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Charter of the Family and the Catholic Faith

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

No single papal document in modern times has received more publicity than Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Months before it was published on the feast of. St. James the Apostle, July 25, 1968, the secular press of the world predicted a change in the Catholic Church’s position on contraception. When the document was issued, its uncompromising stand on artificial birth control became an acid test of Catholic orthodoxy. For the first time in centuries, the term “dissenters” came into popular use. Those who disagreed with Humanae Vitae came to be identified as dissenters from the Church’s ordinary, but infallible, teaching authority.

What Humanae Vitae has done is to isolate the foundation on which the human family and the Catholic faith absolutely depend. This foundation is the practice of selfless love.

The Family and Selfless Love

Some people mistakenly think that the moral teaching of Humanae Vitae is a revealed Catholic doctrine. Or at least they believe it is based on Christian revelation. No doubt, the Church’s authority to teach the sinfulness of contraception is founded on her revealed institution by Jesus Christ. But the wrongfulness of contraception can be recognized by the light of human reason, even apart from revelation. It is “a teaching founded on natural law.”

So we ask, how? How can we tell that contraception is morally wrong? We can tell contraception is morally wrong because it is irrational. It destroys the family and eventually the society which encourages people to practice contraception.

How does contraception destroy the family? It destroys the family because it undermines the foundation of the family, which is selfless love.

Selfless love is the foundation of the family on every level:

  • the selfless love of husband and wife who want to share their human lives with children not yet conceived or born.

  • the selfless love of husband and wife who are willing to sacrifice their own convenience and ease in order to conceive and give birth to, nourish and care for, train and educate their offspring, through infancy to childhood and adolescence into adulthood.

  • the selfless love of the children for their parents and for one another as brothers and sisters, who make family life not only possible but livable and deeply enjoyable.

How is selfish love at the root of contraception? It is at the root of contraception because that is why married people practice it. They engage in sexual activity, which they enjoy, while avoiding the consequences of a possible pregnancy, which they dislike. In other words, they selfishly seek sexual pleasure from their marital relations while excluding the prospect of conception.

A selfish family is a contradiction in terms. As contraception increases and the contraceptive mentality takes over the morals of society, family life becomes more and more difficult to practice. In time, family life becomes either an impossible ideal or a heroic goal that few people can ever attain.

Contraception, therefore, fosters the breakdown of the family by making people more and more selfish.

They become too selfish to even want to marry. So men and women cohabit without the mutual commitment of marriage.

If they marry, they become too selfish to want any children, or accept children only after years in marriage. Husband and wife nourish each other’s selfishness.

If they finally do have a child or two, the parents have become so habitually selfish that they can hardly teach selflessness to their children, either by word or example. On the contrary, children see their parents’ selfishness and follow the pattern set by their father and mother.

The first lesson of Humanae Vitae is that contraception is a symptom of the social disease of selfishness, even as the family is a sign of selfless love, which is the best evidence of the moral health of a society.

Selfless Love and the Catholic Faith

It is one thing to know what is morally good, like selfless love; it is something else to put it into practice.

Common sense, not to say the record of nations, teaches us that family life is strong only if the people are practicing selfless generosity.

The very word, “family,” as a community of father, mother and children, is of Christian origin. In the pre-Christian Roman Empire, familia was a household of servants. It rarely included the parents or children.

Christ restored the family to its original form as something holy, permanent, and monogamous. In doing this, he provided his followers with the necessary means of maintaining family life, by raising marriage to the level of a Sacrament. He also gave his followers the supernatural resources they would need to remain faithful to his divine will. Among these resources were especially:

  • The teaching of the Apostles, to be communicated by their successors, the bishops, under the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

  • The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, as the Mass, Holy Communion and the Real Presence; and Penance or the Sacrament of Confession.

  • The practice of prayer, individually as private prayer and collectively as the sacred liturgy.

That is why Humanae Vitae cannot be read without including these supernatural resources. They are absolutely necessary for even having family life, not to say maintaining a strong family in the pagan atmosphere of materially super-developed countries like the United States.

Obedience to the Church’s teaching authority, the Sacraments and prayer are the bedrock of the Christian family and the only way that Catholic parents and children can live up to the expectations of their Divine Master.

Have a Clear Faith

Needless to say, this requires that we have a clear and unconfused faith. Catholics must believe that Christ’s words to the Apostles, and especially to Peter, are still true, “He that hears you, hears me, and he that despises you, despises me” (Luke 10:16).

Pope Paul VI had no illusion about what he was teaching in Humanae Vitae. “Too numerous,” he admitted, “are the voices amplified by the modern means of propaganda, which are contrary to the voice of the Church. Yet the Church is not surprised to become, like her Founder, a sign of contradiction.” After all, she did not invent the moral laws on marriage and the family. She is only their repository and, under divine guidance, their interpreter.

It is up to us Catholics to know what the Church teaches, believe it, and if necessary, suffer the sacrifices necessary for our fidelity.

Use the Sacraments

Convinced in mind that the Church’s teaching authority is divinely revealed, we still need strength to live up to our faith convictions. That is why the Eucharist is indispensable. No single recommendation of Humanae Vitae is more urgent than the Pope’s insistence that we “draw from the source of grace and charity in the Eucharist”! The key word is “charity,” or supernatural love, which means super-human love. It is only this kind of love, nourished on the Eucharist, that will sustain Catholic believers in their loyalty to the Savior’s teaching. Without this support we will cave in under the pressure of a demonic opposition to the Christian family.

So, too, the Sacrament of Confession is necessary if we are to persevere in our fidelity to Jesus. We know how weak we are, and how strong can be the pull of passion. But we must not be discouraged. Rather we should “have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is poured forth in the Sacrament of Penance.”


One final exhortation of Pope Paul VI to married people: “Let them implore divine assistance by persevering prayer.”

There is more here than meets the eye. We know that God never demands of us more than we can do. But this does not mean that He will not demand of us more than we can do alone. Of course He will! What He tells us is to ask for His help. In other words, ask and we shall receive.

There is no secret to living up to the hard expectations of Jesus Christ. It is all very simple. He expects us to do what, of ourselves, we cannot do. Fine! So we beg Him to give us the strength that we need. And He will always come through.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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