A Re-reading (Relectio) of Humanae Vitae

A Re-reading (Relectio) of Humanae Vitae – Part 1

4/28/18

Christian Brugger rereads “Humanae Vitae” as its 50th-anniversary approaches. True marriage retains its fullness, totality, faithfulness, and fruitfulness.

Note: There are indications coming from Rome that there may be a reconsideration this year of “Humanae Vitae” and its prohibition of contraception. Since this would have enormous consequences for marriage and family – and the Church itself – we are publishing a very careful re-reading of this crucial encyclical by one of America’s most prominent moral theologians. Part I appears today; Part II will appear next Saturday. – Robert Royal

To “peruse” a text means to examine it carefully. To “reperuse” it means to return to it in order to examine it even more carefully, perhaps in light of new information relevant to its understanding. This type of re-examination, called in Latin a relectio, was common in 16th-century Catholic theology.  The Americas were then just opening to Europeans and new questions were arising about legitimate authority, human rights, just war, slavery, and killing, especially in regard to the newly subjugated Native Americans.  Theologians such as the Spaniard Francisco de Vitoria (c. 1483-1546) returned to classical texts on such matters, chiefly from Thomas Aquinas, to reflect upon the new things that were happening in the New World.  His texts were called relectiones (reperusals or rereadings) and exercised enormous influence over the theological debates of the day.

In this 50thanniversary year of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s greatest text, Humanae Vitae (HV), there has been considerable talk of “rereading” the papal document in the “light” of the “new paradigm” drawn from chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.  Unfortunately, this HVrelectio, unlike its 16thcentury counterparts, has little to do with serious Christian theology. For theology takes as its non-negotiable starting points and measuring sticks the teachings of Divine Revelation as found in Scripture and Church teaching.

Therefore, a theological relectio of Humanae Vitae would reread its foundational premises, formulating them anew if necessary, while maintaining logical consistency with the contents of prior formulations, and then apply them as needed to new situations and states of affairs.  The current rereading of Humanae Vitae, however, does not do this.  Rather, while claiming for itself the traditional term “rereading”, it departs from the text’s foundational premises and rejects its concrete conclusions.

My purpose here is not to critique that rereading. I have done this elsewhere.  Rather it is to offer my own relectio of Humanae Vitae.  After briefly situating the text historically, I will re-examine its contents focusing on its foundational premises, trying to formulate them even more clearly for the present time, and then see how they can be applied to present states of affairs.

Looking Back, we can see that people have been trying to render their sex sterile for as long as they have been having sex. Whether using Coitus Interruptus (withdrawal); or crude vaginal suppositories such as were made of crocodile dung and fermented dough by the ancient Egyptians (1850 B.C.), or elephant feces as used in Arabic medicine (AD 9thc.); or natural anti-fertility agents (cedar resin, lead, galbanum, etc.) smeared on the mouth of the uterus as prescribed by the ancient gynecologist Soranus (AD 2ndc.); or the moistened copper ore prescribed by the Greek physician Hippocrates (4thc. BC).

All Christians from apostolic times rejected all forms of contraception as an attack on God’s procreative purposes for human sexuality. This stance came to an end, at least officially, at the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference, where the Anglican bishops, spurning, albeit reluctantly, the ancient consensus, taught for the first time that the use of contraceptive devices by married couples could be morally legitimate:

Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles.  The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation for the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience. [emphasis added]

The 1958 Lambeth Conference taught with much less reticence: “[The] means [which Christian couples use in their responsible] family planning are in large measure matters of clinical and aesthetic choice . . . and Christians have every right to use the gifts of science for proper ends.”

As went Lambeth and the Anglican Communion, so went the rest of Protestant Christianity.

Humanae Vitae was not published until 1968, but the question of the morality of contraception was on the minds of the Council fathers at Vatican II.  In April 1963 Pope John XXIII created a small commission of six members, which he called the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate. Its purpose was limited: to assist the Holy See to prepare for an international conference sponsored by the U.N. and World Health Organization.

Pope John died in June 1963. Critics who wanted a change in teaching urged Pope Paul VI to expand the Commission and broaden its mandate to include a wholesale reassessment of the morality of contraception. Paul was confident of the truth of the received teaching. But he had doubts about the immorality of the relatively new birth control pill. It could be taken before sexual intercourse leaving the act free from the interference of a physical prophylactic device. Was it truly contraceptive?

In early 1964, Paul considerably expanded the birth control commission in order to give the widest possible attention to the unique question of the morality of “the pill.”  But he did not communicate his intentions clearly. The commission’s Secretary General, Rev. Henri de Riedmatten, O.P., a critic of the received teaching, decided to focus the commission’s attention not on questions about “the pill” but on whether the received teaching was “reformable” or “irreformable.”

A majority of the commission’s theological section (12 of 19) believed the teaching was reformable – i.e., it could be changed. Their views were summarized in a confidential report intended to be seen only by the pope.  The minority members who defended the traditional teaching also wrote a report.  In 1967, someone associated with the majority leaked both to the press, raising public expectations that the pope would follow the recommendations of the majority.

In an elegantly written and admirably concise text of just under 8000 words, however, the pope reaffirmed the traditional judgment that freely chosen contraceptive acts are always wrongful. His reformulation of this ancient moral norm is found in HV14. But he first provided a helpful contextualization of the social problems under consideration, and a coherent, although brief, philosophical account of marriage and sex that stands as a kind of premise for the concrete norm. Paragraph 14 is followed by insightful pastoral commentary and a series of direct addresses to different constituencies both inside and outside the Church.

His opening remarks note that recent changes in society have raised “new questions” that the Church must address: population growth, the role of women in society, the value attributed to marriage and sex, and the “stupendous progress” in mastery over nature. One of those questions is this: should the Church change its teaching on the morality of contraceptive acts, especially in light of the fact that living in accord with that teaching today can be very hard and sometimes requires “heroic sacrifices”?

The rest of the encyclical is the pope’s reply to this question.

Any ethical discussion of sex in Catholic tradition must always take place in the context of a wider consideration of the good of marriage.  Since sex acts are only morally justified – indeed, only rendered fully intelligible – by marriage, we can only understand clearly which of those acts protect and support marriage or harm and weaken it by first knowing what marriage is.

For this reason, the pope provides an account of the nature of marriage. First, he says marriage is a relationship of love, taking its origin from God, who is love.  This tells us little specifically about marriage since all true friendships involve love. But he goes on to say that this kind of love is sui generis (wholly unique), referring to it, following Vatican II, by the term “conjugal love.”

The verb coniungo in Latin, from which the term “conjugal” derives, means to bind together, to join, to unite.  The conjugal love that is proper to marriage binds the spouses together, joins them, unites them in a wholly unique way. It is not just a union of souls, as in other platonic friendships; nor just a union of bodies, as with those who engage, say, in the hook-up culture. It is a union of both body and soul. For this reason, the pope refers to conjugal love as “fully human.”  In addition, he says, married love is “total,” a love where spouses “share everything” related to the goods of body and soul.  Further, it is “faithful”, that is, exclusive to the spouses until death.  And finally, it is “fruitful”; conjugal love goes beyond the spouses to welcome the new life that its realization endeavors to bring into existence.

These four components of conjugal love – fullness, totality, faithfulness, and fruitfulness – make up the pope’s (and the Catholic Church’s) normative definition of marriage: an exclusive communion of persons characterized by a one-flesh and comprehensive sharing of body and soul.

From this definition, drawn from a New Testament understanding of marriage, Pope Paul draws the conclusion regarding the “inseparable connection” between the two “meanings” (significationes) “inherent” to the marriage act.  The same act that intimately unites husband and wife into a one-flesh unity also “makes them apt for the generation of new life” (cf. CIC, canon 1061 §1).  So unity and procreation are “inherent” to the marriage act.

 

To be continued.

 

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2 comments on “A Re-reading (Relectio) of Humanae Vitae

  1. A Re-Reading (Relectio) of Humanae Vitae, Part II
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    5-5-18
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    E. Christian Brugger recounts the attempts by some to reinterpret Paul VI’s great encyclical for a new age. But that’s what the pope did in 1968 — for the immemorial teaching of the Catholic Church.
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    Note: The first part of this essay appeared last Saturday. In that earlier portion, Professor Brugger deals with the details of how Paul VI wrote his encyclical and of the opposition he faced. It ended with an explanation of how the pope conceived of the absolutely inseparability of the unity of the spouses and the procreative dimension in every sexual act that is morally licit.Robert Royal
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    Another way to phrase this is to say that unity and procreation are intrinsic goods of the marital act. They are its goods precisely because they are defining goods of marriage itself. Marriage is a unitive and procreative typeof friendship. The sexual act that takes its name from that friendship – the marital act – is likewise a unitive and procreative type of act.
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    People may engage in all sorts of sexual acts, but only sexual acts that are unitive and procreative in type are conjugal – are marital – acts. If the actors in any sexual act reject either or both of the goods of marriage, then the act, whatever else it is, is not a marital type of act. This follows logically from Pope Paul’s unity/procreation paradigm.
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    Thus, if a husband forces himself sexually upon his wife, the act, as John Paul II affirmed, is not a marital type of act, but rather an act of rape. Likewise, if he or she does anything with the specific intent to render their intercourse non-procreative, the act, not being a procreative type of act, but one that by intent has been rendered sterile, is also not a marital type of act.
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    Since only martial sexual acts are justifiable, these non-marital types of acts are judged to be always wrongful. This is what is meant by the much-maligned term “intrinsically evil” as it is applied to contraception: it means such acts can never be chosen in a way that conduces to the integral wellbeing of the marriage.
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    This logic is quite tight and constitutes the central normative part of the Catholic teaching on conjugal chastity. Whatever else is variable about that teaching – and there are several things: the linguistic formulations by which the truths are communicated; the people who officially communicate them (once only clerics and religious, now including laypeople); the ages to whom they are first communicated, etc. – whatever else is changeable, the truths concerning the nature of marriage and the consequent moral implications for sexual activity are unchanging and unchangeable.
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    Marriage is an exclusive, comprehensive, procreative one-flesh communion of persons; and sexual acts that intentionally reject either the unitive or procreative goods of the marriage are non-marital and hence not morally legitimate.
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    To defend the integrity of these sacred but vulnerable truths, Pope Paul VI authoritatively declared in paragraph 14 that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or a means [is intrinsically evil].”
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    By formulating the norm as he did, the pope declares his own judgment about the morality of the birth control pill, a pill that is taken before sexual intercourse with the specific intent to prevent procreation.
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    What follows this declaration is full of wisdom and very much worthwhile reading. Here I can do no more here than touch on highlights.
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    The pope debunks the principal argument – from “totality” – put forward by the pro-contraception majority of his commission. He praises responsible parenthood and recommends to couples who have serious reasons to limit the size of their families to have recourse to natural fertility cycles. But he predicts several dire social consequences should a widespread use of contraception take root throughout the world.
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    Therefore, he urges public authorities, scientists, medical professionals, and Christian married couples to defend and support the goods of marriage within their respective domains of influence.
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    Finally, he ends with two paragraphs, terribly painful to read, that are addressed to his priests and brother bishops. They are painful not because of what he says, which is beautiful, wise, and filled with paternal solicitude and pastoral urgency, but painful because we know now, from our broken vantage point fifty years later, that the majority – the vast majority – of the priests and bishops to whom the pope’s words were lovingly addressed, did at best hide them under a bushel basket – and at worst outrightly disdained them.
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    The distinguished Catholic journalist and social commentator Russell Shaw recently imagined here what a “re-reading” of the Catholic teaching on contraception might look like refracted through the lens of the so-called “new paradigm.” He noted that it would teach the following:
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    The Church cherishes and upholds as an ideal for husbands and wives that each and every act of marital intimacy be open to new life, and married couples ideally should will and do nothing directly to impede that possibility. But in the circumstances of the present day, the Church, as a loving and merciful mother, does not seriously expect all couples to live by this ideal and does not pass harsh judgment on those who don’t.
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    This imaginary rereading, we see, like the rereading noted above, dispenses with the absolute nature of the moral norm against contraceptive acts as taught not only in Humanae Vitae but also in Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930), Pius XII’s Address to Italian Midwives (1951), John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), The Council of Trent’s Roman Catechism (1566), the work of Thomas Aquinas, as well as in traditional canon law, and many other authoritative sources.
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    The “new paradigm” dispenses with the absolute moral norm in the name of “love” and “mercy,” “non-judgmentalism” and “circumstances.” But it does not and cannot dispense with the absolute prohibition of every freely chosen contraceptive act in the name of Jesus Christ and his Church.
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    Any dispensation, however generously adorned, is spurious and cannot be admitted. Why? Is it because of a fear of change, or a hardened rigorism, or an adhering to a cold bureaucratic morality, or a defense of dry and lifeless doctrine? No. It cannot be admitted because the two central truths discussed above remain true: the moral norm with its absoluteness is what it is because marriage is what it is.
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    Therefore, out of true love for all persons tempted to render their intercourse non-procreative, and in the name of Jesus’ genuine mercy that protects from sin and saves us from its sting, the Church can only teach that every freely chosen non-marital sexual act is always harmful to marriage, will never conduce towards true happiness in the present life or in the life to come, and therefore can never be rightly chosen.
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    If such acts are chosen, then the Church, as the guardian of Jesus’ Good News, is required by love to say they must be repented of in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
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    I said at the beginning of this essay that after attempting to formulate anew the enduring principles taught in HV, I would apply them anew to the present state of affairs. Having come this far, however, I am convinced they need no “new” application for today, over and above what can be found in the texts I have noted, especially Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So I commend the consciences of my readers to the treatment of conjugal chastity summarized in those authoritative texts.
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    Humanae Vitae was a wake-up call to Christians and their pastors not only to do something then but also to see what was coming. What it warned about has long since come to pass. And every day further confirms the urgency of the truth that Pope Paul VI bravely set forth. It did not say everything that could have been said, but what it did say was profoundly true and relevant. It is still true and relevant.

  2. Here we see yet one more conciliarist’s lateral arabesque in defense of two conciliarist popes’ taking a whack at what Pius XI clearly and unambiguously defined in “Casti connubii” decades earlier. ( Nudge, nudge, topple, topple ).
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    CC was a firm Catholic reminder that the Sacrament of Matrimony has a singular ontological purpose; not two.
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    HV tried to sneak into the bubbly ethos of Brave New Church, an innovation which did as much damage to Catholic teaching as all the feminazis, pop psych gurus and socialists combined.
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    That ONE end is the propagation of the race, actually, to include future (at least potentially) Saints. Period. If even the daughter of a British protestant minister, Jane Austen, could write respectfully of that, why couldn’t Montini and the future Papa Wojtyla (whom some name as author of the relevant sections of HV)?
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    Oh, wait…
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    “ME-ology of the Bawdy” was still a work-in-process in 68… Never mind…

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