Sense and Nonsense: ‘Humanae Vitae’ after 25 Years

Humanae Vitae, the encyclical on natural family planning, was published by Paul VI on July 29, 1968. At the time, I was teaching in Rome. I came to think, as I listened to the almost frantic criticism of the Pope, that something was terribly wrong, not with the teaching, but with the intellectual opposition to this teaching.

The stark logic of the papal teaching itself, it seemed to me, was what was so powerful, a logic the denial of which has formed the basis of the anti-life and anti-family—yes, the anti-eros and pro-statist—atmosphere of our time. This papal “logic” became prophetic, just as we might expect of it if it were true. Though contrary to most of the presumed “great” minds of the time, this logic was still in conformity with revelation and, on reflection, with reason. We supposedly worried about the bedroom in 1968. In 1993, we worry about civilization itself because of what has happened through choices and habits contrary to the teachings of the Church, not excluding, as Allan Carlson has demonstrated, the civil consequences of divorce.

The long-range significance of the document is a testimony both to the wisdom of the Church and the courage of Paul VI. Likewise, much of the contemporary opposition to John Paul II—perhaps the greatest man of our time—stems from his careful and truly brilliant explication of this teaching in terms of human love and its meaning.

Mine is still a minority opinion, I know. But our social disorders arise, it seems clear, from following faulty teachings in this area. These disorders are becoming more out of control the more we deviate from the essence of the papal teaching. What practices they have been teaching even our small children in New York City, to go no further, we can hardly bear even to listen to, or to believe such corruption possible among civilized men.

 

Abortion is now an established public policy, indeed, to the President, a “moral right.” Homosexual behavior is held to be a “normal” way of life. A disease epidemic, potentially the worst in the history of the world, cannot even be spoken frankly of in its causes. AIDS is the first completely political disease. All of these disorders and more are directly rooted, in a kind of divine ill-humor, in the denial of a principle and a practice found in this encyclical.

I spoke to a young Jesuit priest the other day about Janet Smith’s forceful book ‘Humanae Vitae’: A Generation Later (Catholic University of America Press, 1991). He told me that his late uncle, an Augustinian priest, had given the clerical response to this encyclical considerable reflection. After watching religious life in its well-known crises during these past decades, the Augustinian concluded that the major reason for this disruption of religious life was what followed from not supporting the Church on this issue.

Communities divided themselves over it and agreed not to talk about the topic. Teachings contrary to the Church were overlooked. Meanwhile, dissenters, always the publicly popular group, went right ahead teaching the view opposite to that of the Church. This divisiveness, never fully addressed by bishops and religious superiors, effectively undermined religious authority within dioceses and religious communities. Its example spread to all areas of the Church.

I would like to cite, if I may, a few paragraphs from an essay I wrote in November 1968, in the English Jesuit journal, The Month. Subsequent social history, it seems to me, has demonstrated the dire consequences of denying something the Church, for some unexpected reason of her own, insists on teaching.

“The pressure on science,” I wrote in 1968, “is to produce a secure, safe method of birth control which allows the natural act to be the natural act. All scientific progress in this area has in fact been in this direction anyhow because what man instinctively, that is, naturally, prefers in his sexual relations is either the natural act itself or, this lacking, something that approximates it as closely as possible. In essence everyone admits the natural superiority of the sexual act as it is received from nature.

“In other words, no one wants to use birth prevention means and in fact no one does [use them] except when constrained by some other reason. Birth control is in practice used only to prevent disease or birth when these motives are strong enough to overcome the natural desire not to interfere with the sexual act. All acts of contraception, then, are taken against what the participants prefer with regard to the consummation of the act itself. Contraception means the limitation of the act is preferred by many to abstaining, but it is not preferred to the act as it is found in nature when this is available.

“This point can be seen better in this manner. If we list the known or proposed means of birth control according to their degree of deviation from… natural sexual activity—i.e., infanticide, abortion, sterilization, contraceptive devices (IUDs, condoms, jellies, diaphragms), the vaccine immunizations against the sperm, withdrawal, and rhythm—it is clear that the ‘reason’ for the invention or development of each new means was in some fundamental sense the unsatisfactory results with means that either attacked life, interfered with the act of intercourse, or made it inconvenient. The most ‘desired’ means seems clearly… to be the one that allows and forms a normal female cycle that is both known, certain, and safe so that the natural act can be the natural act.

“Each new scientific improvement, then, seems clearly designed to foster the human desire to allow the unimpeded natural act, which is the essence of the papal position. The condom and the diaphragm were means (designed) to avoid the necessity of abortion or the distaste for withdrawal. The ‘pill’ was invented to avoid the inconvenience and interference of the condom; and the diaphragm, injection, sterilization, and the IUD were invented or perfected to avoid the side effects and sophistication of pill usage. [Note: RU-486 was invented to overcome the horror of abortion clinics]. All of this seems to suggest that science is itself in fact headed in the Church’s direction and that the invention of a secure rhythm system will not only prove immensely profitable but will be simply carrying to its logical conclusion a scientific progress that began with the rejection of infanticide as a legitimate means for birth control. Thus it is strange but science itself seems somehow to attest to the unacceptability of the present preventative means.”

In retrospect, we see that while sex is still about, it becomes insignificant and sterile when completely protected against life, as Paul VI emphasized. We are amazed that the present Pope, in spite of all the intellectual and political opposition, says the very same thing that Paul VI did. We notice that what was once presented as “private” is now in the coercive hands of the state.

It is well to note also that a more secure rhythm method seems to have come about—I think of the program of the Couple-to-Couple League or the work of Mercedes Wilson. From many sides, from health to security, from aesthetics to fidelity, from the nature of love itself to its relationship to children, natural family planning methods seem on every level superior to any of the contraceptive or abortive systems.

Let me conclude with a remark of Flannery O’Connor, written about a decade before the publication of Humanae Vitae: “The Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease.” This spunky lady had it right—the most spiritual doctrine of the Church has to do with what appears at first sight to be the most material side of creation, precisely where body, spirit, and life meet in miniature.

Need we be too surprised if this position about the openness of love to life is really what the Incarnation is about, the way our spirit suffuses what we really are? Is it not shocking that what we are is really better, infinitely better, than any of the alternatives science or politics have come up with in the meantime to resolve issues caused by disordered souls? Twenty-five years after Humanae vitae, the Church maintains the same spiritual teaching that she did in 1968, and as she did through another old Pope, Pius XI, in Casti connubii in 1931, when the Church began to treat the technical proposals in this area.

At the same time, the world falls more and more into familial and moral chaos by the logic of its disagreement with the Church on this very point. Never let it be said that the infallibility of the Church does not have its finger somehow uncannily fixed, contrary to the wisdom of the world, on the crucial point that alone, it now seems, will protect us in our very bodily being and teach us to remain what we are.

Yes, it is ironic that elderly popes are the main defenders of sexuality itself in the modern world. God alone would have it that way. No doubt as our civil and personal disorders grow apace, He is trying to teach us something. If we continue as rapidly down the same anti-life “logic” that we did during the first 25 years after Humanae vitae, surely not merely good human life will be jeopardized but all human life as such. Some think the end of our civilization may come from nuclear weapons. It begins to look rather alarmingly, however, as if it may come because we refused to understand the long-range implications of Humanae vitae, taught to us as eminently reasonable by old popes in their sober ways.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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