Humanae Vitae’s Challenge to Modernity

July 25, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae (HV). This encyclical, and its subsequent contestation in certain “Catholic” circles, has been a defining moment of the past half-century.

The central teaching of HV (#12) is that there is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”

Its teaching challenges several elements of modernity:

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First, there is a dispute over the meaning of creation. God’s creation is more than a statement of fact; it is an expression of values. God is not just an indifferent clockmaker but God “and Father.” His created order is more than just an expression of Ultimate Will; it is also one of Ultimate Intellect and Ultimate Love.

To acknowledge this reality is not to be subject to “biological determinism” or “biological facticity.” It is to acknowledge that creation—including the human person as a bodily-spiritual being—is suffused with meaning which man, as an intellectual creature, can discover, but of which he is not the author, much less a re-designer.

If meaning is “inherent,” it means that God’s creation is full of meaning. Creation is not a blank canvas that man, with his limited intellect, is free to fill. Meaning is recognized, not created, by the viewer.

This understanding of the preexistent value of creation has huge implications for both an authentic and a faulty understanding of conscience. Conscience is a mirror that reflects the moral order God created, not an invention that sews moral value out of whole cloth. The false notions of conscience pedaled in the wake of HV depend on this apotheosis of conscience.

Second, there is a dispute over the meaning of life. Procreation refers to the value of life. It is not “just” biological facticity. It is not “just” the chance by which a new life might come into existence. Procreation is first and foremost a value—the value of life—and the attitude we take towards it. HV tells us that life is a good-in-itself (bonum in se). It does not need to justify its value; it is self-justifying, i.e., an end in itself.

The rejection of procreation as a value in itself means that we have devalued life. Life has ceased to be “good.” It is at best neutral, at worst bad or inconvenient. It is no longer seen as good in itself, but it might be good (or bad) when measured against other things. Life has become a useful good (bonum utile), i.e., its value is a function of its utility to whatever project or plans I have.

However, life cannot be devalued this way without huge consequences. The standard modern critique is that the Church is complicit in the abortion rate because, if it relented in its opposition to contraception, the incidence of abortion would decline. The standard view is that abortion and contraception stand in inverse ratio.

The problem with this view is that it does not take experience into account.

As Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once noted, there is no society in which contraception became widespread which did not subsequently legalize abortion. Experience tells us that contraception and abortion compliment each other since the former results in the latter; they are “fruits of the same tree,” as John Paul II reminded us in Evangelium Vitae (#13).

If someone regards life prior to conception with indifference, in utilitarian fashion, or as a potential inconvenience that must justify its existence, then it would require a radical mental conversion to expect that person to suddenly become absolute and unwavering about the goodness of life post-conception. If he wanted to frustrate that existence beforehand, he most likely would try to do so after conception. Abortion has assumed a role as a “fail-safe” for contraception, even being lauded as a reason the abortion license in Roe et al. v. Wade must be upheld: “for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 at 856).

Third, there is a dispute over the difference between man and God. HV teaches that the procreative-unitive nexus of the sexual act is instituted by God and not subject to man’s discretion. Contraception insists that it is. It is not by accident that some bioethicists have been accused of “playing God.” The rejection of HV has fueled what some have called “the technological imperative,” i.e., because I can do something technologically, I am allowed to do it morally.

Within ten years of HV, sex without babies had become babies without sex. In the past forty years, artificial reproduction has grown up alongside contraception, as healthy women destroy their fertility even as unhealthy women seek to substitute test tubes for human sexuality. The “hands off” approach to issues of sexual morality, coupled with the wink-wink-nod-nod feigned agnosticism Roe perpetuates as to when life begins, have resulted in parenthood being parceled into genetic, gestational, and social components. And if sex ultimately has neither an inherent nor a unitive meaning, but whatever meaning those having sex assign to it, then sexual differentiation itself becomes irrelevant—to the point that now we have sex reduced to mere biology while a fluid mental “gender,” independent of any scientific, objective substratum, becomes the definition of a human being.

Furthermore, if God’s order no longer stops men from playing God, neither will the Church as an interpreter of Divine law have much of an effect. It is no accident that the deconstruction of moral theology that followed in the wake of HV occurred simultaneously with the deconstruction of Catholic ecclesiology. The Church as moral teacher became the Church as cafeteria, with “Catholics” free in “conscience” to make random selections at the buffet of faith and morals: those who challenged this caricature of Catholic identity were branded as “rigid,” Catholic theology faculties in the United States largely became the perches of those who served up a “theology of dissent,” and most American bishops and priests adopted a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the confessional while observing a vow of omertà in the pulpit.

The civilizational destruction in the wake of the rejection of HV should be self-evident and obvious to everyone except those who refuse to see. In this anniversary year, we should recommit ourselves to the fight for a culture of life and reenlist in that battle. We should recall the prophetic words John Paul II spoke to Paul VI during the former’s Lenten retreat for the latter in 1976:

In recent years there has been a striking increase in contradiction…. One has only to recall the contestation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae…. These examples are enough to bring home the fact that we are in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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