Humanae Vitae, A Gift to Women and Men
Susan Selner-Wright, PhD
Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary
A few disclaimers to begin: Given the statistics on contraception use among Catholics in the US, it is very unlikely that no one here has ever contracepted. And it is impossible that no one here has a beloved family member or friend who is a committed user of contraception. One reason for this widespread dissent from HV is that it contradicts some presuppositions of American culture which are so deeply engrained that many people just assume they are true and even teach others that they are true without really examining them.
My purpose today is not to condemn anyone but rather to invite everyone to think about the reasoning of HV with an open mind and to consider whether our own dissent from it or the dissent of those we love may be rooted in certain cultural presuppositions that we really might want to reconsider. The Church’s teaching is rooted in love for human beings. I will argue that some of our cultural presuppositions really are not.
Second disclaimer: What I am going to give you is a professional philosopher’s account of the reasonableness of the teaching of HV. Now it is of course one thing to know that something is true and quite another to act on it. As Christians we know that one of the reasons for the gap between knowing what’s true and acting accordingly is the Fall—our own sinfulness and that of the people around us often makes it very difficult for us to act on what we may believe is true. Many people hear the teaching of HV and honestly respond, ok, maybe—but I know I just can’t do that. I can’t confine my sexual activity to marriage, or if I can do that, I can’t confine it to the times when I’m infertile (or when my wife is infertile). To which the Church’s response must be, “Of course you can’t! None of us can do anything good all on our own. We need each other and we need God.” And in terms of our sexual lives, the good news of HV is that authentically human sexual love involves not two persons, but three: HV claims that sex is designed by God to be the means by which married couples strengthen their own union and cooperate with God in causing other human beings to come into being. If we are convinced that HV is true to God’s plan for human sexuality, then we must also believe that our good God wants to come to our assistance in getting through the difficulties of living according to that plan. So, the philosophical approach I am offering needs to be supplemented with theological and the sacramental.
Third disclaimer: earlier this month I was very lucky to attend a three-day conference on HV, where I learned a lot that I wish I had time to convey to you. There is so much about the current medical research on female fertility and the medical benefits to women when they and their doctors are aware of the information gathered using modern Natural Family Planning. In today’s NFP, the sympto-thermal methods I’m familiar with are now coordinated with daily direct hormonal tracking (which entails, in laymen’s terms, peeing on a stick) that I was shocked I had not heard about. The research into the known health effects on women using hormonal contraception is truly frightening, especially the impact on women who begin to contracept before having their first child. And the way the Pill is so regularly prescribed even to adolescent girls for everything from acne to migraines without consideration of the completely unstudied effect of these steroids on brain development, those statistics really make my feministical blood boil. There are so many ways in which following the teaching of HV is genuinely in the best interests of women and men purely on the physical level—wider awareness of these facts would surely give people pause if only to wonder why these facts are so little known to the medical professionals entrusted with care for our physical health.
Final disclaimer: I did intend the title of this talk to be provocative—it is controversial to say that the teaching of HV is a gift to women and to men. But why is that? Why is the teaching of HV so strange, even threatening, to so many? I believe it is because HV entails a view of the human person and of our relationship to God that flies in the face of the modern project of the last 400 years and that many of us have been more profoundly shaped by our culture’s embrace of that project than by the Church’s teaching. In order to fully understand the disconnect between the Church and the popular culture, everyone would need to take at least three courses in Philosophy: Philosophy of Being, also known as Metaphysics, Philosophy of God, and Philosophy of the Human Being, also known as Philosophical Anthropology. One of the big challenges we face now, as in 1968 when HV came out, is that so many people have not been introduced to the philosophical patrimony of the Church, they are not aware of the rich treasure of thought, fully accessible to the human mind, that is available in the teaching of the Church. And so when the Church proclaims a teaching which is out of the mainstream of popular thought, it is all too easy even for Catholics to conclude that the Church’s reasons for its teaching are not rationally compelling. Au contraire.
For today, could I ask you to trust me that I am not going to say anything that an open-minded person with typically developed intellectual powers could not understand for themselves, if they had the time and patience to work through it. Nothing I am going to say requires religious faith to be believed, though many people who do believe what I am going to say do so on the basis of faith and that is fine. So, please trust me when I say we can offer perfectly reasonable arguments that:
God is the creator of everything that is not God.
God is the source of the cosmos. If the theory of the big bang turns out to be accurate, then we’ll know that God is the source of the big bang. He is both the source (the efficient cause) and the orderer (the formal cause) of everything else in existence. Modern astrophysics has helped us to understand that God is the ultimate long-range planner.
The amazing discoveries about the history of our universe are entirely compatible with the Church’s traditional understanding of God’s relationship with the cosmos. God is the source of the existence and the ordering, the nature, of all else. In the language of our tradition,the ordering of the cosmos is called the Eternal Law. Discoveries of electricity, gravity, laws of inertia, these were all discoveries, understandings, of the Eternal Law. Human beings do not cause gravity, they discover it, learn more and more about it, and then develop techniques of operating according to its already given nature.
Every finite being, that is, every being other than God, is subject to the Eternal Law. No matter how powerful or wealthy or persuasive I become, if you take me out on top of a tall building and push me off, I will fall—I will be subject to the law of gravity. And no matter what people who lecture on PBS may say, all material things eventually corrupt, this body will one day give out and I will die. The laws of nature apply to me, to squirrels, to trees, to amoebas, to rocks.
But, obviously, I am different from squirrels or trees in that there are areas of my life where I have freedom, where I am not simply subject to laws of nature, where I can make choices. To think about those aspects of human life, our tradition speaks of Natural Law,which is formally defined as “the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law.” Notice right away a possible source of confusion. What scientists have come to call Laws of Nature, our tradition has always seen as part of the Eternal Law, God’s ordering of the universe. That is not the same thing as the Natural Law, which refers to the fact that rational beings, in addition to being subject to all the Laws of Nature can ALSO understand those laws (though perhaps never completely—at least we haven’t so far). Further, unlike lower beings which are determined in their actions, human beings have very little “pre-programming” guiding our actions. Where a squirrel is driven by its instincts to gather nuts at the appropriate time and to care for its young, human beings are free to work or to lounge, to care for children or to go off to happy hour and leave the children to fend for themselves. This is why human beings have social service agencies and squirrels do not—squirrels in their unfreedom are much more reliable parents than we are in our freedom.
So what our tradition means when it says that rational beings can participate in the Eternal Law is that we can potentially understand the parts that we are just subject to, like gravity, and we can choose to go along or not go along with the aspects of our ordering that we have freedom over. When the squirrel gathers nuts, he is just obeying the Eternal Law—he has no choice, he is driven by his instincts. When my husband goes to the grocery store, he is choosing to act in that way, he is consciously participating in the Eternal Law by which animals are ordered, designed, to care for their young. To use the language of our tradition, he is obeying the Natural Law.
Now because my husband is rational and free, he could take the grocery money and spend it making new friends at a bar. Why doesn’t he do that? Well, lots of reasons, but one of them is that he is mature enough to realize that that would not be in accord with his own happiness, his own flourishing in the long run. To think about it in cosmic terms, my husband knows that in God’s ordering of things, he is meant to care for his own physical nourishment and that of his wife and children and to make that a priority over new drinking buddies. He could violate God’s ordering, of course, but since he can’t ever get outside of God’s ordering of things he knows his own flourishing ultimately lies in getting on board with God’s ordering. He has the dignity of choosing to act in accord with God’s design, choosing obedience to an order not of his own making. His mature obedience to that design is the basis for my mature reliance on him. And my mature obedience to God’s design is what makes it possible for my husband to rely on me. That mature obedience is the basis for the unity and fruitfulness of any marriage, or indeed the reliability of any human relationship.
So what does all this have to do with HV? Well, HV came out at a time when people’s enthusiasm for the human capacity to control nature was arguably at its peak—when we were most caught up in what man can do and most forgetful of the fact that, however fabulous we are, we are still creatures, that we are part of nature, and that our capacity to understand nature is itself a gift from God not some grand achievement entirely of our own. The 1960s, one might argue, represented the pinnacle of the modern project, the high point of the agenda first set out in the 16thand 17thcenturiesby thinkers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.
Descartes claimsthat man is not a soul/body unity but is rather a thinking thing, a mind, which is somehow associated with a material thing, the body. He posits that the laws of nature are simply the laws of mechanics and that everything relevant about nature can be understood in mechanical terms. He boldly declares that the goal of science is “to make ourselves . . . masters and possessors of nature.” The influence of these three claims, the degree to which they are now unquestioningly presupposed in Western minds, cannot be overstated. By the 1960s Americans had largely bought into the idea that we are meant to control nature rather than act in harmony with its own intrinsic ordering. The environmental movement has made some progress in challenging that view with regard to non-human beings, but with the exception of the return to breastfeeding, we have continued to accept it mostly unquestioningly with regard to our own bodies. To understand why, we must examine another cultural presupposition that spiked in the 1960s, the understanding of freedom as radical autonomy.
Unlike the view of nature as mechanical, which has been tempered by the cultural weight of environmentalism, the misunderstanding of freedom has had no mainstream counterpressure and so has just expanded to the point where we are no longer shocked at the latest way people have decided they are free to act. A woman marrying a bridge? A dolphin? Herself? No longer a surprise. A person with healthy limbs seeking an amputation because he identifies as a wheel-chair bound person? There’s a clinic in London that will accommodate that. What the heck is going on here? Well, the seeds sown by William of Ockham (1287-1347) and Duns Scotus (1265-1266) in their voluntaristic theology were reaped and re-sown in the work of later thinkers, including Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)who identifies human dignity with autonomy. Kant argues that freedom must be understood asautonomy,auto-nomos, subjecting oneself to the law. He contrasts this with heteronomy, hetero-nomos, being subjected to the law by someone other than oneself. Now this is very complex—we would spend several days on it in one of our philosophy courses—but what has happened over time is that this understanding of freedom as autonomy has evolved into something Kant did not hold but which our culture does:the idea that freedom means being able to do whatever I want, to be subject to no law at all except that of my own desires. It is the view of the manic toddler who, when asked, “Who is in charge here?” unhesitatingly answers, “I am.” Now, the toddler grows out of this fairly quickly (we hope), realizes that he is part of a larger whole and comes to see that he has to make choices in light of that larger whole if he is going to flourish. The cosmic version of that maturation is our realization that, because we are creatures, our flourishing lies in acting in harmony with the natures which God has given us. We know that true freedom consists not in doing whatever we want. We have learned that giving ourselves over to whatever we want whenever we want is actually a form of slavery. True freedom, as John Paul II puts it, consists not in doing as we like but in having the right, the freedom, to do what we ought.
Now, as I said, Descartes’ idea that we are meant to dominate and manipulate nature has been tempered by culturally mainstream environmentalism. But the tremendous success of the idea of freedom as autonomy has left one part of nature, the human being, still almost completely subject to Descartes’ project. The project is now devoted to the domination of the human body by the human mind, literally the de-personalization of the human body. Freedom as autonomy has greatly contributed to the breakdown of our sense of what human beings owe to their own bodies and also to one another — a big factor in the explosion of loneliness and isolation among people in the developed world. And the rise of freedom as autonomy has made the kind of mature obedience displayed by people like my husband unintelligible. On the popular view, being mature and being obedient are in contradiction to each other. To obey a law not of one’s own making is to co-operate in one’s own oppression.
HV and the related teachings of the Catholic Church are in some ways the last rationally articulated arguments standing against the cultural forces which are undeniably harming so many human beings today, harming them physically, emotionally, economically and spiritually. The Church invites us to live out an understanding of ourselves and our relationship to God which would equip us to respond better to all of these woes. HV is specifically about spacing births in a way that complies with God’s ordering of things, but adoption of its primary principle, the necessity that we harmonize our ways with God’s ways, would renew not only our generative lives but every aspect of human life.
So let’s take a look at HV. If you pull out the copy of the document that is in your folder, I’ll be using that translation (http://www.onemoresoul.com/catalog/humanae-vitae-a-challenge-to-love-p144.html) by Janet Smith, which I think is really the best one available in English. If you turn to page 22, that’s where the document itself begins. So, the first sentence: “God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important mission of transmitting human life.” The word “mission” is translating the Latin word “munus.” If you turn to page 20, at the end of the translator’s introduction, you’ll see her explanation of “munus” which she notes is a word not easily translated into English because it conveys a meaning that is unfamiliar to many English-speaking people, especially in the US. She says:
Often [munus] is translated “role” as in the role of the bishops or of spouses. [The Church speaks of Christ as having] a threefold munusof being priest, prophet, and king. [When it is used for human beings, a] munus[refers to] a task delegated by someone superior in power to another whose assistance he needs, and whom he wishes to honor by having him share in his work.
So if we apply this understanding of munusto the first sentence of HV, what we read is that God has delegated to spouses a task necessary to the generation of new human life. God “needs” the assistance of spouses and wishes to honor them by giving them a share in the work of generating new human beings.
Now let’s think about that. My work teaching at the seminary is a munusI receive from Archbishop Aquilla. He cannot teach all the academic courses that men preparing for the priesthood need, so he entrusts that work to a number of people including me and I am indeed honored by that trust. But we have to notice a big difference between God and AB Aquilla. AB Aquilla is a finite human being—there are things he cannot do himself and so he mustdelegate. But this is not true for God.God is infinite and infinitely powerful. He can do anything consistent with his nature as infinitely good and true and one. And that includes the generation of new human life—God is perfectly capable of making new beings by himself—just look at Adam.
So, since God does not have to give human beings a role in generating new human life, the fact that we have one means that he choosesto need our help. And he doesn’t have to entrust that role to pairs of human beings—he is certainly aware of the possibility of asexual reproduction. No, God chooses to involve human beings, and further, PAIRS of human beings, in what is manifestly his very dear wish to generate many new human beings. So why does he do this? Well, why does a mother or father ask a child to help making a cake when it could be made much more quickly, effectively, and neatly by the parent alone? Is it because the parent really needs the child’s help? No—it’s because the parent knows that it is good for the child to help, in fact so good that it is worth the time and extra cleaning to ask the child for help. In a similar way, God could easily have chosen not to involve human beings in the generation of new human life or he could have made it an asexual process involving only one human being. But instead, God greatly complicated his own life and ours by choosing the much messier route of make the generation of new human beings something to be accomplished in cooperation with male and female pairs. The fact that male and female reproductive organs constitute a complete reproductive system only when used together is not, on our view, a matter of happenstance, it is a manifestation of the design, the order that God intends in creation.
In the language of eternal and natural law, God orders reality in such a way that new human life requires the cooperation of male and female human beings. That natural design is part of the eternal law. Paul VI says (page 28),
It is false to think … that marriage results from chance or from the blind course of natural forces. Rather,God the Creator wisely and providently established marriage with the intent that He might achieve His own design of love through human beings.
Marriage itself and the marital union which consummates it are designed by God for his purposes. Paul VI goes on,
Therefore, through mutual self-giving, which is unique and exclusive to them, spouses seek a communion of persons. Through this communion, the spouses perfect each other so that they might share with God the task [operam] of procreating and educating new living beings.
God designed marriage, and he designed it for man and woman to give themselves to each other and to perfect each other in such a way as to be able to better cooperate with God in bringing up children. In other words, God designed both marriage and the marital act to be unitive and procreative.
Paul VI states that he cannot follow the recommendations of the majority report because they have “departed from the firm and constant teaching of the Magisterium” (HV6) and they have failed to take into account “the whole person and the whole mission (munus) to which human beings have been called” (HV7). A genuinely holistic concern for human welfare must consider not only the comfort of this life but also one’s relationship with God in this life. Because he is the source of nature itself, the source of our own human nature, action in accord with his design is most conducive to our own flourishing.
Blessed Paul VI goes on to note that those who have advocated in the majority report for approval of hormonal birth control argue that this is necessary in order to meet “the demands of marital love [conjugalis amoris] or the duty to conscious (sometimes translated “responsible”) parenthood [paternitatis sui officii consciae]” (HV 7). In order to show that this is mistaken, Paul VI proceeds to explain the authentic meaning of both marital love and conscious parenthood in light of God’s design for marriage. Marital love, he says, has four characteristics: It is human, total, faithful, and fruitful. To say that it is human means that it is a kind of love possible only to beings like us, beings who are simultaneously spiritual and bodily. Human sexual love cannot rightly be reduced to mere animal coupling, but neither is it a platonic, super-bodily reality. Authentically human sexual love is personal—encompassing both aspects of both persons: two bodies and two souls. Notice that this view would make no sense to someone who is presuming Descartes’ understanding of the human being as a mind somehow associated with a merely mechanical body. For us Catholic Christians, the human body is an integral aspect of ourselves to be understood and respected, not a machine to be manipulated and depersonalized.
To say that marital love is total means that “spouses generously share everything with each other without undue reservations and without concern for their selfish convenience.” Spouses generously share, that is, they both giveand receivefrom the other, withholding nothing good from the other, refusing nothing the other brings. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. And in terms of the specific concern of the encyclical, fertile or infertile. To cause oneself or one’s partner to be infertile in order to be available for sex outside of the normal rhythm of female infertility designed by God, is to refuse the gift of each other’s fertility. This is part of why a little later in the document Pope Paul rejects the line of reasoning that as long as a couple is open to children “someday” it is okay for them to render themselves infertile for the time being. Total acceptance of the other means acceptance now, and if that means one or both must alter their own behavior now, well that’s part of the totality of their love. The development of self-mastery necessary to confine the marital embrace to natural times of female infertility is the work of conquering precisely the concern for one’s own selfish convenience the Paul VI is talking about.
To say that marital love is faithful means that it is exclusive to these two until one of them dies. This is not a human convention or a result of evolutionary pressures. It is what is best for God’s purposes in marriage: the genuine unity of the spouses and the optimal nurturing of their children and of their grand-children. It is important to see that serial monogamy, which many in our culture seem to see as the highest romantic goal, is anything but unitive and is far from good for children or grand-children.
Finally, Pope Paul says, marital love is fruitful, flowing beyond the good of the two spouses to the good of others. The most profound fruit of marriage is the human child. But the love of spouses who are infertile is also called to be fruitful, to stretch beyond the good of the two. We will return to this in a moment.
According to Pope Paul, given that marital love is human, total, faithful and fruitful, it requires “that spouses be fully aware of their mission [munus] of conscious parenthood [paternitatem consciam].” And, he says, couples exercising conscious parenthood do four things. First, they “know and honor the responsibilities [munerum] involved in [human biological] processes. Human reason has discovered that there are biological laws in the power of procreating human life that pertain to the human person.” In discovering those biological laws, we have discerned that God has designed sex among human beings to be periodically infertile. Action in light of this knowledge, either to achieve pregnancy or to avoid it, can be in accord with God’s design. This means that husbands have a responsibility to “know and honor” their wives’ cycle, and do not rightly ask their wives to render themselves infertile in order to be more frequently available. It also means that spouses are not helping each other by rendering themselves infertile—instead of allowing the reality of the female cycle to prompt both husband and wife to greater self-mastery and unselfishness, artificial contraception sends the message that we hold no such hopes for perfection for ourselves or the other, and that we do not trust God to help us achieve greater perfection. We sell ourselves short, expect too little of ourselves and each other and God when we simply opt out of God’s design for female fertility.
On the contrary,the second characteristic of couples exercising conscious parenthood is that they are willing to form themselves, to habituate their reason and will to exercise mastery over “the innate impulses and inclinations of the soul.” Unlike the teenage girl, who may be desperate or immature enough to believe that true love let’s her boyfriend do whatever he wants, mature human love knows that none of us can flourish if we have not learned self-control and that life given over to our lower passions is not a good enough life for any human being that we love.
The third characteristic of couples who exercise conscious parenthood is prudent and generous consideration of their own “physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions.” Because different couples are in different situations, this generous and prudent consideration does not lead every couple to the same conclusion as every other couple and it may well lead one couple to different conclusions at different points in their marriage. Blessed Paul VI says such consideration will lead some couples “to accept many children.” Others in different circumstances may rightly discern that there are serious reasons for them to “decide not to have another child for either a definite or an indefinite period of time” (HV10). Both of these are possible outcomes of generous and prudent consideration. In other words, a couple may be in circumstances in which they realize that it would be neither prudent nor generous to have another child. In such circumstances, if their judgment is in fact well grounded, their rational participation in the eternal law will rightly lead them to confine their marital embrace to the naturally infertile times. They are respecting God’s ordering of things and honoring their God-given capacity for judging the seriousness of their reasons to avoid pregnancy at this time.
In other words,they have the fourth characteristic of conscious parenthood, realizing that their judgments about their married life “must be rooted in the objective moral order established by God” and that “only an upright conscience can be a true interpreter of this order.” They know that “they must accommodate their behavior to the plan of God the Creator,” and his plan for the fertility of human sexual love.
With these points as background, Pope Paul goes on to explain the necessary relationship between the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage and the marital act. Just as the sexual complementarity of male and female is necessary for natural generation, the complementarity of unity and fruitfulness is necessary in order to fulfill what God intends for human marriage. For anyone unfamiliar with this language, complementarity means that two things are really different from each other but they are also necessary to each other. Paul VI teaches that the unitive aspect of marital love requires the procreative and vice versa. Let’s think about what this means. Any act of sexual intercourse can be subjectively affective (rather than unitive) orbiologically generative (rather than procreative). E.g. Sexual intercourse for the sole purpose of conceiving a child is not unitive and it is, therefore, merely generative, not procreative—it is not in accord with God’s design because the unitive is necessary to the procreative. This is what Pope Francis is talking about when he saysthat children are entitled not only to the love of their parents for themselves, but to the love of their parents for each other (Amoris Laetitiae172). The procreativity of a marriage, its capacity to bring new persons into being and to nurture these persons, is tied up with the unity of the marriage. Parents who are genuinely united with each other are able to teach their children aspects of how to be human that cannot easily be taught in any other way. Procreativity entails unity.
I think it is easier for many people to see that than to see why unity equally entails procreativity. In terms of the argument of HV itself, it goes back to the requirement that marital love be total: an act is not adequately unitive if I am actively withholding my own fertility from my husband or if he is withholding his from me. St. John Paul added immensely to our understanding of this reality by taking the focus off of the contracepting couple’s attitude toward a potential child and focusing more on their attitude toward each other. He encourages couples to ask themselves,“Are we making gifts of ourselves to each other or are we using each other?” In her excellent recent article, Angela Franks puts it this way:
Contraception makes sex structurallyabout my personal projects. An acceptance of the possibility of procreation gives sex an orientation toward an end that transcends the solitary person and opens it to true unity. On the other hand, a sexual act that has been deliberately sterilized has been turned toward purely subjective uses, and that means one’s partner has become a tool. Sexual utility is the enemy of sexual unity” (“#MeToo shows the dangers of end-less’ sex. ‘Humanae Vitae’ shows the way forward,” America, 17 April 2018).
Because of the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative aspects of marriage and marital acts, Blessed Paul VI teaches that “every marital act must be per se destinatus[intrinsically ordered] to the procreating of human life” (HV11). Now does that mean that in every marital act each spouse must be continuously conscious that a child could come of this union? No. That would be stupid. What Paul VI means is that there is nothing about the act itself which is ruling out the possibility of a child. People who are using NFP to avoid pregnancy confine their marital embrace to times they know with as much certainty as any contraceptor that they are infertile. But they have placed no barrier in the way of their total union and they have not manipulated God’s ordering of fertility for their own ends. If they have serious reasons for judging that it would be imprudent or ungenerous to seek to conceive at this time, then their act is in itself, per se, in accord with God’s design. And so, even if it is not generative it still has the unitive and procreative orientation that is entailed in God’s design. It is both unitive and fruitful, refreshing the couple’s capacity to be open to the various ways in which they are called to be fruitful at this time, for example, in their nurturing of children they already have or in their hospitality to others who need the welcome found in their home.
I hope today to have made it easier to see the teaching of HV as a gift rather than a burden, to see its invitation to a life of mature obedience to God’s will as a noble call, not an infantilizing one. The conviction that God is, that he is the orderer of reality, that awareness of and fidelity to his plan is the only way to authentic, long-term happiness in this life – not to mention the next – these convictions are what underlie the “hard” but life-giving teaching of Humanae Vitae. Understanding these convictions is the key to reading Humanae Vitae as the gift I sincerely believe it is.
Thank you very much.