Message Refused: Humanae Vitae, 40 Years Later

July 25, 2008

From Inside Catholic:

(Also see “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” from First Things)

I know a woman – and, in fairness, I must say that she’s a truly good Catholic woman — who’s slightly bonkers on the subject of birth control. I suppose there are people like that on both sides of this argument, but this woman happens to be bonkers on the pro-contraception side. You can’t help noticing it. Whenever the subject comes up in conversation — and, not infrequently, even when it doesn’t — she lets everybody within earshot know that the Church is flatly wrong about birth control and absolutely, unquestionably, and incontrovertibly must change its position without further delay.


Poor lady. She may be in for a hard time of it in the next several weeks. Today is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception; and although, among those taking note of the occasion, some will undoubtedly join this good Catholic woman in rapping the document and calling for change, many others just as certainly will praise the encyclical as not just true but even prophetically so. Pope Benedict XVI got in the first licks a little while back when he spoke to a group meeting in Rome to celebrate the anniversary.


“What was true yesterday is true also today,” Benedict said. “The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change . . . . The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which all must refer. Any attempt to turn one’s gaze away from this principle is in itself barren and does not produce a future.”


Unfortunately, the gaze-turning of which the Holy Father speaks has been going on for four decades now and gives no sign of being at an end. Birth control is a subject a lot of people just can’t leave alone, including many Catholics who disagree with the Church. Like the woman mentioned above, these folks say they’re absolutely certain contraception is okay, yet they keep bringing it up obsessively as if they weren’t quite sure and needed the approval of the Church to be at peace. Which suggests to me, among other things, that after 40 years, there are still lots of unsettled consciences out there.


Before someone tells me I’m being presumptuous, let me hasten to add that I don’t question anyone’s good faith. God knows about things like that; I surely don’t. My point is not that anyone in particular who goes on and on about how wrong the Church is in this matter is insincere. It’s simply that all these people together manage collectively to give the impression of not being all that sure. And that stands to reason – since, after all, they’re wrong. Those of us who see how wrong they are need to give them a hand.


Ten years after Humanae Vitae appeared, Rev. Charles Curran, the most highly publicized of the American dissenters, made an extremely important point. At the time the document came out, he said, “‘the conservatives’ saw much more clearly than ‘the liberals’ of the day that a change in the teaching on artificial contraception had to recognize that the previous teaching was wrong.” But if the Church was wrong about birth control, then of course the Church could be, and no doubt was, wrong about much else. As Father Curran pointed out in 1978:


Catholic theologians frequently deny the existing teaching of the hierarchical magisterium on such issues as contraception, sterilization, artificial insemination, masturbation, the generic gravity of sexual sins. Newer approaches have recently been taken to the question of homosexuality. [Remember, this was 1978. The dissenters have gone far beyond “newer approaches” since then.] All these questions in the area of medical and sexual morality are being questioned today.


Aside from the reference to the “teaching of the hierarchical magisterium,” a common rhetorical ploy by dissenters indicating their dismissal of doctrine they disagree with as only the teaching of the pope and the bishops in union with him, this was a very honest remark. Since it was made, Father Curran and people like him have moved on from individual moral questions to matters of moral principle and moral methodology. For centuries, the teaching of the Church was based on the conviction that there are absolute, exceptionless moral norms — some actions always and everywhere are wrong in all circumstances.


Now, not a few moral theologians deny that. Adopting relativistic moral theories with names like “proportionalism” and “consequentialism,” they proceed on the assumption that the morality of an action is always determined by circumstances; in the end, nothing can be ruled out in principle before the fact.


Pope John Paul II brushed all that aside in Veritatis Splendor (1995), his admirable encyclical on morality, when he said: “The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.” As any dissenting moral theologian worth his or her salt will be quick to point out, however, that’s only the hierarchical — or, in this case, papal — magisterium talking.


With spectacular timing — good or bad, depending on how you look at it — Humanae Vitae arrived on the scene smack in the middle of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Many Catholics joined that revolution then, and many have joined it since. The consequences of the sexual revolution are clear by now in statistics on things like abortion, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, divorce, and HIV/AIDS.


As for Catholics, in the last four decades, the number of Catholic marriages in the United States — not the rate of marriage, mind you, but the absolute number of marriages — has fallen by half, and this at a time when Catholic population was surging 30 million higher. In one recent survey, more than half the young, unmarried Catholics in the country saw no reason to get married in the Church.


The central Christian metaphor for marriage is in Ephesians, where the relationship of husband and wife is likened to the relationship of Christ to the Church:


No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the church . . . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church (Eph 5:29-32).


It is not a rational argument against contraception but more like an intuition, both moral and aesthetic, to say there’d be something very nearly blasphemous about likening the relationship of Christ and the Church to a contraceptive relationship between a man and woman. As metaphor, it just doesn’t work.


The reason it doesn’t work has to do, among other things, with the fact that contraception depersonalizes the other — it turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self. Sex becomes an essentially solipsistic activity rather than a relational experience of self-communication and mutual giving. This is the kind of thinking John Paul II develops to good effect in his well-known theology of the body.


People like the good Catholic woman who believes so strongly that the Church is wrong about birth control ought to think about it. Forty years after Humanae Vitae, the question is how to get her and the rest to do that.


Russell Shaw, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., is author of the newly published Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press) and 19 other books.

Contraception and the Language of the Body — Part 3 of 6

July 25, 2008

Christopher West’s six part series on contraception:

We continue our series commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.  Pope Paul VI released this oh-so-controversial encyclical on July 25, 1968, re-affirming the constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception. To this day it remains a “thorn in the side” of many.  It was once a thorn in my side as well.  John Paul II’s “theology of the body” helped remove that thorn and show me the glorious fragrance of the rose.

Last time we observed that contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the “Lord and Giver of Life.”  In this way, as John Paul II expressed it, contraception falsifies “the language of the body.”

We all know that the body has a “language.”  A wave of the hand says “hello” or “goodbye.” A shrug of the shoulders says, “I don’t know.” A raised fist expresses anger.  What is sexual intercourse meant to express?  What is it’s true language, its true meaning?

According to Scripture, the sexual embrace is meant to express divine love.  Precisely here, in the consummation of their sacrament, spouses are meant to participate in the “great mystery” of divine love. Whether spouses realize this or not, this is the sacramental power of their love.  It’s meant to be an image and a real participation in Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).

As John Paul II candidly expressed, “Through gestures and reactions, through the whole …dynamism of tension and enjoyment – whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity, the body in its action and interaction – through all this man, the person, ‘speaks.’  …Precisely on the level of this ‘language of the body’ …man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them by… their masculinity and femininity” (TOB 123:4).

But if sexual love is meant to express Christ’s love, we must properly understand the “language” of this love.  Christ gives his body freely (”No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10:18). He gives his body totally-without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation (”He loved them to the last,” Jn 13:1). He gives his body faithfully (”I am with you always,” Mt 28:20). And he gives his body fruitfully (”I came that they may have life,” Jn 10:10).

If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ expresses.  Of course, as fallen human beings, we’ll never express Christ’s love perfectly.  Even so, we must commit ourselves to the life-long journey of learning how to express this love and, at a minimum, never willfully act against this love.  The name for this commitment is marriage.

This is precisely what a bride and groom consent to at the altar. The priest or deacon asks them: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” The bride and groom each say “yes.”

In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with the “language of their bodies” whenever they become one flesh. “In fact, the words themselves, ‘I take you as my wife/as my husband,’” John Paul II says, “can only be fulfilled by conjugal intercourse.”  With conjugal intercourse “we pass to the reality that corresponds to these words” (TOB 103:3).

Intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. It’s where men and women are meant to incarnate divine love. It’s a fine thing when a couple returns to the church to renew their vows on a special anniversary, but this shouldn’t undermine the fact that every time a husband and wife have intercourse they’re meant to renew their wedding vows with the “language of their bodies.”

How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their vows?  On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever increasing commitment to them?  If you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae.  In the next column, I’ll unfold why.