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“Humanae Vitae” and the key to the mighty mystery of sex

St. Paul rhapsodized on the beauty of marital love as a great mystery, indeed the sign of Christ’s love for His Church. Contraceptive intercourse, on the other hand, lies about both the God of the covenant and the children of the covenant.

(Photo: Frank McKenna @frankiefoto/

To hear some people talk, one would get the impression that the prohibition against artificial contraception came out of the blue. However, even a brief review of history reveals a strong and consistent ban on all such activities from the earliest days of the Church in a direct line, right into the twentieth century, with statements to the same effect by Pope Paul VI’s three immediate predecessors, as well as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. As a matter of fact, at least as early as 1966, Pope Paul VI himself gave clear signals that the traditional teaching would be reaffirmed. It is likewise worth noting that all the Protestant Reformers held to this teaching, as did all their spiritual descendants, up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Pope John Paul II reiterated that case for the teaching of Humane Vitae with patience and regularity. Two statements, however, are particularly noteworthy because of their forcefulness. In 1983, the Holy Father declared: “Contraception is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 10, 1983, p.7).

In 1987, Pope John Paul II asserted that “the Church’s teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians, Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral consciences of spouses into error” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 6, 1987, p.12). If the polls are correct in observing that more than 80% of Catholic women of child bearing age in the United States ignore this teaching, why not change it, or at least why bother to appear to “beat a dead horse”? Because the truth of the Gospel and the truth about the human person are at stake.

Very often even people of goodwill find the logic of Humanae Vitae difficult to understand. While they know the pronouncements of the Magisterium in this regard, they may feel the teaching has no grounding in Scripture.

I have always wondered why no one seems to ground the core of Humanae Vitae’s teaching in the written Word of God. For me, one passage (which provides a basic theme for the whole of the Bible) is most instructive about the plan of God and the response He expects from those who would wish to be numbered among His Chosen People. I refer specifically to Genesis 17:10-13:

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you that you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. Throughout the ages every male among you when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised, including household slaves and those acquired with money from any foreigner who is part of your blood. Yes, both the house born slaves and those acquired with money must be circumcised. Thus my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact.

As Almighty God began to form a people uniquely His own, He established a covenant with Abraham as the father of that chosen nation. The Lord promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as “the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore” (Gn 22:17). And that from a man who was “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12).

All this showed that the Lord was God both in love and in power; He was truly Yahweh (I Am Who Am), who thus revealed himself to Moses as the very source of life (cf.Ex 3:14).

And so it was that when God was asked by Abraham to demonstrate His love, God spoke in terms of life; ever since, love and life have been inextricably linked to each other, for they are two sides of the same coin.

In ancient times covenants were the normal means of doing business, and such agreements always had external signs. The Lord God said the sign for Abraham and every son of the covenant thereafter was to be that of circumcision. How strange! Why not a sign that would be visible to all at every moment? Why a sign seen only by the man and his wife? For a reason so simple that is most profound: the act of sexual intercourse would thenceforth speak not only the language of love but equally the language of life, which is to say, that sexual intimacy would speak God’s language.

Therefore, every time a Hebrew man engaged in intercourse, he would be reminded that this particular act had been invested with a new meaning by God himself, a point literally branded into one’s flesh and as enduring as God’s will, God’ s love, God’s gift of life.

Whoever came up with the saying “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” knew nothing of the God of the covenant; His love is totally unrestricted and completely open. God says, “the more the merrier!” He says that in His own Godhead in that community of Persons who love Each Other eternally and expansively in the Trinity; hence, not just one Person, nor two, but three. Thus does the Blessed Trinity serve as a model for human love and relationship, in which love between persons necessarily overflows into new life.

The connection between love and life reaches its apex in Jesus Christ, who loves humanity so much that He gives His life that “we might have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Like His heavenly Father, Jesus offers a covenantal sign of His love in the life blood of the Eucharist, that new and everlasting covenant.

Although Christians need not practice circumcision under the new covenant, they are still called to reflect those same values by which love and life are proclaimed in who we are and what we do, an example provided in a preeminent manner by Christ’s sacrifice of himself on our behalf.

Unlike any faith system before or since, the covenant way of the Lord sacralizes human sexuality by making of it a mirror image of God’s own gifts of himself as Love and Life. Therefore, we deal here with the truth of God’s identity and man’s dignity at one and the same time. No wonder, then, that St. Paul could rhapsodize on the beauty of marital love as a great mystery, indeed the sign of Christ’s love for His Church. Contraceptive intercourse, on the other hand, lies about both the God of the covenant and the children of the covenant.

Decades after Humanae Vitae the Church clings to this essential teaching with a tenacity that annoys and astounds most people, but she does so because of some fundamental convictions that underlie the whole vocation of being a part of the Chosen People. In a 1966 essay in Triumph magazine, Brent Bozell put it powerfully:

The world deems the Church mad to have hitched its whole moral authority to this wretched piece of intransigence. Millions of Catholics and near Catholics and apostate Catholics over the years have felt the same way: if only the Church would give ground on this one, the rest would be easy to take. But this wretched piece of intransigence is the key to the mighty mystery of sex, which unlocks the door to the even more awesome mystery of life, which in turn reveals the reality of the supernatural. If the Church does not own this key, it does not own any keys at all.

Married couples, theologians, clergy – indeed anyone interested in the God-man relationship – would do well to reflect on “the mighty mystery of sex,” and on “the even more awesome mystery of life.”

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 258 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. May we please lay to rest the term “artificial contraception”? It is contraception that stands condemned. Withdrawal is contraception, or maybe more accurately a contraceptive act. Periodic abstinence/continence (NFP) is not.

  2. there is no such thing as “artificial” contraception.There is also no such thing as “natural” contraception as opposed to “artificial” contraception. These terms are used & abused to confuse the audience.
    Contraception is exactly this; the willful interposing of an extraneous barrier to conception. It is of it’s very nature artificial. Contraception is also a serious sin against the Divine Will of our Creator.
    NFP is not contraception.

  3. Great, timely article; thank you! The scriptural background and teachings are invaluable.

    I can’t understand why “Humanae Vitae” is still debated among those who self-identify as Catholic theologians and writers…and with Blessed Paul VI’s canonization later this year, the debates are already enjoying a resurgence. These invitations to dissension are thievery. If attended to, they can rob us of the great joy and freedom of being Catholic, of giving over every aspect of life to Christ. In an assent to the temptation to discard Church teaching on human sexuality, there is the consequence of discarding trust in any definitive teachings of Christ and the Magisterium. They are integrated; they are all one, and they reflect God’s love for us. To serve our own comfort, we can’t be a little bit Catholic, or somewhat Catholic, or mostly Catholic. Aren’t old debates over “Humanae Vitae” also debates about whether all these teachings are negotiable?

  4. In Hebrews 12, the creation of the old Mosaic covenant is described figuratively as God “shaking the earth,” with the institution of his world-changing covenant. The new covenant in Christ is then referred to as a final shaking of the heavens and earth. The institution of the new covenant kingdom of God will never be shaken, that is, never be changed. Hebrews 12:26–2826 At that time [of the old covenant] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.

  5. This is surely one of the best brief outlines of the scriptural and theological basis for Humanae Vitae. It should be widely disseminated instead of being lost in CWR electronic archives.

    Perhaps the fact that Humanae Vitae was a formal statement in an Encyclical was enough for some catholics. It was inadequate for many, who did not or could not look behind it. The underlying theological and scriptural basis for the Encyclical fully vindicates its teaching, and the article is profound, convincing and reassuring.
    Many thanks for the article.

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