Introductory Address of Bishop Kevin Doran at “Love and Life in Marriage” Conference

Introductory address given by Bishop Kevin Doran at “Love and Life in Marriage”, a conference celebrating the Church’s vision for sexuality and marriage on the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae.  Bishop Kevin formally opened the proceedings of the conference by introducing the topic and the guest speakers. The conference, hosted by Nazareth Family Institute, was held in Dublin on Saturday 4th August 2018


Humanae Vitae: The Narrow Gate that Leads to Life

Some years ago, when I was heading off on the Camino, I commented to a colleague that I really knew very little about Spain. He suggested that I should read a book called “A Concise History of Spain”. It might have been more appropriate to describe it as a complex and detailed history of Spain, but it was very interesting. I remember being fascinated at the way in which marriage was used to cement alliances between the various kingdoms of Spain and later, between the royal house of Spain and the royal families of other European countries. Some of those marriages may have been loving relationships, but the primary objective in most cases was the delivery of an heir.

Looking back now, with the wisdom of hindsight, few of us would endorse such a lopsided understanding of marriage that saw procreation as the primary or exclusive purpose and regarded the communion of life and love as simply an added bonus. This is because our Christian understanding of the person, influenced by scripture, by philosophy and by rational psychology, convinces us that the mission of man and woman is both to “increase and multiply” and to be “companions and helpers” made “of the same stuff”.  Pope Francis, in “Amoris Laetitia” says, more than once: “marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children” (AL 178, cf. also Gaudium et Spes 50)

So, if we have rightly left behind us one incomplete view of marriage, why are people so ready today to accept the equally incomplete view of marriage as simply a “loving relationship” in which procreation is regarded as an optional extra. Such an understanding of marriage not only flies in the face of Scripture and philosophy, but it defies the logic of biology and physiology. The prophetic voice of Pope Paul VI, “crying in the wilderness” of the 1960’s  called us back to a more integrated and wholesome view of marriage. Lest there be any doubt, Pope Francis repeats that same call when he says:

the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”. The child who is born “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment” (AL 80)

Most people associate “Humanae Vitae” with the condemnation of artificial contraception. It is much richer than that. Dr. William Newton who comes to us from the University of Stuebenville, Ohio, will unpack for us the essential teaching of Humanae Vitae, as well as identifying some of the common misunderstandings. “Humanae Vitae” is really a reflection on the meaning of marriage and human sexuality and it is in that context that “responsible parenthood” and the “regulation of birth” are explored. Many people would be surprised to find that the word “contraception” does not actually appear anywhere in the document.

While much of the sex and, therefore, much of the contraception that happens in our society today probably happens outside of marriage, this is not primarily what Paul VI set out to address in “Humanae Vitae”. If we are faithful to the vision of “Humanae Vitae” and, indeed to human reason, it seems to me that the crucial context in which we need to rediscover the procreative dimension of sex is within marriage. If we could once help people to grasp the essential natural connection between the love of the couple and the procreation and care of children, then I believe that common sense would soon convince us that those children should be born and brought to maturity in the context of a stable committed union. This is presupposed in the concept of “responsible parenthood” outlined by Pope Paul VI (HV 10)

Humanae Vitae teaches that every act of intercourse should be open in principle to the gift of life, but also that it is perfectly legitimate for married people to make use of the natural cycle both to achieve pregnancy and to avoid it when that seems appropriate (HV 10). Many people unfortunately see this as “a fudge”, because the consequences appear to be the same as if contraceptives were used.

But the moral significance of an action is not determined simply by the consequences. A child can smash a china teapot in a rage, or she can smash it while trying to help her mother by putting it away safely in the china cabinet. The consequences are the same in either case. Much depends on whether the act is consistent with the truth about the human person, whose primary vocation is the gift of self in love. Prof. Maria Fedoryka, who comes to us from Ave Maria University in Florida, will be speaking to us about the centrality of love in the teaching of Humanae Vitae and, in that context I think she will be exploring how the avoidance of conception using the natural procreative process can be genuinely loving, in a way that the contraceptive act cannot be.

In a world which has embraced abortion and is flirting more and more with euthanasia, it may seem almost foolish to even suggest that we should attempt to regain the ground that has been lost and to propose once again, as Pope Paul VI did, a coherent and integrated vision of human sexuality in which the unitive purpose of the sexual act is never separated from the openness of that act to the gift of life. There is much more at stake here than simply holding onto a doctrinal truth. Looking back over the past fifty years, it is easy to identify a number of very concrete problems which have arisen or certainly been aggravated by the assumption that the sexual act can be separated in principle and in practice from the transmission of life.

  1. Dignity of Women: The historical emphasis on procreation as the only purpose of marriage was certainly never in keeping with the dignity of women. It may seem that contraception has liberated women, in so far as it allows them to take control of their own fertility. But the fact that they are less likely to become pregnant, takes away from them one of the principal motives for saying no to unwanted sex. It also takes away one of the principal factors that might otherwise contribute to men being more responsible. (HV 17)


  1. Infertility and AHR: The idea that intercourse is only incidentally related to the transmission of life has undoubtedly contributed to the concept of sex without responsibility, including sex with multiple partners. This has had disastrous consequences for young people, including the spread of sexually transmitted disease, which is a major contributory factor in infertility. That in turn has led to a sad dependence on so-called “artificial human reproduction”. Dr. Marie Meaney will explore with us the compelling anthropological, ethical and theological reasons for not using many of these reproductive technologies, which are often hailed as life-giving but which in reality give rise to the misuse and destruction of so many human embryos. It is interesting, in this context, to recall that Pope Paul VI died just about a month before the birth of Louise Browne, the first baby born by IVF.


  1. Same Sex Marriage: The vision of marriage as a committed relationship between one man and one woman, oriented towards the gift of life to children, has been part of the bedrock of human society, even before the establishment of organised religion. But if the act of love which is an integral element of marriage can be separated from its procreative purpose, then it is very difficult to explain why marriage needs to be between a man and a woman. I would argue, therefore, that there is a direct connection between the “contraceptive mentality” and the surprisingly high number of people who seem ready to redefine marriage as a relationship between two people “without distinction as to sex”.


  1. A Deeper Mutual Understanding: One of the benefits of familiarity with the natural procreative process is that it allows couples to plan their families responsibly, but without placing physical or chemical “barriers” between them. The other side of the coin, of course, is that familiarity with the natural procreative process helps people to achieve a pregnancy and to deepen their understanding of one another in the process.


I agree absolutely that the principles of Humanae Vitae have been ignored for too long and need to be presented in a fresh way, in contemporary language and in an appropriate context. I must say, however, that I sometimes find it frustrating when people insist that the solution is simply more homilies on natural procreation. Let’s think that one through for a moment! How long should a homily be (five minutes; ten minutes)? What can you say in that time and particularly in that context, where the age of the congregation ranges from 9 months to 90 years.  There is undoubtedly a place in the Catholic school for an appropriate presentation of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, but there is also a risk that everything is loaded onto the school curriculum. The people who have the most practical experience of living the challenge are Christian parents and I do believe that we need to find ways of bringing this message to them, both for themselves and so that they can share it with their children.  

One final thought is this. As a young priest, I suggested to a couple of friends of mine that they might go to a pre-marriage course provided by NAOMI (the National Association for the Ovulation Method). They were quite open to trying natural family planning and they were impressed with the course and with the time that was spent with them as a couple. Some years later, after they had had two children, the question of family planning came up for some reason in a conversation we were having and Mary said: “yes, it worked for us, but it was hard. After all the very time you want to have intercourse is the very time you can’t”. I obviously cannot speak from personal experience, but I do think that the way of living sexuality in marriage proposed by “Humanae Vitae” is a challenging way. It requires an element of sacrifice and a love which is “patient and kind”. It is fair to suggest that it can be enriching and fulfilling, but we should avoid seeming to suggest that is easy. (HV 20)

+Kevin Doran

Bishop of Elphin

4th August 2018