17 September 1983

To the priests participants in a seminar on “Responsible Parenthood”

On the morning of Saturday, 17 September, the Holy Father received in audience the more than fifty priests who had participated in a study seminar on the theme “Responsible Parenthood: scientific, philosophical and theological foundations”.  The Congress, especially addressed to superiors and professors of seminaries and to diocesans responsible for the pastoral care of the family, was sponsored by the Centre for Studies and Research of Birth Control of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and by the John Paul II Institute of Studies on Marriage and Family of the Pontifical Lateran University.

The seminar which began on 15 September, culminated on 17 September in the audience with the Holy Father which took place in the Swiss Hall of the Pontifical Palace of Castel Gandolfo.  The priests were led by Dr.  Anna Cappella and by Mons. Carlo Caffara respectively director and president of the sponsoring institutions.

During the meeting, the Pope delivered the following discourse:


1. I welcome you with a happy heart at the end of your important congress.  In addressing my cordial greeting to you I wish to express to the organizers of the “study seminar” my deep pleasure for the timely initiative which has brought you together to reflect on one of the essential points of Christian doctrine concerning marriage.  In fact, during these days you have sought to rediscover the  reasons for what Paul VI taught in his Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, and which I myself repeated in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

The investigation of the reasons for this teaching is one of the most urgent duties of anyone who is engaged in the teaching of ethics or in the pastoral care of the family.  In fact, it is not sufficient that it be faithfully and fully proposed, but it is also necessary to devote oneself to demonstrating its deepest reasons.

Above all, they are of a theological nature.  At  the origin of every human person there is a creative act of God.  No man comes into existence by chance;  he is always the object of God’s creative love.  From this fundamental truth of faith and reason it follows that the procreative capacity inscribed in human sexuality is – in its deepest truth – a cooperation with God’s creative power.  And it also follows that man and woman are not the arbiters, are not the masters of this same capacity, called as they are, in it and through it, to be participants in God’s creative decision. When, therefore, through contraception married couples remove from the exercise of their conjugal sexuality its potential procreative capacity, they claim a power which belongs solely to God:  the power to decide in a final analysis the coming into existence of a human person.  They assume the qualification not of being cooperators in God’s creative power, but the ultimate depositaries of the source of human life.  In this perspective, contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified.  To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life situations may arise in which its lawful not to recognize God as God.

Contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love

2. There exist, then, reasons of an anthropological nature. The teaching of Humanae Vitae and of Familiaris Consortio is justified in the context of the truth of the human person, it is this truth which is at the basis of it.

The indissoluble connection of which the encyclical speaks between the unitive significance and the procreative significance inscribed in the marriage act makes us understand that the body is an essential part of man, that it belongs to the person’s being and not to his having.  In the act which expresses their conjugal love, the spouses are called to make of themselves a gift, the one to the other:  nothing of what constitutes their being a person may be excluded from this donation.  In this regard, let us listen to a text, of rare profundity, of the Second Vatican Council:  “Married love is an eminently human love because it is an affection between two persons rooted in the will and it embraces the good of the whole person.  A love like that, bringing together the human and the divine, leads the partners to a free and mutual giving of self “ (Gaudium et Spes, n. 49). “A persona in personam” (“between two persons”)  these so very simple words express the whole truth of conjugal love, interpersonal love.  A love wholly focused on the person, on the good of the person (it embraces the good of the whole person) focused on the good which is the personal being.  It is this good which the spouses reciprocally give one another ( free and mutual giving of self).  The act of contraception introduces a substantial limitation within this reciprocal giving and expresses an objective refusal to give to the other, respectively, all the good of femininity or masculinity.  In a word, contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love.

No “graduating” of God’s law

3. The difficulties which the spouses encounter to be faithful to God’s law cannot be ignored, and these difficulties have been the subject of your reflections.  It is necessary to do all that is possible to help married couples in an adequate way.

Above all, it is necessary to avoid graduating God’s law to the measure of the various situations in which the spouses find themselves.  The moral law reveals to us God’s plan regarding marriage, the total good of conjugal love; the desire to diminish that plan is a lack of respect towards man’s dignity.  The law of God expresses the demands of the truth of the human person: that order of divine Wisdom “which, if we observe in this life, will lead to God and unless we observe it, we will not reach God”, as St. Augustine says (De ordine 1 9,27, CSEL 63, 139).

In fact, we can ask ourselves if the confusion between the “graduality of the law” and “the law of graduality” does not have its explanation also in a scanty esteem for God’s law. The view is held that it is not suitable for every man, for every situation, and so it is desired to replace it with an order different from the divine.

4. There is a central truth in the Christian ethic, which at this point must be recalled.  We read a few days ago in the Liturgy of the Hours of the feast of Mary’s Birth “For the law’s consummation was this, that the very lawgiver accomplished his work and changed letter into spirit summing everything up in himself and, though subject to the law, living by grace. He subordinated the law, yet harmoniously united grace with it, not confusing the distinctive characteristics of the one with the other, but effecting the transition in a way most fitting for God, as he changed whatever was burdensome, servile and oppressive into what is light and liberating (St. Andrew of Crete, Discourse 1, PG 97, 806).

The Spirit, given to believers writes God’s law in our hearts in such a way that this is not only intimated from without, but is also and above all given within. To maintain that situations exist in which it is not, de facto, possible for the spouses to be faithful to all the requirements of the truth of conjugal love is equivalent to forgetting this event of grace which characterizes the New Covenant: the grace of the Holy Spirit makes possible that which is not possible to man, left solely to his own powers. It is therefore necessary to support the spouses in their spiritual lives, to invite them to resort frequently to the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist for a continual return, a  permanent conversion is the truth of conjugal love.

Each baptized person, therefore spouses also, is called to holiness, as Vatican II has taught (cf. Lumen Gentium 39): “The forms and tasks of life are many, but holiness is one – that sanctity which is cultivated by all who act under God’s Spirit and, obeying the father’s voice and adoring God the Father in spirit and in truth, follow Christ poor, humble and cross-bearing, that they may desire to be partakers of his glory” (n. 41). All, married couples included, are called to holiness, and this is a vocation which may even demand heroism. This must not be forgotten.

Beloved, your reflection during these days must be continued and constantly deepened in order to have an even more adequate vision of that truth of conjugal love which constitutes the most precious patrimony of marriage. Generously take up this task. May my heartfelt Apostolic Blessing accompany you in your work.

John Paul II