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Horizons: Virtual Issue 3

Humanae Vitae—Fiftieth Anniversary


Christopher Denny

The Cambridge University Press journal Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society has its roots in the progressive re-visioning of Roman Catholic theology after Vatican II, frequently understood as aggiornamento, and is committed to scholarship that is grounded in the Catholic incarnational/sacramental tradition. Horizons also fosters diverse scholarship across the fields of religious studies and theology, and is dedicated to a broad ecumenical perspective, a wide range of theological methods, and an intensive engagement of faith with culture.

“Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” –Humanae Vitae, paragraph 11”[1]

This most controversial encyclical letter in the history of the Catholic Church was not merely a theological document. Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) became a media event, for within twenty-four hours of the encyclical’s publication a group of Catholic theologians led by Father Charles Curran released a statement to the media. The eighty-seven signatories decried the encyclical’s “overemphasis on the biological aspects of conjugal relations as ethically normative; undue stress on sexual acts and on the faculty of sex viewed in itself, apart from the person and the couple.””[2] Differences over Humanae Vitae led to polarization that haunts the reception of magisterial teaching to this day. Repeated surveys have demonstrated that most Roman Catholics in the economically developed world ignore the papal directive reaffirming the Church’s traditional rejection of artificial contraception.”[3] For some Catholics, Paul VI’s letter was not simply wrong but also exemplified a Vatican hierarchy out of touch with social transformations that promised to liberate Christians from outdated moral norms and gender expectations. In this view, Humanae Vitae crystallizes the opposition of a reactionary church that refuses to read the signs of the times.”[4] The pope’s decision to override the majority recommendation of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, which had urged that married couples be allowed to decide for themselves whether to use artificial contraception, was adduced as evidence that the Second Vatican Council’s call for laity to play a greater role in church governance was already a dead letter three years after Vatican II’s close.

For a minority of Catholics, the widespread criticism of Humanae Vitae demonstrated that the modern world of the late twentieth century was still as hostile to Roman Catholicism as the liberal and democratic movements of the preceding century had been. Moreover, as the years passed and as a revolution in sexual norms took hold in Europe and North America, some conservative Catholics characterized Pope Paul’s predictions about the consequences of contraceptive use as prophetic.”[5] During the long pontificate of John Paul II, evidence emerged that adherence to the teaching of Humanae Vitae was employed as a litmus test for episcopal appointments.”[6] Even if moral opposition to contraception merited a secondary or tertiary position on the hierarchy of truths promulgated by the magisterium, elevating the encyclical’s prominence could serve as a divining rod by which to discern one’s fundamental ideas about church authority and loyalty to unpopular papal teachings.”[7]

This virtual issue of Horizons features four essays from the journal’s archives on the topics of fundamental moral theology, fertility, family life, and sexual intimacy between spouses. Much more than a pro-or-con jury rendering a verdict on the morality of contraception, each Horizons author approaches the document, its presuppositions, and its aftermath with a unique thesis. Spanning the years from the early 1980s to the end of John Paul II’s papacy, the essays demonstrate that this most controversial of documents can yield provocative insights and thoughtful conclusions as each revisits Humanae Vitae in a postconciliar context.

Margaret Farley has been one of the most incisive and challenging voices in the field of moral theology over the past few decades. In her 1983 Horizons article, “The Church and the Family: An Ethical Task,” Farley sounds a warning about the “almost tragic perception on the part of many persons that the Christian tradition regarding family life is today too oppressive to yield a prophetic, a healing or a freeing word.” Pope Paul VI had written that self-discipline and “periodic continence” would bring families “abundant fruits of tranquility and peace” (21). Farley reminds readers that calls to self-sacrifice can be unrequited, and denunciations of materialism can overlook the deprivation so many families face daily. Families exist in many forms, and all families are enmeshed in larger social, economic, and political networks that can help or hinder their well being. Indeed, the historical record shows that the church has not always held the nuclear family in high regard, as ascetic and monastic movements promoted a vision of the church as a spiritual family supplanting blood ties and marital bonds. Farley issues a call for the church to redirect its energies from ascetic concerns toward rectifying the patriarchal distortions of power that mar contemporary families.

Norbert Rigali’s decades of service to the theologate were recognized by the College Theology Society when he was awarded the CTS’s Presidential Service Award in 2009. In his essay “The Moral Act,” Rigali argues that the church’s teachings on sexual morality are impaired as long as a fundamental anthropology that undergirds them privileges rationality over relationships. Moral actions should be judged in light of the the extent to which they open human persons up to reality, to Being. Individual moral acts, including sexual acts, acquire their fuller significance not in isolation but in the context of a complete human life entwined in familial, social, and religious networks of meaning. “The popular understanding of the human or moral act,” Rigali writes, “can be definitively reformed only if the very notion of the moral life is transformed in moral theology into a truly holistic understanding of it.” Revisiting the question of artificial contraception in this framework, the definitive criterion for moral behavior is not the method for regulating births, but the fostering of interpersonal communion between spouses. Rigali’s article anticipates future developments in Catholic moral theology when he analyzes the positions of Bernard Häring, Charles Curran, and Gregory Baum on homosexuality, concluding that the eclipse of manual theology has displaced the centrality of procreation traditionally understood to proscribe same-sex attraction.

Christine Gudorf provided a communitarian window on the issue of procreation and fertility in an essay from 2001: “Resymbolizing Life: Religion on Population and Environment.” Gudorf claims that in the modern world human consumption and rapid population growth, spurred by factors such as modern medicine and colonialism, call for a retrieval of a more balanced approach to birth and fertility. The “moral act,” to use Rigali’s term, is more than private activity between spouses. Rather, choices about sexuality, contraception, and fertility have inevitable consequences for the social distribution of resources and the constant struggle against poverty. While it may be blasphemous to assert the obvious in the face of bourgeois attitudes toward marriage, fertility comes with inevitable social and economic costs. Reducing consumption is not sufficient, and so Gudorf concludes, “Christians face a particular moral imperative to reform their religious tradition regarding its symbolic treatment of birth/fertility.” Blanket calls for ascetism also overlook existing inequalities, inequalities that both Paul VI and John Paul II believed require increased consumption from the poorest.

In this issue’s final article, from 2005, Julie Rubio attempted to forge a conversational bridge over the chasm of theological silence surrounding Humanae Vitae. “Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception: The Wisdom of Practitioners of Natural Family Planning and Artificial Birth Control” does not begin with biological or metaphysical themes; instead Rubio’s distinctive essay frames its approach with the real-life experiences of Christians who disagree on the issue of contraception. As a result, she discovers a great deal of overlooked common ground between proponents and critics of the encyclical, ground “that fails to fit into the usual categories.” Developing an experiential foundation for a theology of fertility, procreation, and contraception was frustrated when the thousands of survey responses Pat and Patty Crowley gathered for the Papal Commission on Birth Control did not induce Paul VI to revise the Catholic’s Church’s traditional teaching. Recent practitioners of Natural Family Planning do so with the understanding that theirs are countercultural marriages in this respect, interpreting the periodic abstinence of NFP as growth in virtuous living. Citing the work of Gudorf, Rubio notes how couples who use artificial contraception see relational growth in the spontaneity that birth control permits. At the close of Rubio’s essay, attentive readers can see how each side in the Catholic contraception debate prizes mutuality and the unitive aspect of marriage to a degree unthinkable in the moral theology that prevailed before Humanae Vitae brought emerging differences in the expectations surrounding sexuality to a boiling point. 

The articles in this virtual issue focus upon an issue long thought to be beyond the possibilities of contemporary theological discourse, a controversy in which protagonists on each side often reconcile themselves to speaking only to those with whom they are already in agreement. For those outside the sphere of professional theologians, Monty Python’s famous song “Every Sperm Is Sacred” illustrated popular culture’s definitive word on the subject. Nevertheless, these authors in Horizons address Humanae Vitae and its aftermath in distinctive and thought-provoking ways. Fifty years ago, Rome in the person of Pope Paul VI spoke, but the conversation, far from being finished, continued.

Thanks are again due to Kaitlin Stasinski at St. John’s University for helping to gather these past articles from previous issues of Horizons.


[2] “Statement by Catholic Theologians,” in Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, et. al., Dissent in and for the Church: Theologians and Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 25.

[3] Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Frank Newport, “Americans, Including Catholics, Say Birth Control Is Morally OK,” Gallup (May 22, 2012),; Michael J. O’Loughlin, “Poll Finds Many U.S. Catholics Breaking with Church over Contraception, Abortion and L.G.B.T. Rights,” America: The Jesuit Review (Sept. 28, 2016),

[4] Patricia Miller, Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 11–31.

[5] Janet E. Smith, ed., Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993).

[6] John L. Allen, “John Paul II and His Cardinals,” New York Times (April 22, 2002): A29. 

[7] George Weigel, “Affirming and Celebrating Humanae Vitae,First Things (July 25, 2018),