“Humanae Vitae” and the Catholic Church in England: Signs of hope

Fifty years after Humanae Vitae’s promulgation, promoting its teaching still brings immense challenges. But the news isn’t all bad.

(CNS photo/Fredrik Sandberg, EPA)

On July 25, 1968 Pope Paul VI issued what is perhaps the most controversial encyclical of modern times, Humanae Vitae. Rejecting the recommendations of the Papal Commission on Birth Control, which had endorsed a relaxation of Catholic teaching, Paul reasserted the historic teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception.

Fifty years later, Humanae Vitae’s teachings on marriage and sexuality are as powerful and relevant as ever. The encyclical begins by proclaiming married couples as “free and responsible collaborators of God the Creator.” Marriage “invests the dignity of a sign of grace.” The pope outlines four marks of conjugal love. It is “fully human,” in the sense that it combines bodily desires with free will, and these must be harnessed according to the law of God. It is “total” in that it involves a complete self-giving on the part of both spouses. It is “faithful” and exclusive unto death. Finally, it is a “fruitful” union, a central purpose of which is the procreation of new human life. Children are the “supreme gift of marriage.” Contraception throws these fundamental elements of conjugal love severely out of balance.

Central to Humanae Vitae is the teaching of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative functions of the marital act and that “every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” The pope states that

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.

Rejecting the tendency toward situation ethics that was starting to prevail among many theologians at that time, the encyclical asserts: “it is not licit even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom.”

The encyclical makes an important distinction between contraception and the use of the infertile periods in the woman’s cycle to space the births of children. There is no inconsistency here. With Natural Family Planning (NFP) “the married couple make use of a natural disposition,” while with contraception “they impede the development of the natural processes.”

Pope Paul was extremely prophetic in predicting the effects on society of the widespread acceptance of contraception. Increased infidelity within marriage, as well as widespread marital collapse and the breakdown of sexual morality, can all be linked to the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s. The encyclical argues that the man “may finally lose respect for the woman and…may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment.” Further, “a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies…placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of human intimacy.” The coercive family-planning programs that have been implemented in many developing countries, as well as in nations like China, with the support of western governments and aid agencies, are evidence of the truth of Paul’s predictions.

Though the pope acknowledged that the observance of this teaching may be hard, it nonetheless creates an atmosphere favorable to chastity and the mastery of self. Far from harming the relationship of married couples, it confers a “higher human value” and “it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.” Indeed, it is efficacious not only in enhancing the married life of the couple but that of their children also: “little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties.”

Humanae Vitae’s reception in England

In teaching the inseparability of the unitive and procreative functions of the marital act, Pope Paul stated hopefully: “We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.”

Alas, it was not to be. The reinstatement of the Church’s traditional teaching caused an uproar across the world. Prominent theologians, some of whom had served as periti at the Second Vatican Council only three years earlier, denounced the encyclical. No fewer than 12 national hierarchies issued statements dissenting from it.

Humanae Vitae caused no less of a storm in the UK. Angry Catholics who had expected a change in the Church’s teaching marched in the streets and picketed their cathedrals. Britain’s oldest Catholic weekly, The Tablet, once a bastion of orthodoxy, spearheaded opposition to the encyclical and published a statement of dissent signed by 75 lay Catholics. Fifty-five priests signed a letter to The Times newspaper expressing their opposition to the encyclical’s teaching. An ad hoc group was established to facilitate such opposition and the Catholic Renewal Movement (now Catholics for a Changing Church) was set up to support priests who dissented from Humanae Vitae.

The bishops of England and Wales, however, did not follow in the footsteps of many of their continental counterparts in dissenting from the encyclical. Cardinal Heenan, the archbishop of Westminster, had sat on the Papal Birth Control Commission and abstained from voting on its final report. But he now took the view that Rome had spoken and that Humanae Vitae must be defended. In a letter to the clergy of his diocese, Heenan commented on those clergy who had openly dissented from Humanae Vitae. Addressing these and all other priests of the diocese, he stated:

…open refusal of a group of priests to accept the Pope’s guidance has caused dismay to their fellow priests who…give loyal obedience to the Holy Father. The opposition of these priests to the Pope’s teaching has bewildered and saddened loyal members of the laity.

It is evident that no priest in the exercise of his ministry may repudiate the solemn teaching of the supreme authority of the Church which gives him his mandate.

…If a priest is unwilling to give this undertaking, the bishop will decide whether he can be allowed without scandal to continue to act in the name of the Church.

Priests are required in preaching, teaching, in the press, on radio, television, or public platforms, to refrain from opposing the teaching of the Pope in all matters of faith and morals.

Although he need not be required to cease celebrating mass, a priest may not normally hold faculties to hear confessions without undertaking to declare faithfully the objective teaching of Humanae Vitae in the confessional and when giving spiritual guidance.

Other bishops followed suit. Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy of Southwark suspended a priest who had openly preached against Humanae Vitae.  Bishop Edward Ellis of Nottingham suspended four priests for similar activity. One of the most eloquent defenses of the encyclical’s teaching came from Archbishop John Murphy of Cardiff, who called it a “Magna Carta for mankind.”

Yet despite such robust teaching and disciplinary action in the immediate aftermath of the encyclical’s release, too many priests and religious dissented from the encyclical and too many lay Catholics failed to adhere to its teaching. Whatever enthusiasm the hierarchy initially had for defending the encyclical was soon lost, a great conspiracy of silence set in, and Humanae Vitae became the great unmentionable.

The use of contraception was and still is widespread among Catholic couples, and the natural methods of birth regulation known as Natural Family Planning (NFP) became, in the words of Fr. Paul Marx, “the Church’s best-kept secret.”

One of the saddest testimonies to many clergy’s indifference to even the worst abuses of birth control during this period has been illustrated by Dr. Thomas Ward, president of the National Association of Catholic Families:

In 1975 we gave a pregnant 15-year-old Catholic girl a home. My wife, also a doctor, spoke to the girl at length in an effort to identify her experience of this indoctrination. It came from teenage magazines and sex education, often emanating from the Family Planning Association under its many masks. The most interesting influence was the priest school chaplain who had written all of the contraceptive methods on the blackboard. When asked, “was contraception wrong?” he replied that he did not know. Sadly, the children were less indecisive. Many of the 15-year-olds were already contracepting.

Hope for the future

Promoting the teaching of Humanae Vitae in England still brings immense challenges. Some years ago, I attempted to organize an event in my own parish to help promote the teaching of this encyclical and was told bluntly by the parish priest, who had consulted the parish council on the matter, “We aren’t ready for that yet.” There remains vigorous opposition from some theologians to the encyclical’s teaching. The UK-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research recently released a Catholic Scholars Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives, which claims, “there are no grounds, either from the Bible or from nature, to support current Catholic teaching” and that “the choice to use contraceptives for either family planning or prophylactic purposes can be a responsible and ethical decision and even, at times, an ethical imperative.”

Yet there are increasing signs of hope. A number of bishops now publicly defend Humanae Vitae. Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has called its teaching infallible. A number of those who have worked for many years to promote Humanae Vitae have testified to both the challenges and hopeful signs currently at work in the Church in England. Edmund Adamus, former director of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Westminster, who has 25 years’ experience of promoting Humanae Vitae in England’s dioceses, states:

I have noticed that a younger generation of Catholic both lay and ordained have been more open and receptive to the essential teaching…and that is heartening, but the prevailing negative and indeed dismissive attitude of many towards Humanae Vitae lingers on, both individually and institutionally, and the former mostly feeds off the latter.

Adamus says he experienced “enormous difficulties” in advocating the encyclical’s teachings, “not so much in terms of having opportunities to proclaim its message and implement its truths via various pastoral programmes, resources, and adult faith formation…but from the perspective of having little or no real tangible support from the diocesan system.”

Yet, says Adamus: “engaged couples on marriage prep programmes or married couples receiving appropriate enrichment support can and do respond to the Church’s teaching very warmly and receptively.”

Adamus helped introduce to English dioceses the Loving4Life weekend retreat for married couples, which is centered on the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

Greg Clovis, director of Family Life International UK, calls Humanae Vitae “the most important encyclical of our age.” For nearly 30 years he has taught courses on Natural Family Planning. Clovis, while saying that the responses he has had from parish priests are often disappointing, has also testified to a new and positive attitude among the young to the Church’s teachings.

“Teaching young people about NFP has been a really wonderful experience,” he says. “Most of them have never heard of it before and they are quite delighted.”

While many lay people involved in promoting the teachings of Humanae Vitae have complained of a lack of support from their clergy, that too appears to be changing. A new generation of priests committed to orthodoxy has arisen. Father Marcus Holden is one of these. Father Holden believes that the destructive results of sexual permissiveness on British society are causing many in the Church to look again at the teachings of Pope Paul’s encyclical.

“We see the decay of our culture and the breakdown of relationships,” Father Holden says. “I believe the majority see this as disturbing and problematic. Most people in the Church, and certainly most priests, would now acknowledge that society has got things massively wrong on human sexuality. More and more younger priests, in particular, are willing to speak out. The clergy are now more confident. Many see Humanae Vitae as the antidote to the problems in our culture. There is a renewed confidence in faith, tradition and in what has always been true.”

While promoting the prophetic teachings of Humanae Vitae is still in many ways an uphill struggle in England, we can take hope from the witness of many lay people and priests who have labored hard to make its teachings known. It is not too much to hope that because of their efforts the next generation of Catholics will be much better informed about this teaching, which is so essential to an authentic understanding and practice of marriage and human sexuality.

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About Piers Shepherd 10 Articles
Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer currently based in Colombia. He has had articles published in the Catholic Herald, The Wanderer, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, The Scottish Mail on Sunday, Crisis and The Conservative Woman among others.


  1. There are three basic goods to which human sexuality is oriented (in rank order): bonum prolis, consortium, and remedium concupiscientiae.
    The ironic thing is that there was no need for Humanae Vitae. In a way, it muddled the issue — by conflating and elevating consortium and remedium concupiscientiae to a “conjugal love”, that came to be placed on a co-equal level with bonum prolis. In my opinion, Paul VI would have done better to simply reaffirm Casti Connubii (and sooner, in consideration of the exploding sexual revolution, rather than later as he did, in his typical Hamlet/Pontius Pilate method). Let’s face it: the guy was bucking to be Pope for more than 20 years; Pastor Angelicus left him out of the running in 1958; he had to clean up a mess he didn’t make, but connived in, in 1963; he tried to “sweeten” what to his personalist confreres was a sour pill in 1968 by opening the door to a radically new interpretation of human sexuality that Francis and his thuggish crew are blowing through today.
    I think Montini is a saint, just like many who have gone before me, but I don’t think he needs to be “raised to the altars” before Pope Pius XII.

  2. The Herald and many other good Catholic publications are going to need to rethink their editorial policy in the near future. This is a very good place to come to read about the problems facing the Church in a very wounded world. So, what helps the wounded? Marriage, babies, sexual moderation, a respect for Church Tradition and Scripture. What’s going to happen in the next synod? We are going to be told that the world is too complicated for any of these good things to remain practical propositions – so contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation and euthanasia will all get a “pass” at least if “accompanied.” To make these arguments Francis and company will have to discern their way through both 2,000 years of tradition and Scripture. And he will do it if not stopped. Pray for strong bishops.

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