Popular Notion of Sex

Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), an encyclical or papal letter to all the faithful was issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, who was pope during the years 1963 to 1978. It had been preceded by a papal letter summarizing traditional Christian teaching on marriage in 1930. But HV was the first challenge in post World War II times to the notion that sex exists primarily for pleasure. While this latter idea was ancient, it acquired mass popularity only when technology brought widespread affluence in the Western world in the fifties and then produced the “birth-control” pill in 1960.

Pope Paul VI refused to accept or approve this distortion of perspective and abuse of the marital act. As a result, the letter’s appearance raised protests from those who thought a more accommodating document should have been produced. Fortunately, the Pope reconfirmed an all-embracing view of marriage.

The papal letter centres on the marital act between spouses at its highest level: a participation in the creative power of God Himself:

“God created man in the image of Himself, in the image of God He created him, male and female. He created them. God blessed them, saying to them, Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth…” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Throughout history, from the earliest times onwards, God has clothed this human creativity, on which human procreation depends in a protective mantle of self-restraint and self-giving.

The pleasure principle attacks restraint, destroys self-giving and self-sacrifice, undermines the equality of the spouses (with woman becoming a mere sex object) and thus weakens the vital cell on which everything depends in a dynamic, just and caring society: the family.


In all societies, including primitive societies, relations between the sexes have been regulated by a complex and meticulous system of restrictions, any breach of which was not merely regarded as offense against tribal or societal law, but also often seen as morally sinful. Repression, rather than being an evil influence, is necessary and constructive to regulate anti-social impulses. It is a fundamental error of the modern hedonist to believe that man can abandon moral effort and throw off every repression and spiritual discipline and yet preserve all the achievements of culture.

Christianity does not teach a sexual morality contrary to a rational human morality. The tenets of the Christian sexual code are not subjective. They are based on and in harmony with human reason. At the same time, this bringing of the sex instinct into the service of love is refined with the birth and death of Christ. It is above all through Him that we learn that love is spiritual and indeed, immortal. “Conjugal love,” HV states, “reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme origin: God, Who is Love; the Father from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”

Marital love, is “fully human,” that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit, when it is “total” and “faithful and exclusive until death,” and when it is “for the sake of children”. Marital love is “an act of free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, and in such a way that the husband and wife become one heart and one soul, together attaining their human perfection”

“There are three things that last: faith, hope and love; greatest of these is love”. (1Cor: 13, 13).

For baptized Catholics, moreover, marriage is not only a natural union between man and woman, but, through the blessing of the Church, their union is lifted to the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, representing the union, a self-giving of Christ and of the Church He has called into being.


The encyclical is a sharp reminder in every human being who comes into existence is a person, the exact likeness of whom the world has never seen before and will never see again – someone whom God wants to exist with Him for all eternity. God alone is “the author of human life…”

The Church, over many centuries, has faithfully and consistently taught that sex is a good and wonderful gift of God. It culminates in the miraculous gift of fertility.

Gift of Fertility

In marriage, fertility unites the husband and wife to each other and to their children, and the intended removal of fertility of one or both of them separates them from each other and from their children. It is the knowledge that they share a power by which a new human life may be brought into existence that establishes and perpetuates a special bond which it gives meaning to the whole concept of the family.

It is when the physical act gives expression to this continuing attitude of mental unity and love that sex finds its fulfillment, and physical contentment becomes most exquisite. Here are joy and pleasure that the promiscuous individual has never experienced and scarcely understands.

Sex is sacred in the eyes in the eyes of God, something that may not be cut off from the proper relationship to the origin of human life. Offspring are a concrete expression of the marriage bond’s unity and sanctity – something joyful and enjoyable – a celebration of human life itself. But the marriage bond loses it truest and most profound meaning in God’s plan if it is deliberately separated from its necessary relationship to the origins of life. Thus HV repeats the age-old teaching “that every single act of marriage must retain all of its potential to generate human life”.

No Separation

Since there can be no separation between the unitive and procreation aspects of the sexual act, contraception must be rejected as an evil which interferes with the purposes of the sexual act.


  • The direct termination of life once begun, “is utterly to be rejected, and above all abortion… and direct sterilization…”
  • To be rejected likewise is any intervention which aims at blocking potential procreation either in preparation or the act of marriage, or while the act is being carried out, or while the act is moving towards its natural result.

Procreation, the papal letter points out, cannot be surveyed merely in the light of principles borrowed from specialized sciences, but must take into account the whole person whose destiny is not merely natural and earth-bound, but also supernatural and eternal:

“Marriage is far from being the result of chance or of the blind operation of natural forces. On the contrary, God, the Creator, established it in His wisdom and providence with this in mind: that He might realize among the men the design of His love…”

Married love is a self-surrender – a communion between of persons by which they will help each other to a higher end.”

It follows, therefore, that married love must be:

  • fully human – a thing of both sense and spirit, more than an emotional or natural drive, an act of free will become one heart and one mind.
  • total – a unique form of personal attachment in which the couple share everything with each other. It is a love of another for his or her own sake offered gladly for the purpose of helping the other by the gift of self.
  • faithful and exclusive to the very end – this fidelity, “no matter what the world might happen to think” is something splendid and of high merit. Fidelity is not merely an accord with the very nature of marriage, but the course of deep and lasting happiness.

Responsible Parenthood

The pope praised modern concern for “responsible parenthood”. However, the term must be carefully defined as “a more profound relationship to the objective moral order established by God.”

In the task of transmitting life, he stated, they (the parents) are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow. They must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church.

Responsible parenthood stands for that necessary control over drives and passions, which reason and will must exercise in the light of physical, economical, psychological and social conditions. “Conscientious parenthood may be exercised by those…who decide to have a large family and by those who, for serious cause, without violation of the moral law, make up their minds, for a definite or indefinite time, not to have another child.”

Responsible parenthood is characterized by another objective quality, which binds husband/wife to recognize their duties to God, to themselves, to their family, and towards society, all in due order.

Consequently, they cannot in the function of transmitting life behave as they please, as if they were entitled to determine moral conduct entirely on their own. On the contrary, in all they do they must respect the design of God…expressed on the one hand by the very nature of the marriage and its acts, and on the other by the unchanging doctrine of the Church.


The encyclical promises blessings for the couples who, strengthened by prayer and the Holy Eucharist will reap in their homes, affection, respect for authority and duty, and a correct sense and spirit in striving for human goals.

Challenge of Spouses

Pope Paul VI recognized the difficulty some would have with the encyclical. But, said the Pope, let married couples meet the challenge put before them, supported by the faith and hope which “do not disappoint…because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us”(Rom: 5, 5).

HV is a call to liberty – “to vanquish license through genuine liberty: a liberty achieved by loyalty to the standards of morality.” Such control is especially necessary for the observance of continence at certain times.

Challenge to Science

Humanae Vitae calls on men and women of science to work toward providing a sufficiently reliable basis for the regulation of birth founded on the observance of natural rhythms. It also calls upon educators and public authorities to guard the human person from degradation; upon doctors and medical personnel to provide wise (and moral) counsel and direction; upon priests to expand the Church’s teachings without ambiguity; upon bishops to work ardently and incessantly toward the safeguarding and holiness of marriage.

Advances in Scientific Knowledge

Advances in scientific knowledge have brought us to such an understanding of the natural rhythms of fertility and infertility that virtually every pregnancy can be deliberately intended. It is a situation which offers new and deep insight into the wisdom and beauty of the traditional Christian ideals of parenthood. God has ordained that the same sexual act, always remaining open to transmission to life, will lead to a more perfect love. The liberty provided by a technique of family planning which is secure, harmless and morally lawful permits us to become responsible builders of a sane society on earth and of a heavenly kingdom.

Sign of Contradiction

Pope Paul VI acknowledged with compassion that his teaching might be controversial. He said “It is not to be expected that all will find this doctrine easy to accept. Too many voices, magnified by the mass media, are now clashing with the voice of the Church”. However, he added that the teaching, like the Church, would be lifted up and seen as a “sign of contradiction” of the times. He explained “It is not the Church which made the law…she can only act as a guardian and interpreter”.

By watching over the moral laws on marriage in its entirety, the Church knows with certainty that she is lending support to the restoration of truly human culture. She is awakening men and women to their true duties lest they forsake them to become the victim of their own technology. By the same token, she is protecting the dignity of the married. She is trying her best to help all people during their earthly pilgrimage.


In the twenty years since Pope Paul VI ended the period of ambiguity and speculation about the Church’s position on birth control by issuing his encyclical on the regulation of birth, few perceived  as clearly as the Pope that sexual activity may not be separated from its procreative purpose without dire consequences for individuals, for society and the moral order itself.