Printer Friendly

Encyclical insists intercourse is language of love.

Oxford, England - Immediate Catholic reactions to Humanae Vitae were summed up by Jesuit moralist Richard McCormick as "solace or shock, suspension or silence."

The solaced were the few who had staked their marriages on Casti connubii and had numerous children out of fidelity to what they thought was the church's teaching, The shocked were those who had been led to expect change as a result of the existence of the pontifical commission. The suspended were those priests who voiced public "dissent" from the encyclical. The rest was silence.

Twenty-five year on, commemorative articles will either praise Paul VI for challenging political correctness and conventional wisdom, or denounce him for being an ignorant celibate who "interfered in the bedroom."

Is there any way to get beyond praise or blame? A historical approach might help.

Giovanni Battista Montini was not a specialist moral theologian. What he knew about marriage was based on his upbringing in an intellectual family in Brescia. He had two brothers Lodovico had seven children. Francesco, the younger brother, had two. Montini got on well with his nephews and nieces. No doubt he had a highly idealistic view of marriage. But it was one shared by his family and milieu.

Shift the clock forward to 1954. Montini has worked in the Secretariat of State, office-bound. In 1954 he was kicked upstairs to Milan because he had allegedly "withheld from Pope Pius XII" the resignation of Mario V. Rossi, then head of Student Catholic Action.

Rossi saw in him a man trapped between his Christian instincts and his role in an authoritarian institution: "He served the system faithfully, while understanding the need to revolt against it. This led to a deep conflict within himself, which had the further handicap of a failure to understand the ordinary world, a remoteness from everyday life and a consequent lack of balance. He was always tempted by abstraction and idealism."

Almost the same judgment was made when he became pope by Cardinal Achille Silvestrini: "Montini the intellectual ... saw all too clearly the infinite complexity of situations."

Silvestrini could have been describing Paul as he approached "artificial contraception" in the summer of 1966. He added another Montini trait: "His contemplative temperament sometimes gave the impression that he ignored the constraints of reality. It was rather that he saw beyond the immediate day-to-day questions, and tried to force reality to conform to his demands."

"How easy it is to study," he complained in an interview, "how hard it is to decide."

Paul is routinely blamed for "removing the question of artificial contraception from the competence of the council." But it had already been removed by Pope John XXIII. Paul's contribution was to enlarge John's commission to 69 members and to include physicians and married couples as well as moral theologians.

It is arguable that the commission was better equipped to deal with such matters than the 2,200 bishops of the council, all brought up on Casti connubii. The commission was freer than the council. Paul told the members to follow the evidence, wherever it led.

Although the council did not have to make up its collective mind on contraception directly, in Gaudium et Spes it set the framework for any serious consideration of the question.

It said clearly that marriage was a "community of love," and not merely a contractual arrangement with legal consequences. It advocated "responsible parenthood." On the crucial question of the "ends of marriage," the council declared firmly that the unitive end (love) and the procreative end (having children) were equally valid and essential. All this teaching was reflected in Humanae Vitae, which cannot be accused of lacking "Christian personalism." It is human persons who make love, not disembodied "sexual faculties."

Another myth to be dispelled is that Paul "ignored the conclusions of his own expert commission." He did not make the conclusions of the majority report his own, but that is not to say that he paid them no attention.

The fact is that after June 1966 the commission had done its work and was dissolved. Henceforward, Paul was alone with his studying and his thoughts.

But not quite alone. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had changed its name from Holy Office but not its function or personnel. Still headed by the aged and almost blind Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, it was glad to see the back of the pontifical commission.

Ottaviani and his men did not think delicate moral questions could be safely entrusted to laymen and women who, they believed, placed too much reliance on capricious experience as opposed to tradition. There was a clash of theological methods. If Paul came to accept the Ottaviani line, it was not ultimately because an authority that contradicted itself would be undermined. His difficulty was philosophical.

Sexual intercourse in marriage is a human act, an actus humanus as the medievals called it. It has an intrinsic or built-in meaning. This meaning cannot be reinvented, subverted or arbitrarily changed. It is God-given and therefore nonnegotiable.

This built-in meaning is twofold: Sexuality worthy of human beings should first strengthen the bonding between the married couple, continually express and re-express their love for each other; but it could only do this if it was open to the transmission of life, if it accepted the risk. of a child.

This is the most basic argument of Humanae Vitae. Reject this twofold built-in meaning of human sexual intercourse, and the way was open to any and every kind of abuse. There would be no argument against buggery or bestiality. The unity of the double finality of sexual intercourse, as Paul saw it, was the defense of the personalizing and fulfilling nature of human sexuality as God intended it.

This for him represented an ideal, an expression of the sacramental meaning of marriage, a marker in badly charted fields, the best that might be aimed at, mature sexuality for mature human persons.

But Ottaviani and his crew had wanted more than this. They sought a tough juridical statement. They produced a horrendously negative draft that Paul modified significantly. His last-minute changes reveal his mindset.

First, he eliminated any reference to mortal sin. Next, Paul, though he intended Humanae Vitae to be authoritative, never declared it "infallible."

He inserted two significant passages into the Ottaviani draft. The first was about compassion: "Husbands and wives, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their lives, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness and voice of the love of our Redeemer" (No. 29).

This was traditional. The Council of Trent taught that the priest in the confessional must be potius medicus quam judex - more like a physician than a judge. This principle was not always observed by bullying priests waving the big stick of excommunication.

Even more astonishing was the next sentence of Humanae Vitae that was unaccountably omitted from the earliest translations: "We hold it as certain that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium in propounding sound doctrine, he also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent."

"Invites their assent." That is certainly not the tone of the insensitive, authoritarian tyrant, seeking to impose his will, who is sometimes said to have written Humanae Vitae.

Certainly, Paul was disappointed by the reaction of bishops to his encyclical. He anticipated disapproval from the world, but endorsement from the bishops. On the whole be got it, but with significant nuances. Afterward, he was prepared to accept advice.

Derek Worlock, archbishop of Liverpool in northern England, told of meeting with Paul in September 1968, less than two months after Humanae Vitae.

Worlock put it to him that there was no point in berating faithful Catholics for rejecting Humanae Vitae since the mere fact they were worried by it meant they cared about the church's teaching. Those who did not care were not worried. After that, Paul abandoned the rhetoric of blame.

Worlock reports another story. The first meeting of the newly elected synod council was held in spring 1972. Its main, indeed only, task was to choose the topic for the upcoming synod of 1974. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow proposed Christian marriage. By the fall of 1972, it was taken for granted that Christian marriage would be the theme of the next synod. At a meeting of the Laity Council that September, Worlock pointed out how disastrous this would be.

The wounds of Humanae Vitae had not healed. To hold a synod on this topic would be to reopen them. The pontificate would be defined by this single issue, and so would be distorted. Far better to choose an outward-looking theme. This is what happened. The 1974 synod was on evangelization.

If history helps explain the genesis of Humanae Vitae, does the passage of time give pause to conventional judgments about it? Was it in any sense prophetic? Paul thought it was. On the eve of the encyclical, he told Canadian Archbishop Edouard Gagnon, "Don't be afraid; in 20 years time they'll call me a prophet."

What, with hindsight, are the grounds for saying that? Let me suggest four. First, Paul was generally pooh-poohed when he said the widespread availability of the pill "could open the way to marital infidelity and a general lowering of standards" (No. 19). Though not a very profound observation, it seems a true one. Other things being equal, there will be more sexual intercourse generally if the "risk" of a child is excluded. For some people this will mean greater promiscuity.

Yet Catholic critics always insisted that they were talking only about the responsible use of contraceptives within a stable marriage where children already existed. Twenty-five years later, this restriction seems very naive.

Second, few noticed that Humanae Vitae had a public policy aspect. It was a defense of the family right to procreation against the incursions of the omnipotent state. India has offered bribes for sterilization. China forbids more than one child per family. Any village mother unfortunate enough to become pregnant with a second child is carted off in a blanket and forcibly aborted.

Third, there has been developing in recent years an alliance between feminists and ecologists. There has been a great interest in "natural childbirth" and some women are asking: Why should I stuff my body with pills that have possibly harmful consequences, especially when there is another way to space births which uses greater self-knowledge?

We can see in this feminist statement - still very tentative - some kind of grudging recognition of what used to be called "the natural law."

Natural law is making another kind of comeback. The threat of AIDS has ruined the cheerfully casual sexual exchanges of the permissive 1960s and 1970s. Natural sanctions follow if you use nature in a way that it is not intended. There are other ways of picking up AIDS, of course, but anal intercourse has been an important mode of its transmission.

This is central to the consideration of Humanae Vitae. Grace builds on nature, so what the church has to say about sexuality must respect the natural order of things. You cannot, with impunity, do anything you like with human sexuality. It is not true that "anything goes." It is a high-risk area. There is the constant danger of abuse, exploitation, cruelty, sadism, masochism in sexual transactions.

The critique of Allan Bloom in Love and Friendship is devastating. "What has disappeared is the risk and hope of human interconnectedness embedded in eros. Ours is a language that reduces the longing for each other to the need for individual, private satisfaction and safety."

Humanae Vitae offers an alternative language. It teaches that sexual intercourse is a deeply "human act" It involves a union of body and spirit not found in any other human activity. It demands freedom, respect, equality, joyful playfulness. Only under such conditions can sexual intercourse be truly a language of love.

It declares in effect, "you, you alone and you always." That is why the right and "natural" setting for it is marriage. And that is why prostitution is wrong, one-night-stands are wrong and pornography is wrong. They destroy the link between sexual intercourse and commitment to each other, making it as trivial and as meaningless as inviting someone up for a cup of coffee.

This is the solid foundation on which Humanae Vitae is built: Human sexual intercourse is an act of love that expresses the truth of a relationship that is permanent, enduring and exclusive. It is, in the strict sense, lovemaking. This is the "unitive" meaning of marriage.

But - and this is the heart of Humanae Vitae - human sexual intercourse also has another meaning "in itself." The unitive meaning unfolds into the procreative meaning. It is natural to want a child as a concrete expression of mutual love. Humanae Vitae does not teach the absurd notion that every act of intercourse should issue in pregnancy and offspring. But it does say that if systematically and deliberately the possibility of ever having children is always excluded, then there is something wrong.

It seems most Christian married couples - or indeed most married couples - understand these points. People regret a childless marriage almost as much as they regret a loveless marriage - and go to great lengths to remedy infertility. They are paying their tribute to the natural law.

Of course there are difficulties. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Paul's successor in Milan, alluded to them recently in an interview with British journalist John Cornwell in the London Sunday Times.

On contraception Martini said: "There is a contrast in attitude between northern countries and Latin countries on moral questions. In Italy we believe the ideal is set high so as to attain something. In other countries they think they must actually achieve the ideal, and are anxious if they fail."

This could be the misapprehension or misunderstanding that has bedeviled the church for the last 25 years. It is time to have it out in the open. Casuistry - the application to particular cases - can begin only when the ideal has been clearly stated and appreciated.

Understood in this way, instead of being an embarrassment or a millstone, Humanae Vitae could appear as a witness to the ideal of human sexuality in the late 20th century. It does not have much competition.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:1968 papal birth control prohibition, 'Humanae Vitae'
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 16, 1993
Previous Article:Encyclical left church credibility stillborn.
Next Article:We might all be better off if Paul VI had done nothing.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters