'Humanae Vitae' is based on natural law

Published: December 1, 2018

By Father Jason Tyler
Diocesan Bioethicist

July 25 marked the 50th anniversary of St. Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”). Although that anniversary might not have been noticed by many, it did offer a chance to consider anew the points made there and to assess what impact it may still have in 2018.

Although Paul VI would continue as pope for another 10 years, “Humanae Vitae” was the last encyclical he wrote. Many people will likely remember it for the re-affirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception.

The Church’s position on contraception is not rooted in an attitude against science or technology. In fact, Paul VI specifically called on science to help the world better understand the reproductive system so that more reliable methods of Natural Family Planning could be developed and practiced.

While that point is true, it should also be remembered that “Humanae Vitae” explicitly affirmed the moral value of what we now call Natural Family Planning, “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.” (paragraph 16)

Perhaps even less remembered is the way in which St. Paul VI appealed to doctors and scientists in that encyclical. “It is supremely desirable … that medical science should by the study of natural rhythms succeed in determining a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring.” (29)

With these words the pope was simply following the Church’s traditional recognition that faith and reason work together. The Church’s position on contraception is not rooted in an attitude against science or technology. In fact, Paul VI specifically called on science to help the world better understand the reproductive system so that more reliable methods of Natural Family Planning could be developed and practiced.

Thomas Hilgers was a medical student when the encyclical was published. Inspired by Paul VI’s words to healthcare professionals, Dr. Hilgers would go on to develop NaPro Technology and the Creighton Model FertilityCare System. These systems allow women to understand their fertility and infertility and even “use this information for the maintenance of her health,” according to creightonmodel.com. NaPro Technology has been used to treat infertility, menstrual cramps, ovarian cysts, polycystic ovarian disease and postpartum depression, among other health problems.

Dr. Hilgers was a pioneer in this field. He opened the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in 1985. In 1999, he founded the non-profit FertilityCare Centers of America, which “networks family planning with a woman’s reproductive and gynecologic health,” according to fertilitycare.org.

Inspired by “Humane Vitae” and their own lives of faith, the leaders of these organizations seek to apply their scientific knowledge in ways that support patients of any faith or no faith. While they may see the largest interest from Catholics seeking to follow the Church’s teaching faithfully, they also report a growing interest among others.

In a sense, such interest should not surprise us. After all, “Humanae Vitae” is based on principles of natural law, meaning its ideas are accessible to human reason. Furthermore, the popularity of fitness tracking apps and smart watches that count the steps we take and the calories we burn shows that people want to know what is going on with their bodies. Why should the reproductive system be any different?

Fifty years after the release of “Humanae Vitae,” we still have a long way to go. The Church’s teaching on contraception is often ridiculed by the world and dismissed by her own members. Nonetheless, we also have reason to hope. The encyclical’s discussion of contraception may yet become better appreciated precisely because its appeal to science will provide benefits not previously imagined.