Saturday, November 15, 2008

A humane view of "Of Human Life"

Building on something posted by Fred last evening over on Cahiers, The Inhumanity of the Megachurch Sex Marathon and a subsequent discussion, it is important to address, if briefly, an overlooked aspect of Humanae Vitae, namely that birth control, which deals with both the numbering and spacing of children, is seen as a moral duty. It is pretty clearly taught in this much maligned teaching that no couple is obligated to have as many children as they possibly can. On the contrary, HV was written at the time when dire predictions about overpopulation were widely, if uncritically, accepted. So, birth control, which is best achieved, according to HV, through abstinence, is seen as important by Paul VI. This can be verified by reading his remarkable encyclical Populorum Progresso. As to what many mistakenly refer to as "grave" reasons, the criteria are outlined by Paul VI in no. 10:

"Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood. Thus, we do well to consider responsible parenthood in the light of its varied legitimate and interrelated aspects.

"With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.

"With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.

"With regard to
1) physical, 2) economic, 3) psychological and 4) social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time" (I added the numbering of the reasons couples can use to make decisions about whether to have more children, as well as emphasis on the words serious reasons).

The take away here is that the judgment as to how many children a couple has is theirs alone to make on the basis of the criteria set forth. It is nobody's business to judge whether a couple who is striving to live their faith in this difficult area, especially given that only about 3% strive to do so in the U.S., and making judgments on the basis of the criteria set forth by the Church, our Mother and Teacher, has sufficiently serious reasons to "decide not to have to additional children for either a certain or indefinite period," except maybe their pastor's, assuming they have a good and supportive one. So, while couples make a vow to "accept children lovingly from God" and marriage is ordered to the procreation and education of children, in addition to the good of the spouses, a couple makes no commitment to have as many children as they physically can, or to have a fixed number (Canon 1055.1). Hence, rigorists who tell people things like, You should be having sex at least three times a week," etc., and that NFP is for wusses are pastorally way out-of-line. It is very much akin to what Fred writes about, but with the procreation bit added in for good measure. Such a rigorist view, too, is inhumane.

Corrected paragraph:
It is important to point out that in English we are working with a translation from editio typica, which is in Latin. So, in number ten, the Holy See translates "seriis causis" as "serious reasons," not grave reasons. In any case, using the word grave is a distortion that has the effect of reducing what we are taught. It is too easy to become ideological about this issue. I prefer using the word ideological to Pharisaical because the Pharisees with whom our Lord took issue were those who were ideological about strict observance of the mizvot.

The rigorist reduction, as with the reduction that occurs among those who reject this teaching, fails to account for the progressive nature of HV by dismissing the encyclical and seeking a return to what the received understanding and teaching of the church was prior to this landmark exercise of the magisterium. HV represents a faithful, organic, and deeper understanding of marital sexuality than had been previously articulated in such magisterial teachings as Casti Connubii. The latter encyclical was the Holy See's response to the Anglicans permitting couples to have recourse to artificial methods of contraception under certain circumstances. The Anglican teaching, set forth in the 1930 Lambeth Conference, was a sudden and dramatic break with Christian tradition and with what had been, at least up to that point, the Christian consensus on what Pope John Paul I called, while still bishop of Vittorio Veneto, "this most delicate matter".

We have no business upping the ante by correcting church teaching, or adding to it. In my own ministry, I strive to always be cognizant of the fact that I am a deacon, not the pope or the bishop. Furthermore, one cannot read HV and not get that abstinence from sexual relations within marriage has a spiritual value. This seems to me to be very much in concert with what St. Paul sets out in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.

While I am on the subject of human the human subject, I also recommend Sharon's post A Rare Partnership. Suzanne reminded me of a great article by Angela D. Bonilla, published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review. The article is Humanae Vitae: Grave Motives to Use a Good Translation. For the record, I always use the Vatican translation for documents promulgated by the Holy See. If I do not, I state where I got the translation.


  1. Great post.

    I had first read this take on HV a few years ago, after having heard many a swirling argument and "rigorist" statement made about the obligation to be open to life basically constantly, unless one is facing starvation in a war zone or some such thing. I've observed this discussion mostly academically due to our health issues, but even in our case I struggled with whether we had an obligation to continue the health hyper-vigilance necessary (with it's costs: financial, spiritual and emotional) to make the conditions for conception possible, etc.

    I just find it amazing, as a somewhat casual observer to the issue, that the rigorist view is so widespread. Even for me, seeing that this "rigor" is not the heart of the Church, brings so much peace.

  2. As Fred so eloquently pointed out in his post, the church is concerned with our humanity, with the totality of our being, which is being toward destiny.