Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 63(2) May 2013

Invited Response

Humanae Vitae: A Blessing

Photo of Dr JarmulowiczI write, in response to Ian Jessiman’s letter re Humane Vitae. I freely admit that years ago I too disagreed with the teaching of Humanae Vitae and spent a period away from the Church.  But on returning decided to look into its teachings, especially Humanae Vitae and became persuaded that it was true.

May I start be disagreeing with a phrase in Ian Jessiman’s opening paragraph:- “we must not forget that it was John XXIII and, subsequently the hierarchy of the world, who asked us all to change.”  That is not correct.  The Pope’s opening address to the Council is very clear. He said:-

“The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more effectively. ….. it is necessary first of all that the Church never turn her eyes away from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers ….. [This council] wishes to pass on the whole Catholic doctrine, not reduced, not distorted, which, in the midst of difficulties and contentions, has emerged as the common patrimony of men. …. In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord's truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun.”[1]

So what he wanted was not doctrinal revision, but examination of the ways to proclaim Christ in ways appropriate to the modern world. His actual words are:-

“What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men's moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honoured teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.”

In his closing address to the Council Pope Paul VI reiterated Pope John XXII words

"The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.”

Pope Benedict, in his first Christmas address to the Roman curia, addressed the problems subsequent to Vatican II, which he describes in terms of a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity’ rather than true reform[2].

In the post conciliar period much was done ‘In the spirit of Vatican II’ (although what the ‘spirit’ of the council was, was never defined) which in reality was people often promoting their own agenda.  In this Year of Faith Pope Benedict has urged us all to study the actual text of the Vatican II documents

But let us turn to Humanae Vitae.  As Ian Jessiman acknowledges the key principle at stake was the close link between the unitive and procreative aspects of the sex act.  The importance of this makes more sense when one looks at history and how man has viewed contraception.  We associate Freud with his theory that the primary motivation for all things in life is sex and also recognise that Freud had little sympathy with any religion.  So I was therefore fascinated to read in his writings the following on perversion:-

 “It is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse – if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently . … [Such activity] is called by the unhonoured title of ‘perversion’ and as such is despised.[3]”  

So a totally secular view is calling the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sex a perversion!

All the Christian churches were united in their opposition to contraception until the 1930 Lambeth Conference when the Church of England permitted contraception under limited conditions[4].  I was even more surprised to read Archbishop Rowan Williams (the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury) state that the problem within the Church of England over homosexuality can be traced back to the 1930 Lambeth conference, because, he argued, once you had separated the procreational and unitive aspect of sex how could you criticise physical homosexual love[5].  Using the same logic, if the two are separated what is wrong with premarital heterosexual love?

I accept Ian Jessiman’s comment that Humanae Vitae does not clearly explain the why, and I myself do struggle with the philosophical concept of natural law, but what is clear to me is that the position against contraception has been held by the Church since its earliest times, albeit accepting that it is only recently that science has been able to develop reliable methods of contraception.  And this is where faith comes in.  I trust that the Holy Spirit is continually guiding the Church and keeping it free of doctrinal error. It was Pope John XXIII who reminded the Council that truth is unchanging and what was needed was a re-presentation of the truth but ‘with their meaning preserved intact’.  Humanae vitae is upholding the previously taught doctrine but quite arguably not explained sufficiently well in modern terms.  I find the opposition to contraception reasonable – ie I can see the logic of it, although I accept that I may not be able to give a completely coherent explanation of the why.

And finally one point Pope John XXIII did make in his opening address, we should not present doctrine in terms of severe condemnation but with the medicine of mercy. Yes we all fail in different ways, but we always have God’s mercy to start again.  Sadly that has become twisted to ‘this is too difficult to keep, God understands so it doesn’t matter.’ Or the doesn’t matter is changed to ‘It is not wrong’.

Dr Michael Jarmulowicz
(Former Master and Secretary of the CMA [UK])


  1. Unfortunately the Vatican website only has the inaugural speech in Latin, Italian, Portugese and Spanish ( ); the above English text was taken from one of the many translations available online.
  2. (see )
  3. Freud S. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. 1943 quoted in Natural Law: An Introduction and Re-examination. Ed Kainz HP. Open Court Publishing 2004 (page 61).
  5. Rowan D Williams. The Body’s Grace in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. ed. Eugene Rogers, Blackwells 2002.