John the Baptist and Humanae Vitae


June 26, 2018

2018 is one of those years when June 24 falls on a Sunday and, therefore, one of the rare occasions when the Sunday liturgy is preempted by a Solemnity: the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

2018 is also the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that became the lightning rod for much dissent in the Catholic Church on matters of family and sexual ethics. The encyclical will mark its golden anniversary in a month.

The two events have at least three things in common.

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Openness to Life
Humanae Vitae taught that “each and every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life” (# 11). However, the Church does not teach that one must want to have children in every sexual act. Nor does it teach that sexual intercourse exists only for procreation.

What it does teach is a question of “attitudes” or “postures.” In his book on the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, Sources of Renewal, Karol Wojtyla (the future St. John Paul II) speaks about “attitudes” that should mark the Christian, i.e., ways of thinking about what it means to be and live as a Catholic Christian. They’re not “attitudes” in the sense of “opinions” or “feelings.” They are postures or perspectives that ground our way of looking at the world, the frame within which we see the painting.

One of those is our attitude towards creation. Creation means that: (a) God is the Creator; (b) we are creatures; (c) there is a difference between Creator and creature; (d) nonetheless, God invites us to collaborate with him in the work of creation, most preeminently through parenthood and through work; but (e) in collaborating with God, the Creator remains Creator and the creature a creature, the latter in a dependent relationship of loving piety.

Humanae Vitae does teach that God is the Lord and Giver of Life. What is given is a gift, and God’s gifts are good. Humanae Vitae shapes the Christian’s attitude by recognizing that life is always good, and that God is its Master, not us. By demanding that we be “open” to life, the encyclical means that—even if perhaps we do not wish to be parents at a given moment—we must always recognize that life is good, life is a gift, and God, not us, is the giver and master of life.

Humanae Vitae requires a certain spiritual posture, one that places trust in God’s Providence yet ultimately recognizes that life is a gift received, not a thing controlled, and that life is always good and always sacred. Elizabeth calls her childlessness a “reproach” (Luke 1:25) while modernity calls barrenness blessed.

The story of John the Baptist stands in profound contrast to today’s contraceptive culture. Zechariah and Elizabeth hope for a child. They want a child. Undoubtedly, they prayed for a child.

Yet Zechariah and Elizabeth were not stupid. They knew Elizabeth’s “biological clock” was running down and (as Fr. Matt Zuberbueler put it) they probably prayed for that child more out of custom than real expectation that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Indeed, Zechariah—a priest, therefore presumably a man of faith—is standing before the Altar of Incense when he gets a visit from an Archangel telling him that he’s finally going to get what he’s prayed for all his life, and yet he has doubts: “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is well stricken in years?” There is still the greater reliance on human capacities than faith in the Lord and Giver of Life, with whom “nothing is impossible.” Elizabeth and Zechariah were open to the gift of life—indeed, they longed for it—and yet had doubts they would receive it. What should we say of the modern man who throws that gift away?

The Bible often speaks of blessedness: “blessed is the one who” X, Y, or Z. Is it not a telling commentary on our culture that, once upon a time (but no longer), the euphemism for being pregnant was being in a “blessed state?” What should we Catholics do to resist the contemporary push to make of that “blessed state” an ambivalent one?

Finally, the first chapter of Luke’s gospel regularly associates the conception and preborn lives of these children—John and Jesus—with the Holy Spirit. Zechariah is told John will be filled with the Spirit (Luke 1:15); Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and John’s uterine gymnastics seem at least indirectly prompted by him (Luke 1:41); Zechariah’s praise for his little boy swells up in a Canticle prompted by the Spirit (Luke 1:67); and Mary owes her entire pregnancy to the Spirit who comes upon her (Luke 1:35). Is it but coincidental that we, in fact, affirm every week in the Nicene Creed that we believe not just in God but specifically in the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the Giver of Life?”

Life before Birth
When the pregnant Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth, the Evangelist tells us twice that John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41, 44b).

Every mother knows that experience of when her child first makes its presence known by movement. Some women feel their child move as early as 13 weeks, although 16-20 weeks (4-5 months) seems more average. Once upon a time, every mother cherished the first time she felt her child move.

While nobody defended killing an unborn child before these movements occur, the fact that the child is felt established in canon and English law a particular cogency for the life in his mother’s womb.

God clearly has a plan for this boy. One can clearly see the relevance of Jeremiah 1:5 (see also Ps 139:16), where God says that “before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.” When the Archangel tells Zechariah that heaven is sending him that baby he wanted—oh, and by the way, we already have a name for him (Luke 1:13b)—it’s clear God has a plan for John. His life before God has begun. His mission has begun.

I point these texts out because there are some efforts by mostly Protestant and some faux-Catholic theologians, like ex-priest Daniel Maguire, who pretend that “the Bible says nothing against abortion.” I suggest that an honest reading of chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel puts the lie to that claim. With quickened unborn children whose lives clearly are destined for something great, it’s hard to believe the legitimate Christian conclusion can be: “Oh, by the way Liz, I know you’re old, so if you really don’t want to be bothered, it’s your choice…”

Sanctity of Marriage
Although it doesn’t come up in the Gospel for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, we should not forget that John’s life ends because he stood up for marriage and against divorce. John may have been a thorn in the side of the religious establishment, but what landed him in jail and eventually on the chopping block was telling Herod that “it is against God’s law for you to marry” Herodias (Matt. 14:3).

John was not beheaded for having criticized the social injustice of Israel’s landowners. He was decapitated for defending marriage. He didn’t “accompany” Herod. He didn’t suggest that the sinfulness of the king’s liaisons with Herodias were just an accident of the religious interpretation of conservative Judea (and that things might be more accommodating in Israel or the Decapolis), or that he should consult his conscience before continuing his indulgent lifestyle. He told Herod to stop it. And he told Herodias to stop it. And that lead to an infamous dance that probably piqued Herod erotically, causing him to lose his head over Salome and John to literally lose his head. The Church does not call John’s defense of marriage “judg[ing] … difficult cases and wounded families.” The Preface of St. John the Baptist instead says that, in doing this, he “was privileged to bear the supreme witness by the shedding of his blood.”

So, in 2018, this jubilee year for Humanae Vitae, we might want to recall the many ways in which the life of St. John the Baptist reaffirms much of what the Church teaches regarding the sanctity of marriage and life.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “The Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine” painted by Simon Vouet in 1624.


  • 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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