Humanae Vitae

From Academic Kids

Humanae Vitae (Latin "of human life") is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and promulgated on July 25, 1968. It expresses the official position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding abortion, contraception, and other issues pertaining to human life. Mainly because of its prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control, the encyclical remains controversial even within the church.



The encyclical opens with the observation that circumstances often dictate that married couples should limit the number of children, and that the sexual act between husband and wife is still worthy even if it can be foreseen not to result in procreation. Nevertheless, it is held that the sexual act must "retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life", and the "direct interruption of the generative process already begun" is unlawful.

Abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, is absolutely forbidden, as is sterilization, even if temporary. Similarly, every action specifically intended to prevent procreation is forbidden. This includes both chemical and barrier methods of contraception. All these are held to directly contradict the moral order.

Therapeutic means which induce infertility are allowed, if they are not specifically intended for that purpose. Natural family planning methods (abstaining from intercourse during certain parts of the women's cycle) are allowed, since they take advantage of "a faculty provided by nature."

The danger of artificial contraception is the loss of dignity for the human person and the promulgation of the viewpoint that children are burdens to be avoided.

The encyclical closes with an appeal to public authorities to oppose laws which undermine the natural moral law (see natural law), an appeal to scientists to further study effective methods of natural birth control and appeals to doctors, nurses and priests to promote the method.


There had been a long-standing general Christian prohibition on contraception and abortion, with such church fathers as Clement of Alexandria and Saint Augustine condemning the practices. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion changed its position by allowing for contraception in limited circumstances. Every other large Protestant denomination has since modified its view on contraception to one of approval.

In a partial reaction, Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) in 1930, reaffirming the Catholic Church's attachment to various traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality, including contraception even within marriage.

With the appearance of oral contraceptives in the early 1960s, some voices in the church argued for a reconsideration of these positions. In 1963 Pope John XXIII established a commission of theologians to study questions of birth control. Pope Paul VI added laymen to this commission. The commission produced a report in 1966, finding that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed. Two members of the commission produced a minority report stating that the church should not and could not change its earlier teaching. Even though intended for the Pope only, the commission's reports were leaked to the press in 1967, raising public expectations of liberalization. However, Paul VI explicitly rejected the majority's recommendations. The final language of the encyclical was heavily influenced by Karol Wojtyła, who would later become Pope John Paul II; he had earlier defended the traditional church position from a philosophical standpoint in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility.


Many Catholics disagree with the prohibition on artificial birth control and continue to use these methods. The publication of the encyclical marks the first time that open dissent about teachings of the church were voiced widely and publicly. The policy has been criticized by development organizations which claim that it limits the methods available to fight world-wide population growth.

Within two days of the encyclical's release, a group of dissident theologians, led by Rev. Charles Curran, then of the Catholic University of America, issued a statement affirming that Catholics' individual consciences should prevail in such a personal and private issue.

Any Catholic who refuses to accept the Church's teachings concerning artificial contraception is a heretic, and he who uses any method of artificial contraception commits mortal sin.

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