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Humanae Vitae: A Fiftieth Year Anniversary Symposium


The two accounts of God’s creation of the world in the Book of Genesis highlight the centrality and primordial status of the man-woman relationship in marriage. The first chapter of Genesis suggests that this marital community, as the two-in-one-flesh communion of persons, participates in the human imaging of God, while the second chapter can be understood as placing the spousal relationship of the first parents at the very core of God’s creative act. Indeed, Genesis Chapter Two may be viewed as a story about the first marriage, which is itself a “type “of the marriage to come between Christ and the Church. 

Genesis also makes clear that married love is by its very essence fruitful. Indeed, God’s blessing of the first couple is also a commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). The capacity to become a father or a mother is written into the human body as created male or female. And yet, while the fruitfulness of married love is shown in a particularly beautiful and tangible way when spouses conceive a child, it’s important to remember that procreation is not the only way “of experiencing the fruitfulness of love” (Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia, no. 181). Indeed, “all love bears fruit” (2015 World Meeting on the Family Catechesis, Chapter 6). Charity, hospitality, and sacrifice are also fruits of married love, among others (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1654). Further, God is the author of life, not men and women. Each new human person receives his or her immortal soul by the direct intervention of God. Human beings only procreate by participation in God’s creative act; they never “create” or “reproduce” children, properly speaking. As Eve says at the birth of her son, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:2).   

The Fall from grace wounded God’s creation—especially that of man and woman as made in His image. Since the human person is a unity of body and soul, these wounds have affected the person on every level, including in the area of human sexuality. Sin strikes deeply at the heart of God’s creative plan. For the precise reason that the man-woman couple and its spousal character are central to that plan, they are bound to be especially affected by the Fall.

Christ’s work of salvation has redeemed the person and thus marriage as well. Indeed, St. Paul speaks of being a “new man in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17) and teaches that marriage images Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph. 5:32). The Catholic Church’s teachings reflect and hand on these mysteries. They speak of the nature of man, woman, marriage, and the gift of human life. These teachings safeguard God’s original creation as redeemed by Christ and oppose any philosophy or behavior incompatible with it. 

In his monumental encyclical Humanae vitae, Bl. Pope Paul VI clearly grasped the profound implications of modern culture’s increasing acceptance and even promotion of contraception. These implications include the basic fragmentation of the conjugal union of husband and wife as an integral whole expressing love ordered to fruitfulness. Pope Paul VI saw that the push for the widespread availability and use of contraception followed the fundamental logic of modernity’s constant seeking to dominate nature. Contraception simply extends that domination to the human body itself. As the encyclical predicted, a contraceptive mentality implies a utilitarian and hedonistic outlook, a fact constantly played out in contemporary culture. 

Modern society’s embrace of contraceptive control has led to many of its unfortunate logical consequences. Divorcing sex from children works in both directions devaluing both the integral meaning of the sexual act as well as the gift of children and the meaning of one’s fertility. This is borne out, for example, by increasing reliance and use of assisted reproductive technologies (many of which are immoral including IVF and third-party reproduction); as well as the under-development of ethical medical techniques that truly address and heal a couples’ infertility. Also, if sexual union and children are not understood to be intrinsically related, then the primacy of the man-woman relationship is likewise obscured. The sexual polarity of man and woman is therefore weakened, both in the expression of sexual love and in domestic life. Likewise, we see a diminishing of the body’s meaning for personal and social identity.

The results of the so-called “sexual revolution” have been catastrophic, and the costs (social and personal) have become ever more apparent. Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical, in setting forth God’s design for life and love, offers not a “no” to people’s desires and experiences, but a “yes” to all that God offers and a “yes” to the most profound stirrings of the human heart. Humanae vitae presents a way back to the organic wholeness of God’s original plan for human life and sexuality. The teaching of the Church provides a healing balm to a world still suffering from Original Sin yet redeemed by Jesus Christ. 

Symposium Purpose

This symposium explores Catholic teaching on human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood as articulated in the papal encyclical Humanae vitae upon its fiftieth anniversary (1968-2018). 

The symposium is anchored in the view that, in and through Christ’s work of redemption, God’s original vision of the person, human sexuality, and marriage grounds human relationships and, after the fall, heals them. It seeks to elucidate the anthropological, philosophical, and theological underpinnings of the encyclical’s reaffirmation of the divine plan as expressed in Catholic teaching and advanced by Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Papers presented at the symposium will therefore assess the past, reflect upon the present, and consider the future. Presentations will be theoretical, empirical, and pastoral. They will draw upon the disciplines of history, philosophy, theology, and science, and will highlight effective catechetical practices. All presentations will treat major themes from Humanae vitae.

Symposium Objectives

  1. To analyze the historical context in which Humanae vitae was promulgated and received. This includes consideration of the cultural, sociological, philosophical, theological, and empirical trends operative in the 1960s which fostered a more negative than positive reception of the encyclical in certain areas and even a rejection of God’s plan for married love.
  2. To deepen the theological and philosophical understanding of Church teaching on human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood as articulated in Humanae vitae, with special attention paid to the later impact of the Theology of the Body and the magisterium of St. John Paul II, in addition to that of Benedict XVI and Francis.
  3. To explore the scientific response to Humanae vitae’s call for developing viable methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP).
  4. To look at effective catechetical practices devised to promote Church teachings on conjugal love and responsible parenthood and the moral prohibition of contraception.
  5. To analyze negative trends in national and international policy that impact religious practice or expression regarding human sexuality, marriage, and family planning and to offer solutions.
  6. To look for and assess hopeful signs for growing acceptance of the Church’s teaching both in the Church and in the culture and to make recommendations for the future.

To register, or for more information, click here.