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Humanae Vitae
The Magna Carta of Women's Rights

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, is surely the most discussed and controverted papal document of modern times. To some people it is a symbol of an outmoded ethical mentality. But to loyal, believing Catholics, it is a blessed gift from the Vicar of Christ.

My purpose here is very clear. I wish to simply state and briefly prove the thesis expressed in the title of the present conference that “Humanae Vitae is the Magna Carta of Women’s Rights.”

Women's Rights

In all the propaganda these days about women’s rights, it is not easy to see what, after all, are the basic rights that women seek; and among these basic rights, which is the most fundamental that every normal woman wants.

I do not hesitate to say that this most fundamental right that a woman wants respected and protected is her right to love and be loved: the right to love and be loved by the God from whom she came and for whom she was made.

  • The right to love and be loved by others according to the will of God,

  • If she marries, to love and be loved by her husband, again according to the will of God.

Humanae Vitae, I submit, guarantees this most basic right of women with such clarity and authority as no one but the visible head of the Catholic Church could be expected to provide.

We go on. How does Humanae Vitae guarantee this right of every normal woman to love and be loved as her deepest instincts naturally desire? It does so by spelling out in the plainest language possible what kind of love a married woman wants, and without which her profound hunger for giving and receiving affection is literally starved.

This love, says Humanae Vitae, is first to be fully human. In other words, it is a love that is more than merely natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will. It is a love that not only endures through the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also a love that grows, so that husband and wife become, in a way, one heart and one soul, and together they attain their human fulfillment.

This love that a woman so deeply craves is secondly a total love. It is a very special kind of personal friendship in which husband and wife share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions or thinking only of their own interests. A woman wants to give herself entirely, and be received by her husband entirely.

This love for which a woman hungers is thirdly a faithful and exclusive love. This is how she understands it on the day she marries, and how she hopes her husband understands it too.

Fourthly and finally, and for our purpose, most importantly, this love that lies so close to a woman’s heart is creative of life. It is not exhausted by the loving exchange with her husband, but also seeks to go beyond this to bring new life into being. A woman’s desire for children is God-given; it is part of her feminine nature; it is so strong that even when she consecrates herself to a lifetime celibacy, she wants to have children in the spirit.

Infallible Teaching

Against this background of the teaching of Humanae Vitae about women’s rights to love, we are ready to make the following statement:

What Humanae Vitae teaches is the irreversible doctrine of the Catholic Church, founded by Christ whose visible head on earth is the Bishop of Rome.

Why is the teaching of Humanae Vitae irreversible? Because God is unchangeable. What the Church, instituted by the Son of God, tells the faithful is gravely binding in the moral order, cannot be changed.

We have, with the Pope, identified the basic right of married women to a love that is fully human, total, faithful and exclusive, and creative of life. We now draw the logical conclusion. This basic right is grounded on the natural law, established by the Creator of the human race. No one may deprive married women of this right. It is for this reason that contraception has always been, is now, and always will be, a grave sin against God.

We rest our case, as Catholics, on the now nineteen centuries of the Church’s continuous and unqualified teaching.

But we strengthen our case by the corresponding nineteen centuries of human history. Contraception, at root, is a denial of the fundamental right of a woman to love as we have so far described.

Contraception denies a married woman the right to a fully human love of body and spirit. Instead it substitutes a love that selfishly seeks the pleasures of marital intercourse without either giving the husband the children he desires, or giving God the human beings that He wants to bring into the world.

Contraception denies a married woman the right to a faithful and exclusive love. It has opened the door to such massive infidelity and promiscuity as were unknown even in the worst days of decadent pagan Greece and Rome.

Contraception especially, and by definition, deprives a married woman of the right to a love that is creative of life. It debases a woman to the level of harlotry and steals from her what a woman’s whole nature cries out for – to be a mother.

Into the Future

The lessons of Humanae Vitae are more important than most Catholics realize. Not the least of these lessons is the fact that we, faithful sons and daughters of the Church, have a grave responsibility not only to our fellow Catholics but to the whole world.

Never before in history, I believe, have the rights of women been more publicized and more politicized.

But sadly, I also believe, never before have those rights been more widely betrayed and more cruelly denied. Contraception is a moral evil in many ways, but in none more tragic than its deceptive exploitation of women by claiming to give them a new-found liberty.

We know that freedom not based on truth is slavery. We possess the truth, infallible truth. We therefore have the duty to proclaim the truth about marriage which is open to the generation of new life. In doing so, we shall be teaching women everywhere what they so desperately need, to love and be loved as the God whose name is Love wants them to enjoy.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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