Humanae vitae and the modern social issue.

Crepaldi rosso

Considering the discussion underway in the Church regarding sexual morals, matrimony and the family, we offer anew the following text written in 2008 by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, president of our Observatory, and which is more timely today that it was back then. Established in these considerations is the very close connection between the teachings on sexual morals in the encyclical letter of Paul VI and political/social commitment in the light of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The encyclical letter Caritas in veritate of Benedict XVI promulgated the following year (2009) was then to acknowledge the profound social dimension of  Humanae vitae. This text of Archbishop Crepaldi was published as the Foreword to the book by Michel Schooyans “The Prophecy of Paul VI. The Encyclical Letter  Humanae vitae (1968)” in the our Observatory’s series published by Cantagalli of Siena.


Humanae vitae and the modern social issue

+ S. E. Msgr. Giampaolo Crepaldi


The 40th anniversary of the publication of the Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae of Paul VI (promulgated in 25 July 1968) is also to be celebrated as an important moment in the history of the Social Doctrine of the Church. What are the links between an encyclical that addresses reproduction, birth control and sexuality, and the Social Doctrine of the Church? What Michael Schooyans argues in this book is already a response to this question. Nonetheless, since nowadays, 40 years after Humanae vitae, this linkage has quite literally exploded into bits and pieces to the point that no one has any doubts about life-related issues occupying a core position in the modern “social issue”, I would like to offer some thoughts in this regard. I trust and hope that what I will say will make it possible to understand not only why this book was published as part of our Series, but also why it will not be possible in the future to consider issues of this nature as extraneous or marginal with respect to the construction of society pursuing the true common good.

The relationship between human sexuality and society has been rather overlooked for a long time, and this to the degree that today it becomes difficult for many people to even grasp it. It is, however, fundamentally important.  At the selfsame basis of society there is a couple, a man and a woman who are mutually receptive and, giving themselves to one another, open themselves to life. They are not merely asexual individuals. The male-female polarity is a fundamental dimension of human relatedness, of the beinghood of man which is relatedness. For the Social Doctrine of the Church, socialness issues forth from the human person, but, as Benedict XVI expressed in such a well-chosen way, the human person is “uni-duality[1]. Hence the utmost anthropological and social importance of sexuality. The sexual encounter between male and female, however, is not just “eros”, it has also been “agape” from the very origins, even if the two lovers are not fully aware of that. This is because love, which is also expressed in sexuality, shows us the degree to which it is beyond our control. This is why love is a profound and non instrumental relationship. Love “happens”, cannot be planned, and hence the other-than-self can never be instrumentalized. Benedict XVI states that “the love between man and woman is neither planned not willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings”[2]. It has been quite correctly observed that “a rather interesting dynamics takes place in this ‘imposition’: the subject loving realizes that the loving outreach is totally his own, involving and somehow totalizing his selfsame existence and subjectivity, but at the same time not under his control in its happening, and even less so in its coming to be”[3]. Love comes from outside, from elsewhere, bursts upon the scene, and therefore lived in it is the experience of gratuitousness, the experience of the vocation that truly renders free the two liberties that bond together. Therefore, this gratuitous liberty, this ‘not-being-at-one’s-disposal’ cannot but be open to life.  This is the origin of the two characteristic of sexual union according to Humanae vitae: unitive and procreative, which cannot be separated because this is the rationale of human love. The contraceptive rationale introduces an instrumental factor within the ‘happening’ of love and transforms the man and the women gratuitously united into something else and hence transforms ‘couple’ into two individuals. The sexual act is separated from openness to the ‘happening’ of love and to life, and hence from openness to unconditionalness. What will happen many years later with extra-corporeal artificial insemination[4] that separates sexuality from conception, sapping the very bases of the family and transforming sexuality into technique, had already somehow begun with contraception. If, however, the couple open to a vocation of non instrumental love is replaced by two individuals, the experience of gratuitousness and the existence of ‘not-being-at-one’s-disposal’ is purged from the primordial experience of society. All the ensuing social bonds that emanate from that original cell will no longer be understood as “reception” of other-than-self, but as a sort of instrumental juxtaposition. If at the very origin there is no love that “happens” as vocation, such as the love between a man and a woman, but rather a contractual and technical relationship between two individuals, all other social relations, one after another, will lose the former rationale and embrace the latter one. Technique and contract take the upper hand, sexuality is understood only or mainly in this substantially egocentric and solipsistic way. If it is a question of two ‘individuals’ and not a couple, the sexual encounter is asexual: heterosexuality, homosexuality and trans-sexuality become equivalents. Disappearing are receptivity and complementarity. In terms of procreation this entails the right of women to “have a child all on their own”. There is no true encounter because true encounter ‘happens’ as vocation, as a plan for us that reveals itself.

In light of these considerations we can understand why the Magisterium places special stress on two themes: the first of the these is the technicalization of procreation that separates conception from the conjugal act, and, transforming the child into a product, deprives the couple itself of one of fundamental aims of the family which is to constitute the human place of receptiveness; the second theme is the male-female distinction or sexual difference.[5]

Regarding the first theme it is evident that the process began with the birth control pill, and that Humanae vitae had been very farsighted in its examination of the entire issue in the light of reason and faith . As Michael Schooyans illustrates so very well, it is difficult to deny that one and the same is the red thread linking contraception, abortion, extra-corporeal insemination, embryonic and fetal eugenic selection, and other phenomena that disdain life. It cannot be said these acts are equally grave, but they are undoubtedly expressions of the same underpinning rationale.

Concerning the second theme, underway at present is a cultural battle[6] about the word gender which is often used instead of the word sex to indicate not a natural vocation of the individual, but a cultural choice, or, as people say, a “sexual orientation”. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter (Letter on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world) on this important point back in 2004. Asserted among other things in that letter is the following: “In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary. The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels”.[7] Benedict XVI himself reiterated the “fundamental anthropological truths of man and woman, the equality of their dignity and the unity of both, the well-rooted and profound diversity between the masculine and the feminine and their vocation to reciprocity and complementarity, to collaboration and to communion”[8], and added that “when men and women demand to be autonomous and totally self-sufficient, they run the risk of being closed in a self-reliance that considers ignoring every natural, social or religious bond as an expression of freedom, but which, in fact, reduces them to an oppressive solitude”[9].

The Magisterium’s insistence on these two points – procreation and sexual identity – seeks to circumscribe the pressure exercised by current aspects of nihilism looked upon as a refusal of vocation, a refusal of a Word about man and the world. The love between a man and a woman is the response to a vocation that irrupts into life outside the reach of instrumental use by human beings. If this ceases to exist at the very beginning, the selfsame sense of the family is transformed, and social togetherness at large along with it. The family is the first place where we live the vocation to a common good understood as a moral undertaking to be freely accepted “together”. The family is where the vocation to be receptive to others as a fundamental feature of reception of self becomes a daily practice. The family is where readiness and willingness to embrace a plan for us, a plan that precedes us, includes us and can in no way be brought into being without our liberty, become visible and feasible.  The family is where we live the experience of natural bonds not in the sense of naturalistic ones or merely as cultural or historical bonds – both of which are dimensions unworthy of the dignity of the person – but as vocation[10], which refuses whim and calls for liberty, plots a plan but does not impose it, and calls for it to be freely embraced.

In this year’s Message for the World Day of Peace Benedict XVI evokes precisely this point with beautifully awesome words: “The family comes into being from the responsible and definitive “yes” of a man and a women, and it continues to live from the conscious “yes” of the children who gradually join it. The family community, in order to prosper, needs the generous consent of all its members. This realization also needs to become a shared conviction on the part of all those called to form the common human family. We need to say our own “yes” to this vocation which God has inscribed in our very nature”[11]. Stipulated here is a crystal clear link between the natural vocation to the family that calls us to a free and responsible “yes” to accept a plan for ourselves not only as individuals but as family, and the vocation to voice our “yes” to another vocation, to another project for us that consists in belonging to the common human family. If man is unable to grasp the family as natural vocation, how will he be able to welcome belonging to the much larger human family as another natural vocation to be embraced in a responsible manner? From the viewpoint of product and not vocation, which means to say that if the family is a conventional and contractual product, society as a whole cannot help but be understood as “people living alongside one another”, but not as a “community of brothers and sisters called to form a common family”[12].

A further reason why we argue that Humanae vitae is of utmost social relevance has to do with the theme of technology which, in my opinion, is the main problem of our culture and our society. Rampant is the danger of the “technicalization” of spheres of life which, when thus considered, instead of being governed by man escape our control, and our power turns into powerlessness. The dream of Prometheus, or that of Francis Bacon to bring it closer in time to us, wanting to place the secret of omnipotence in the hands of man, actually despoils those hands, handing man over to the technical civilization as the “anonymous nakedness of pure doing”.  The issue of technical propensity that the Magisterium has considered especially in the ambit of the relationship with nature through work and in the manipulation of life, now goes far beyond these two ambits and arises as a global social issue. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church likewise addresses the problem of technical propensity within the man-nature relationship and in bio-technologies[13]. Nonetheless, it also infers that such considerations have to be extended far beyond the theme of nature when linking this propensity to the issues of culture (n° 461), poverty (n° 482), or human ecology (n° 464).  Technology and its use represent the real “social issue” nowadays. Moreover, if we follow the approaches of Humanae vitae first and then Evangelium vitae, where on the positive side life itself is the utmost social issue, technology becomes negative beginning precisely from the technicalization of procreation. In fact, that is where man originally becomes a ‘product’ which, as I said, is the very essence of the nakedness of technology.

The encyclical letter Humanae vitae of Paul VI does not elaborate reflections addressed specifically to the social and political dimension as was to be done later by Evangelium vitae of John Paul II. The former encyclical remains within the range of anthropological (both philosophical and theological) and moral considerations antecedent to said dimension. In so doing, however, it went to the very origin of society and for this reason deserves attention also on the part of the Social Doctrine of the Church which can draw both solace and confirmation from it. What happened when Humanae vitae was promulgated and what has transpired since then down to our present day and age truly tells us that, as the title of this book reads, this encyclical of Paul VI was a “prophecy”.



[1] Benedict XVI, Address to the participants at the international convention  « Woman and Man, the HUMANUM in its entirety”, 9 February 2008.

[2] Benedict VI, Deus caritas est, n. 3.

[3] G. Marengo, “Amo perché amo, amo per amare”. L’evidenza e il compito, Cantagalli,  Siena 2007, p. 43. Cf anche A. Scola, Il mistero nuziale, PUL-Mursia, 2 voll., Roma 1997-2000.

[4] According to Benedict XVI, with extra-corporeal insemination «the barrier that served to protect human dignity has been violated». (Benedict XVI, Address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,  31 gennaio 2008).

[5] Cf A. Scola, Uomo-donna. Il caso serio dell’amore, Marietti 1820, Genova 2002. A serious study of the man-woman polarity in the broader context of Christian anthropology in A. Scola, Antropologia cristiana, in The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Conceptualization of the Person in Social Sciences, Vatican City 2006, pp. 7-24. A close examination of the issue of identity and gender may be found in: “I Quaderni di Scienza e Vita”, n. 2, marzo 2007: “Identità e genere”.

[6] E. Montfort, Diritti della famiglia e ideologia del gender, « Bollettino di Dottrina sociale della Chiesa » IV (2008) 2, pp. 43-48.

[7] Congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Letter to the bishops of the CAtholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world (2004), n. 2.

[8] Benedict XVI, Address to the participants at the international convention “Woman and Man, the HUMANUM in its entirety “, 9 February 2008.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I dwelt on a vision of nature as vocation in G. Crepaldi, Ecologia ambientale ed ecologia umana. Politiche dell’ambiente e Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, Cantagalli, Siena 2007, pp. 17-26.

[11] Benedict XVI, The Human family, community of peace, Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2008, n°6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2004, chapter X, 451-487