Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae And The Need To Control Population Growth

With the earth’s population growing by 95 million a year, the world is trudging towards overpopulation and may result into the rapid depletion of the planet’s resources. This in turn may lead to widespread famine, global warming, acid rain, and other major ecological problems.

(Global warming, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, vulnerability to epidemics, and exhaustion of soils and ground-water are all, as have been proven by numerous scientific studies, related to population size).

We have today, arrived at the crossroads of survival for a livable life over the entire world. One road leads to the continued depletion of resources, pollution and reduction of the ability to meet basic human needs. The other leads to an improved way of life where population sizes are in balance with the sustainable supply of resources. We need to realize and accept the fact that we have reached the point where our population is rapidly increasing while our basic natural resources are declining essentially because many of our renewable resources are being used faster than they can restore themselves.

The concept of sustainable development subscribes to the principle of living within the carrying capacity of the environment. Unfortunately, as in the case of all less developed countries, sustainability is hardly possible since the birth rates in these countries far exceeds their GDP growth. There is therefore an urgency to implement population control programs specially in these less developed countries!

Artificial birth control, or the use of contraceptives, is the easiest way to address the population problem. Unfortunately, efforts to implement any population control program that promotes the use of contraceptives is being met with stern disapproval from the catholic church. (In the Philippines, the newly installed president who is a staunch advocate of population control, was even threatened with ex-communication by some catholic bishops for supporting the Reproductive Health Bill now pending in the Philippine Congress!)

At the center of the catholic church’s unwavering stance against artificial birth control is the

Humanae Vitae (Latin for “Of Human Life”) – an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and promulgated on July 25, 1968. Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth”, it re-affirms the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church regarding abortion, contraception, and other issues pertaining to human life. The encyclical totally banned all forms of contraceptives!

Although Pope Paul VI, when he wrote this encyclical, did not invoke the doctrine of “Papal Infallibility” (the dogma in Roman Catholic theology that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error when he solemnly declares or promulgates to the universal Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals as being contained in divine revelation, or at least being intimately connected to divine revelation.) It was none-the-less embraced by the catholic bishops worldwide as if it was gospel truth believing the pope was preaching “ex-cathedra”. Thus, the encyclical was the subject of debates and controversies from then on up to the present!

(I shall not discuss the equally controversial doctrine of “Papal Infallibility” here as I want to focus this discussion on the encyclical!)

The threat to the catholic church brought by the growing global concerns on population explosion and the corresponding technology being developed to correct the problem was recognized by the catholic leaders decades ago. That is why the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1964. It completed its work under Pope Paul VI in 1966. The commission was given the task of finding a way to modify the Church’s position on birth control without destroying papal authority which was considered as essential for the survival of the catholic church. Evidently, the commission failed to find a way that will not compromise church teachings. This, then, gave birth to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae!

Pope Paul VI knew that Humanae Vitae would be controversial. But, he declared, the Church “does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.” Like Christ, the Church “is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.'”

To many, like Pope Benedict XVI, Humanae Vitae is controversial because it upheld the Church’s traditional condemnation of contraception. Pope Benedict argued that the case against contraception is based not on sectarian beliefs but on the natural law. “The transmission of life is inscribed in nature,” he observed, “and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which everyone must refer.”

Accordingly, Humanae Vitae declares that we must uphold the natural law which reveals that the marriage act has both unitive and procreative aspects, which cannot be separated. It further declares that “An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life… contradicts the will of the Author of life.”

Paul VI teaches in the first sentence of Humanae Vitae, that the transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. This is divine partnership, so Paul VI does not allow for arbitrary human decisions, which may limit divine providence.

This is where the Humanae Vitae basically became controversial and flawed. Because after declaring that there should be no room for arbitrary human decisions in the marital act, after declaring that the marital act has both unitive and procreative aspects which can not be separated, it goes on to declare that:

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.”

Does this(allowing marital intercourse during infertile periods to control birth) not separate the unitive aspect of the marital act from its procreative aspect? Does this not reduce the marital act to a mere act of sexuality which it condemns throughout the encyclical? I thought the encyclical has just professed that “An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life… contradicts the will of the Author of life?”

In the past, the catholic church had slightly modified its teachings on marital sexuality several times throughout its history. A modification giving permission to the use of contraception would have just been a welcome and legitimate (and appropriate) doctrinal development of moral norms for marital intercourse necessitated by a deeper appreciation of the values of conjugal love.

Unfortunately, as the debate on contraception rages, it is also becoming clearer that a change in the catholic church’s teachings on contraception will not merely require a slight modification nor a logical development of church honored teachings but may also have radical implications on other fundamental claims of the catholic church.

To sum it all up, we can say that Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae provides no sufficient or convincing arguments for the teachings it has enumerated. Rather than present new insights into why it condemns contraception, it simply reiterates the same old unconvincing arguments based on a moral theology which is grounded in an antiquated theory of natural law!

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