Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Humanae vitae at 50

At the end of the first section of Part 1 of his work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a section entitled "The Development of Ideas," John Henry Newman observes: "But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited." A great idea, Newman continues, "wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same."

N ewmanconcludes this first section of Part 1 of his essay with a sentence that contains one of his most famous quotes: "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." In short, Newman held that to really get to truth of a good idea, of something that is true, requires a journey and that this journey is an arduous one on the winding, twisting road of history, lest we bind ourselves to an abstraction, a tendency to which are all too predisposed. I think this is true of the teaching set forth by Pope Paul VI in what became his final encyclical letter (though we would serve as pope for another decade until his death on 6 August 1978), Humanae vitae. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of this encyclical.

As any long-time reader of this blog knows, or as any new reader can easily ascertain by searching the contents of my blog, I am no dissenter from what is set forth in Humanae vitae. Of course, the most well-known teaching from this encyclical is the absolute ban on contraception. I do not think it too personal to write that, with my beautiful wife, over 25 years of marriage, I have endeavored to be faithful to the teachings contained in Humanae vitae. In and of itself, this makes me morally superior to nobody. My endeavor to be faithful has not always gone smoothly or been pretty.

I had not planned to post anything to mark Humanae vitae's fiftieth anniversary until yesterday when I read two pieces on this encyclical. Both were written by Catholics who, like me, support the Church's teaching. But judging from these and, no doubt, a number of other blog posts and articles, you'd think there was no sexual misbehavior in the Church or the world until contraception was made legal and became widespread. At least the two authors I read, there seems to be some strange link between rejecting Humanae vitae and Cardinal McCarrick's sexual abuse of young men, mostly but not exclusively, seminarians and young priests of the dioceses he headed as bishop. Let's be frank, when it comes to sex there is nothing new under the sun.

One of the two pieces I read yesterday invoked the #MeToo movement and seemed to blame the deeply institutionalized culture of sexual harassment and assault on society's rejection of Humanae vitae, as if this kind of institutionalized sexism and misogyny did not exist prior to the late 1960s. #MeToo was long overdue. Behaviors that ultimately prompted the movement long pre-existed Humanae vitae and the advent of the birth-control pill less than a decade earlier. In fact, it was due to the invention of "the pill" that Pope John XXIII convened a commission to study the Church's teaching on contraception, causing him to take the issue off the table for the Second Vatican Council and reserving judgment on this matter to himself or his successor. It was his successor, Paul VI, who expanded the commission to include lay experts, including women and married couples. In the end, Paul VI rejected the report of the commission's majority, which resulted in the absolute ban of any and all forms of contraception under all circumstances with the exception of therapeutic surgeries that had the secondary effect of rendering one sterile (like hysterectomies) and not done for the express purpose of making the patient infertile (tubal ligations, vasectomies and the like).

Child sexual abuse and clerical sexual abuse also went on prior to Humanae vitae. While I am on the subject of child sexual abuse in the Church, I recently finished Church historian Hubert Wolf's book The Nuns of Sant' Ambrogio: A True Story of a Convent Scandal. The book tells the story of a Third Order Franciscan convent in Rome in which, from its beginning in the eighteenth century until is disbanding in the mid-nineteenth century, was a depraved place in which bizarre cultic practices, many of which involved sexual abuse, took place. The convent's secrets were exposed in a canonical trial that resulted from a report given by a German princess who became a nun there and left, narrowly escaping with her life.

In the convent of Sant' Ambrogio, older nuns sexually abused younger nuns who, in turn, perpetuated the abuse via the practice of religious rituals which were idiosyncratic to this religious institution. In the Roman convent of Sant' Ambrogio, there were also sexual shenanigans between Jesuit chaplains and certain of the high-ranking nuns. Cutting to the chase, far from laying in a return to some imaginary time of innocence, progress lies in people being able to say "Me too" and being believed and not blamed or being told you are imagining things. For too many people, what are often extolled as the days of innocence were days of being oppressively silenced.



It is often the case that proponents of Humanae vitae are the biggest obstacle not only to the acceptance of its teachings among Catholics, both lay and clerical, but to anyone simply reading the encyclical, despite it being quite short and fairly easy to understand. Because of this what is frequently overlooked by the encyclical's proponents and opponents alike, who become fixated on it prohibition, is its progressive aspect. This progressive aspect is the recognition of the moral liceity of married couples having sex for healthy and positive reasons other than procreation. This is what is referred to in the encyclical as the "unitive" dimension of sexual intercourse, which, Paul VI insists, should not be engaged in by contraceptively impeding the "procreative" dimension.

Even more revolutionary, while the procreative dimension is not to be artificially impeded, the teaching set forth in Humanae vitae permits couples who, for "for serious reasons" at a given point in time are not desirous of conceiving a child, to reserve intercourse to those times when the wife is not ovulating. In terms of the Church’s magisterial teaching, which for the previous century or so was deeply rooted in what is now referred to as neo-Thomism but is more accurately dubbed pseudo-Thomism, this was not just progressive but revolutionary. While revolutionary perhaps fifty years ago, this is no doubt hastily judged to be retrograde by most people today. It is on matters like this that Newman's insistence that the truth of a great idea - in the case of Humanae vitae, the great idea is not completely severe procreation from sex lest it simply become recreation - needs to be tested by experience over time.

To give some idea as to just how revolutionary this teaching was, I will turn to a section of Wolf's book in which he describes the special blessing given by the Jesuit chaplains of the convent of Sant' Ambrogio to the abbess and/or other of the nuns who held leadership positions in the order. A part of this special blessing called for a lingering French kiss. "In the moral theology of the nineteenth century," Wolf points out, "kissing with tongues was a mortal sin" both in deed as well as in intent (303). Citing the fourth volume of a work on moral theology in use at the time, Pierre Dens's Theologia moralis et dogmatica in an end-note, Wolf notes
Kisses...on unusual parts of the body, for example on the chest, the bosom, or more columbarum [in the manner of doves], in which one puts the tongue into the mouth [of another] are to be censured. They are viewed as an expression of lustful intentions or at least leading to a serious danger of lust, meaning one cannot save oneself from mortal sin (432)
"Even partners who were joined in holy matrimony," Wolf continues, "weren't allowed to kiss this way" (303). Those who seek Catholic retrenchment seem intent on nothing less than returning the Church to this inhumane approach to sexuality. We must be wary of those who seek to turn faith into rearguard action by engaging in culture wars lest we reduce faith to moralism and make of it a political ideology, that is, something we seek to impose rather than propose by our witness.

In the section of Humanae vitae addressed specifically to married couples, Pope Paul VI acknowledges "the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples" when it comes to adhering to the Church's teaching in this regard (sec. 25). Given that, in the United States, many ardent adherents of the teachings set forth in Humanae vitae tend to vote Republican, we need to begin thinking about creating an economy and a society that are conducive both to marriage and having families.

While it would take me too far afield, I don't mind invoking what I have come to call the triptych of Pope Paul VI's papal magisterium, which consists of two of his last three encyclicals (i.e., Populorum progresso and Humanae vitae - the encyclical that comes between these and that could be considered a fourth panel is Sacredotalis caelibatus- on Priestly celibacy) and his last Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, which followed the 1974 Synod of Bishops that was dedicated to evangelization in the modern world.

It is in Evangelii nuntiandi, in a passage citing an address Paul VI gave to a gathering of lay people in France the previous year, that something very relevant to conveying the beauty and truth contained in Humanae vitae is set forth: "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (sec. 41). Reading Humanae vitae in this context also helps one arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth it sets forth according to Newman's method.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very thoughtful response! Thank you very much.

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