Message Refused: Humanae Vitae, 40 Years Later


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

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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