absolutist interpretation of love, was deepened by the application of an unbalanced hermeneutic to Gaudium et spes (and the rejection of HV). However, it is equally true that the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church in the modern world in fact leans towards the personalism of love rather than the hierarchy of the purposes of marriage, placing greater emphasis on the former and neglecting the doctrine of the hierarchy of the purposes of marriage formulated at an earlier date.

In Gaudium et spes 47-52 one sees the clear imprint of the personalist position of the majority. An entire paragraph is dedicated to human love (47) and as, last but not least, noted by Goertz and Witting, “the category of ‘natural’ as an ethical criterion has been consciously dropped”.[9]Gaudium et spes 48 affirms that: “By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown”. This is reiterated in paragraph 50. While it is hence emphasised that the intrinsic purpose (not the primary purpose, but the purpose deriving from matrimony as an “intimate partnership of life and conjugal love”, GS 48 reiterated in the 1985 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1055, § 1), is procreation, there is no longer mention of the fact that each single conjugal act is, by its very nature, oriented towards procreation, as stated in HV, in express reiteration of Casti Connubi. Only in a footnote to paragraph 51 of Gaudium et spes is the reader referred to the doctrine of Casti Connubi on the rules on birth control. It is added, again in note form, that problems requiring further and more careful consideration had been referred to an ad hoc Commission for study of the population, the family and the birth rate. Hence the Conciliar Magisterium offered no concrete solutions on the matter of birth regulation. As we well know, the study carried out by the Commission was to be preparatory to Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical on human life.

What emerges from this brief excursus is significant: while HV fills the void left by Gaudium et spes, condemning contraception and establishing a proper understanding of the value of human love, associated with responsible parenthood and always open to the gift of life, it also harmoniously unites the two inseparable aspects of marriage, the unitive and the procreative (described in paragraph 291 of the Catechism of the Council of Trent as “reasons of the matrimonial union”, together with the remedium concupiscentiae). Therefore, the link between Gaudium et spes and Casti Connubi is restored, the virtualities of the latter are developed and the truth of conjugal love is planted in the soil of procreation in cooperation in the design of God, which is the purpose of each individual act of conjugal love. This therefore is once again aprocreative union. For this reason, it is also expedient, in a discourse on Christian marriage, not to neglect the hierarchical purposes of matrimony, purposes to be continuously embedded in the vital and supreme discourse of procreation, likened to the Creator and the fertile love of Christ for his Bride. The unity of love of husband and wife finds its completion in procreation, even where this is naturally absent because love – from a consistently spiritual and supernatural standpoint – is, or is simply not, fertile.

3. Amoris laetitia as a means of overtaking HV?

The Magisterial teaching of HV, which provides a clear definition of the immorality of all contraceptive practice, includes the following passage (paragraph 14):

“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these”.

The warning given to us by Paul VI is the risk of focusing – as we said at the outset – on a morality based on the “principle of totality” in order to reject the morality of each individual act, hence of the moral act as such.  A morality of the person, understood to be in opposition to nature, in relation to the moral act in itself, in fact postulates the soundness of teleological ethical theories such as consequentialism and proportionalism, condemned by Veritatis splendour, but reappearing in force and gaining popularity.

HV could be overtaken in a context of teleological morality – referring to the ethical and moral content of Amoris laetitias (AL), as articulated by leading interpreters of that document – through the application of a consequentialist or proportionalist morality to the ends chosen, and hence to the intentions of anyone who elects to make a choice rather than refer to the moral object. In a world in which human actions are increasingly a blend of good and evil, the only means of adequately assessing the morality of an act is not based on the act itself, the end chosen, hence ascribed to the person choosing it, but instead on the aims desired based on a calculation of effects produced or a just proportion between the good to be thereby achieved and the evil to be thereby caused. As explained by John Paul II in Veritatis splendour 75:

“concrete kinds of behaviour could be described as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, without it being thereby possible to judge as morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the will of the person choosing them. In this way, an act which, by contradicting a universal negative norm, directly violates goods considered as ‘pre-moral’ could be qualified as morally acceptable if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with a ‘responsible’ assessment of the goods involved in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation.

The evaluation of the consequences of the action, based on the proportion between the act and its effects and between the effects themselves, would regard only the pre-moral order. The moral specificity of acts, that is their goodness or evil, would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence, without this faithfulness necessarily being incompatible with choices contrary to certain particular moral precepts”.

Let us consider a concrete example. From a standpoint of “situational ethics”, in a situation of adultery (a pre-moral good), if the cohabitants are obliged to remain together for the good of the children and hence live as husband and wife to safeguard a more important good (the motive being charity and hence a moral good), the moral action would be good because there would be a satisfactory proportionate relationship between the good attained and the wrongful act tolerated. For this reason, the intention of the agent could not be judged to be good or bad and it would therefore no longer be possible to judge the behaviour in itself, but merely in relation to the circumstances of the case. However, in a situation involving contraception, in which the moral good of the act in itself is eliminated due to the circumstances of that act (for example the need to safeguard the good of the family as a whole or other children), the moral action would be judged on the basis of a calculation of the effects produced or the proportionate relationship between the good effects and the bad effects, but in any event the morality of the act would no longer pertain to the person or persons choosing this behaviour, but  derive from a calculation based on the end attained. If the end is good because the chosen good inherent in it is, for example, the good of the family, contraception would be morally acceptable and the intention of the agent would be considered neutral and hence not open to judgement. Therefore the objectivity of the moral act per se, and hence of the divine precepts, including those which impose prohibitions semper et pro semper, is disregarded as futile or immaterial.

A morality such as this, which favours the intention and consequences of the act only, to the exclusion of the act itself, falls into the acceptance of “intrinsic evil”; these are acts whose object cannot be ordered to God because they radically contradict the good of the person created in His image, violating what is stated clearly in the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans (3:8): “It is not licit to do evil that good may come of it”.[10]

A closer examination of AL reveals two paragraphs which lend themselves to interpretation in this direction. The first is AL 80, where it is affirmed that:

“no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this [generative] meaning [here reference to HV 11-12 is made], even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life”.

As noted by Goertz and Witting, “this is surely an ambiguous assertion because, from a ‘not licit’, one proceeds to a ‘not being able’. Is fertility of love to be understood here as transcending actual procreation?”.[11] These reasons are not identified, or even defined as “grave”, but merely as reasons, ultimately ascribable to the supreme reason of love which, in a more general interpretation, precedes, or is implicit in, procreation. There is however a further text which paves the way for the convenient positioning of an invoked “shift in moral paradigm”, namely AL 82 which, quoting the Relatio Synodi states that:

“We need to rediscover the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth…”.

In fact, nowhere in HV is any reference to the dignity of the person in an assessment of birth control methods to be found; instead it is said that the Church, in defending conjugal morality in its entirety and consistently condemning contraception as directly contrary to the unitive and procreative aspect of marriage, is thereby defending the dignity of husband and wife (cf. HV 18). However, quoting Gaudium et spes 50 in AL 222, Pope Francis underlines the dignity of the spouses, inviting them to form a right judgement before God regarding children to be brought into the world.  He adds that the use of natural methods birth control is to be encouraged.

According to an influential moral theologian, Eberhard Schockenhoff[12] (theological adviser to a number of German prelates), who perceives in AL a “Paradigmenwechsel”, a “paradigm shift” (which has attracted many followers in Italy also), if we follow the exhortation of Pope Francis on love in the family, we would be “downplaying the sexuality” affirmed in recent centuries. The title chosen for AL invite us instead to gaze from on high at the playfulness, passion and ecstasy of love. In the opinion of Schockenhoff, AL 82 is particularly expressive of this shift in moral perspective. In his opinion, the text should be read in the light of the sceptical observations made by Pope Francis on the overestimation of a deductive moral theory which, from general principles, aims to arrive at a solution for all possible situations. From this Schockenhoff forms the impression that behind this text is “a tendency to relativize the teaching hitherto upheld of the absolute moral censure of artificial birth control”.

In other words, according to this German theologian, AL has paved the way for an overhaul of the moral doctrine on contraception, favouring a personalistic morality rather than the existing neo-scholastic or essentialist morality. Is this the guiding idea behind the new Commission, established to monitor the historical progress of HV and so identify possible links between this document and Gaudium et spes against Casti Connubi? Are we again to be confronted with the invocation of an absolute Conciliar Magisterium, contrary to the Church’s unwavering tradition and moreover developed homogenously and definitively in its earliest beginnings by the Pontifical Magisterium of the last 50 years?

Furthermore, according to Schockenhoff, this would be a propitious moment to set aside a morality based upon the neo-scholastic moral act deriving from the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas. From a morality of acts (and their object), we would proceed, as in AL, to a morality of the person. Hence the root of the problem of remarried divorced persons would be solved in a nutshell: if it ceases to be necessary to judge consciences, it then becomes necessary to ask whether the life shared by remarried divorced persons is loved in its moral value. If what matters is the communion and personalism aspect, then, in the view of the German theologian, even a civil union should be seen as a bond and an entirely personal community of life. Therefore, to refer to ‘rupture’ of the abandoned partner will be simply absurd. This is the extreme conclusion to which arrival at the “paradigm shift” invoked would lead, resulting in substantial repercussions on life and procreation within marriage. This would mean that the love formerly proclaimed is trampled upon.

4. Conclusion

Much effort is being exerted to generate an irreversible turnaround in moral theology, as encouraged by AL. It is hence suggested that AL should be read in the light of Gaudium et spesin order to disregard the (neo-scholastic and jusnaturalistic) norms set in stone in HV, which refer organically to Casti Connubi and the moral doctrine on marriage of the Tradition as a whole. It is proposed to disregard an ethic on the law or the norm to make reference to an ethic of the person or of love or of responsibility. The moment of this disregard is important and programmatic. It is fed by characteristic prolixity, which in turn becomes a pedagogical method. In the opinion of another German theologian, H.K. Pottmeyer, prolixity (or verbosity) is instrumental to a transition which it is desired to cause: “Through persuasive language, it is intended to obtain support for a new beginning, while at the same time demonstrating continuity”.[13]

We should therefore focus increasingly on an analysis of the language employed and its proper usage in theology. What is at risk as a result of this reckless shift in paradigm is not just the morality of marriage, but morality itself, which would be reduced to good intentions. However, our stance is such that the only words we utter are “Yes for Yes” or “No for No”. Whatever goes beyond this comes from evil. (cf. Mt 5:37).


[1] This principle was formulated with reference to the matter of organ transplants, as developed by Pius XII. According to this principle, respect should always be given to oneself and others, as members of the human community regarded as an organic unity of persons, distinct from one another.

[2] This is the central statement, after making reference to the natural law, whose rule is inserted in the doctrine revealed by God: «[…] quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus permaneat». HV here holds fast to Casti Connubi: «[…] quemlibet matrimonii usum, in quo exercendo, actus, de industria hominum, naturali sua vitae procreandae vi destituatur, Dei et naturae legem infringere, et eos qui tale quid commiserint gravis noxae labe commaculari, AAS XXII (1930) 560.

[3] S. Goertz – C. Witting (edited by), Amoris laetitia: un punto di svolta per la teologia morale?San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2017 (in German: Amoris laetitia – Wendepunkt für die Moraltheologie, Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2016), p. 27.

[4] Cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, q. 49.

[5] St. Augustine, De bono coniug., chap. 24, no. 32.

[6] In AAS XXII (1930) 548-549.

[7] The Catechism of the Council of Trent (par. 290) gives the following definition of matrimony: “The conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life”.

[8] In AAS XXII (1930) 547-548: «[…] ex coniugali scilicet amore, qui omnia coniugalis vitae officia pervadit et quemdam tenet in christiano coniugio principatum nobilitatis».

[9] S. Goertz – C. Witting (edited by), Amoris laetitia: un punto di svolta per la teologia morale?, cit. p. 25.

[10] Veritatis splendor 79 teaches: “One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species – its ‘object’ – the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned”. Paragraph 81 adds: “In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: ‘Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 6:9-10)”. Lastly, Veritatis splendor 80 quotes HV 14, in so doing ratifying its magisterial authority on matter of intrinsic evil acts with direct reference to contraception. Therefore, the Encyclical Veritatis splendour, in reiterating the teaching of HV (in the light of the magisterial tradition as a whole) and invoking it as an authority on this matter, allows us to hold HV to be definitive magisterial teaching on contraception.

[11] S. Goertz – C. Witting (edited by), Amoris laetitia: un punto di svolta per la teologia morale?, cit. p. 57.

[12] See his essay Traditionsbruch oder notwendige Weiterbildung. Zwei Lesarten des Nachsynodalen Schreibens “Amoris laetitia”, published in «Stimme der Zeit» 3 (2017) 147-158. Also a digital version is available: We will make reference to this essay in its digital version.

[13] H.J. Pottmeyer, «Von einer neuen Phase der Rezeption des Vaticanum II. Zwanzig Jahre Hermeneutick des Konzils», in H.J. Pottmeyer – G. Alberigo – J.P. Jossua (edited by), Die Rezeption des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils, Düsseldorf 1986, p. 48, cit. in S. Goertz – C. Witting (edited by), Amoris laetitia: un punto di svolta per la teologia morale?, p. 56.