Humanae vitae - 30 years


by Most Rev. Roman Danylak, D.D.


Catholic Insight

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36 Adelaide Street E, Toronto

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July/August, 1998 issue, pp. 18 - 20

[reprinted with permission]

Below follows the invitation of Bishop Roman Danylak to the other members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to help prepare the beginning of the third Millennium in Canada by revisiting the crucial issue of contraception, especially the 1968 Canadian reaction to the encyclical on that subject. Bishop Danylak was appointed to a post in Rome on July 2 and, therefore, is no longer a member of the CCCB (see our explanation under “Letters to the Editor,” page four.

The Society for Catholic Life and Culture (SCLC), a small group of men and women with headquarters in Toronto, has conveyed the Bishop’s invitation to all of Canada’s bishops, English-speaking or French-speaking, and has asked the President of the CCCB, His Eminence Jean Claude Cardinal Turcotte, to place it on the agenda for the CCCB’s next plenary meeting.

Unlike Msgr. Foy (see previous article), I do think it practical and possible for the bishops to revoke the Winnipeg Statement, principally by issuing a brief, new endorsement of Humanae vitae. The SCLC, of which both Msgr. Foy and I are members, fully support Bishop Danylak’s invitation to all the bishops of Canada to reconsider the matter at their next plenary session in October (see section, “Call to retract”).



Almost thirty years ago, on the Feast of St. James, July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI signed the encyclical Humanae vitae (Of Human Life). He reaffirmed with Christ’s authority what the Church has always taught: that the unitive and procreative ends of marriage may never be licitly separated. He reaffirmed the intrinsic evil of abortion, of direct sterilization, and contraception. In brief, a “No” to life through any of these means is, above all else, a “No” to God.

Paul VI

Before Humanae vitae, because of the advent of the Pill and related problems, a Commission on Population and Family Life had been set up by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and later enlarged by Pope Paul VI. A report of majority members of the commission was leaked to the media. It claimed that the constant teaching of the Church against contraception could be changed. This was a rejection of Catholic doctrine, under the influence of rebellious and hedonistic currents. In the intent of reaching out to families faced by apparent and possible moral situations, the report proposed secular pragmatic arguments for the formation of conscience, which undermined the traditional principles, based on the natural law, that is, of the nature of man and the nature of the conjugal act.

It was the intention of Pope Paul VI to definitively settle the issue and silence dissent (cf. Hv, n.6). In the face of strident opposition he remained firm. Shortly before his death, on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 1978, the Holy Father repeated in a homily his confirmation of Humanae vitae. He said, “I did not betray the Truth.”

Purpose of encyclical

The encyclical Humanae vitae addressed several issues, involving responsible Christian parenthood, the call of God to respond to His divine plan in building up the city of God’s children on earth, and the working out of our eternal destiny for heaven. The author of nature established the

parameters of His plan, making us male and female, in the image of God.

Although He leaves us free to respond to His call, we are not free to establish the goal and purpose of our lives. God established the divine rules, the divine blueprints, His commandments, to govern our lives. He built them into our very nature, and gave us the voice of conscience to preserve us in His truth. He called us to life and gave us the tree of life; He forbade us to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Creator is the sole arbiter of that which is good or evil. He gave us life. We have opted for death; and our contemporary materialist and secular society has opted for the culture of death.

Pope Paul VI expressed his fears about the inevitable consequences of a contraceptive or anti-life mentality: abortion, euthanasia, marital breakdown, the flouting of the 6th and 9th commandments, the breakdown of morality and of the fabric of society. His prophetic insights have become the reality of our libertarian society.

John Paul II

Twenty some years later, Pope John Paul II revisited these issues. Our society has become a veritable wasteland. The Pope’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (1993) reaffirms the objective nature of God’s love, and of conscience. Truth is not opinion, subjectivity; it is the very nature of things.

But the Truth has been betrayed by dissent, compromise, and silence during these past 30 years. The culture of death surrounds us and has penetrated the Church. Never was there a time in Canada when a reaffirmation of the culture of life was more needed. I take this opportunity to reaffirm without qualification the encyclical Humanae vitae and to comment briefly on certain points.

Paul VI and John Paul II have singled out the two main issues involved: the morality or immorality of the contraceptive mentality and contraception, and the role of human conscience. The traditional doctrine on the nature of morality sustains that human free acts are submitted to a divine law, expressed in the natural law and the divine positive law. More importantly, our understanding and evaluations have to be done in the light of the faith of Christian revelation and the magisterium of the Church.

The earlier moral systems always affirmed that intrinsically immoral or evil acts were always to be avoided. Some current moral or ethical theories claim that the individual can make his or her own moral decision of conscience, in situations of dilemma, even though the choice be that of an intrinsically evil act. Man thus becomes the arbiter of his good and evil and the exclusive master of his destiny. Morality becomes pure subjectivity.

Some concrete reflections:

Natural family planning

Humanae vitae tells us that when there are serious motives to space out births, it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative process (n. 16). An excellent pastoral letter, called ‘Responsible Parenthood’, was published by the Catholic Bishops of Manitoba on April 3, 1989. It reaffirms Humanae vitae without compromise and teaches in detail the invaluable advantages of natural family planning over contraception. It also shows how natural family planning can be helpful in assisting some couples to conceive when they appear to be infertile. Every parish should be able to give proper referral for natural family planning. Those who engage in this apostolate should always be dedicated to upholding the whole doctrine of Humanae vitae.

Catholic hospitals

Catholic hospitals ought to be sanctuaries protecting life from conception to death. They should be exemplary training centres for doctors, nurses, and medical personnel. Not only should abortions be banned, but also all abortifacient devices and contraceptive pills. Direct sterilization through tubal ligation or vasectomy should not be countenanced. Nor should any program or office permit the dispensing of condoms. It has been reported that in Catholic hospitals nurses have been pressured into assisting at immoral procedures. Surely this should be anathema. The fidelity to life required in our hospitals is well described in Humanae vitae under the title “To Doctors and Medical Personnel” (n. 27).

Reception of the sacraments

Contraception throws up a barrier against God’s creative Will. All the magisterial documents on human life converge in teaching that this a grave objective evil (cf. “Is contraception gravely sinful matter?”, L’Osservatore Romano, Dec. 4, 1996, pp. 10-11). Spouses who are using contraception should not receive Holy Communion until they have been absolved in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Confessors faced with the sin of contraception ought to show mercy and love for souls in every word they speak. But those who have no purpose of amendment must not be absolved, in justice and charity. The confessor will find sure guidelines in the Vade mecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal

Life (Pontifical Council for the Family, Feb. 12, 1997).


In speaking of priests and human life, one could hardly better the words of Pope Paul VI in the encyclical. He calls on priests to expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity (n. 28). He asks them to be the first to give the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church (ibid.). He quotes St. Paul: “I appeal to you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissension among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (ibid.).

Canadian bishops and conscience

Of paramount importance in teaching and living Humanae vitae is the role of conscience. That brings us to the so-called Winnipeg Statement of the Canadian Bishops, published on Sept. 27, 1968, at Winnipeg. It was the response of the Canadian hierarchy to Humanae vitae. Unfortunately it communicated a false notion of the role of conscience. It said that there were circumstances in which Catholics could be safely assured, in the matter of contraception, that whoever chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience (n. 26).

Paragraph 26 conveys the notion that conscience can be a source of truth, an error with profound negative consequences. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., a major influence in writing the Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II has refuted this error. He calls it a perilous theory to hold that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not objective truth which determines what is right and wrong, true and false (footnote to the Abbott Gallagher edition of Vatican II texts).

Vatican II tells us that spouses have the obligation to inform their consciences and then conform them to the Church’s teaching authority (cf. The Church in the Modern World, n.51; cf. also Humanae vitae, n.10). In no way does the Church undermine freedom of conscience when she proclaims the truth and its obligations. It is the truth that makes us free.

How many Catholics in Canada and elsewhere have been led into the Valley of Death by loose language on freedom of conscience? The Canadian Bishops issued a good statement on conscience on Dec. 1, 1973, but did not mention Winnipeg or contraception and it has largely been ignored. School texts, marriage preparation courses, and books on family life continue to cite the Winnipeg Statement in teaching a corrupting notion of conscience. So we read in Mosaic, a widely-used marriage preparation course published by Novalis: “For couples experiencing difficulty, the bishops of Canada have said that those who have chosen the way which seems the best for them live in the love of God” (Booklet, Creating a Family, pp 8-9).

It is not surprising that Canadian Catholics abort their children, are sterilized, and use contraception, at the same rate as those who know not God.

Call to retract

Before God I believe it is my duty to call for the retraction of the Winnipeg Statement. I know that in my opposition to it I do not stand alone whether among bishops, priests, or people.

It seems to me that the honorable course would be for the C.C.C.B., responsible for the Statement, to withdraw it and replace it with a resounding endorsement of Humanae vitae and the Church’s subsequent documents on marriage, family life, and family life education. An alternative would be for the C.C.C.B. to submit the Canadian Statement to the Holy See for an assessment of its doctrinal teaching and pastoral directives. I pray that either course may be swiftly followed.

All Canadian bishops would surely join me in the hope that when we appear before Christ in judgment we may be able to say with Pope Paul VI: “I did not betray the Truth.”

Choose life

Moses said to his people: “I have set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding His voice, and holding fast to Him. For that will mean life for you” (Dt. 30:15-16). Today also Christ through the Church in Humanae vitae sets before us the paths to life and the paths to death. May we all choose life, to honour God for all those called into being by God’s providential Will, for the Church, for family life, for our children, for society, and for ourselves.

To paraphrase an ancient prayer, may purity of conscience remove the veil from the face of our souls so that we may see clearly God’s glorious plan for Life and Love. May God bless and protect and give heart to all those who choose life and give witness to others of their adherence to Humanae vitae.

[reprinted with permission]

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