Printer Friendly

Love and responsibility: humanae vitae - 30 years.

Next month, July 25th, will be the 30th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae vitae (on human life), sometimes referred to as the "birth-control" encyclical. As our opening contribution to this commemoration, our contributor explains the value of the book Love and Responsibility by the future Pope John Paul II, who before 1968, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was a member of the preparatory Commission. His writings deeply influenced and strengthened Pope Paul VI in drafting his encyclical.


Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II),

Love & Responsibility

First published in Polish in 1960.

First English edition, 1981.

Translated by H. T. Willetts.

Reprinted 1993,

Ignatius Press, San Francisco.

The feminist generation, the women that started their families in the 1950's and went on to condemn professional motherhood in the 1960's, was the first generation of women to be widespread users of contraception in marriage. They were also the first women to hold that femininity is an artificial mask and that motherhood is a socially constructed role, oppressive to a woman's personal development. Amazingly, millions of women listened and believed.

The coming of the feminists

Whoever fails to be shocked by the success of the feminist movement has forgotten what life was like before it, when every one of its propositions would have been held not merely as wrong, but as insane. In conventional wisdom, it is the lives of men that are problematic. They are the ones who seem not to know who they are and who wear their careers like a mask. But a mother is a mother and she knows it. One would have expected the women of the 50's to be untroubled by questions of identity and self-worth; even more, one would have expected positive rejoicing at one's lot, since medicine had taken the fear from childbirth and effective contraceptives had eliminated, for those who chose to use them, the burden of numerous pregnancies. Why did so many behave as if their dignity had been assaulted and their rights denied?

According to the analysis of Karol Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility, they behaved this way with good reason. L&R, which appeared in Polish in 1960, is an analysis of Catholic teaching on sexual morality from the perspective of the rights and dignity of the human person. Sexual sins, including contraceptive use are, among other things, assaults on human dignity. In general, people know when they have been "used" and they resent it, even when they have participated in the "use" themselves. They may not know what has hit them, but they have the bruises to show for it.

On the dust-jacket of my copy, a reviewer states that L&R is a "high-minded rejoinder to the sexual revolution." I don't know whether the sexual revolution had reached Poland in 1960, although a generation of Communist rule had probably done nothing to strengthen family values. But according to the preface, this book is not a rejoinder to anything but a priest's reflection on a timeless pastoral problem: making sense of Catholic "rules" of sexual conduct. "For the rules often run up against greater difficulties in practice than in theory, and the spiritual adviser, who is concerned above all with the practical, must seek ways of justifying them. For his task is not only to command or forbid but to justify, to interpret, to explain." This is the book of a confessor, of one who has witnessed blighted lives, abused innocence, and the persistence of so much illusion and self-deceit where romantic love and the sexual urge are involved.

It is also a fairly technical and nuanced book, but I hope that these few remarks will encourage the reader to tackle it, since it is well worth the effort. The entire analysis is built around two or three key ideas that are repeated throughout the text, so the book gets easier as one proceeds and the meaning of these ideas comes clear from the context.

The person is the goal

Against the powerful desires of body and psyche, Wojtyla wants to rely on "the most elementary and incontrovertible moral truths and the most fundamental values or goods. Such a good is the person. . . ." And the most basic moral truth concerning persons is that a person should never be used as a means to an end or as an object for use. The person is the end, the one for whom the action is done, not the one through whom it is accomplished. Certainly this is clear where our own interests are concerned. Nobody wants to be a tool for somebody else's agenda, a bit part in somebody else's play. In general this is not selfishness but a recognition of our own nature. A person is a being who can set his own agenda based on his assessment of the situation (i.e., he has reason and free will). He simply cannot become an instrument in the plans of another; it goes against nature. At the very least, and unlike a real instrument, he can complain about his lot. Toddlers know this, and they frequently say "no!".

But a world of toddlers would be an impossible place since, in fact, people need to work together to accomplish anything at all. The key word, of course, is "together". "When two people consciously choose a common aim this puts them on a footing of equality, and precludes the possibility that one of them might be subordinated to the other." Two people, or a group of people, can be united through a third thing, a common good or goal, in a way that neither becomes a tool in the project of another.

This is true about any human situation: politically, people feel free when they believe the laws that govern them are just; in other words, when they and their rulers share a common vision of justice. But in the relationships of men and women, the situation is particularly acute, especially for the woman. The personal desires summoned by the sexual urge are so strong that there is always the risk that the other person, the object of these desires, will become no more than that: an object first of desire and then of use. In the presence of the "personalist norm", the norm that no person should be made an object of use, the question becomes not how to justify Catholic morality but rather how to justify sexual activity at all. Can it ever be more than a trap sprung by nature against personal freedom and dignity? In effect, certain feminists have said exactly that, in which they have only given an ideological slant to what many men and women have had occasion to think in moments of sober regret and disgust.

Parting company with the liberals

Of course sex can be salvaged. Otherwise the life of the child would be grotesque: to begin in abuse but to be destined for dignity. Sex is salvaged through love, not the romantic love of emotional attachment, but the love of self-giving and through sharing a common aim. In marriage, that aim is procreation. The goal of children makes love possible. The sexual union, because it is fruitful, brings with it the possibility of love. Note that this is where Wojtyla parts company with liberal thought. The liberal would agree that no person should be an object for use (the proposition comes from Immanuel Kant), but fails to see that what binds people together must be a real and objective common good. Relationships need something to strive for, and that thing is given by the nature of the relationship, not by our own whims. In the case of marriage, it's children.

However, procreation alone does not solve the problem of sex. In addition to the good of children, there is the good of the man and woman themselves as persons. Love is what happens when the good that unites two people is, in fact, each other. Love grows, and mutual "use" is no longer a risk, where the man and the woman freely enter a sexual relationship, each desiring what is best for the other person and accepting the natural outcome of that union: children.

All this may seem too obvious to say, but it is fascinating to read, through the nearly 300 pages of this book, how Wojtyla recovers all the rules of Catholic morality from these few principles: that sex is about procreation, that the person is not to be used, that love (in the sense of wanting what is best for the beloved) is the only appropriate response to another person. For instance, there is a very interesting section on shame and modesty. Sexual shame, he says, is a reaction of self-defence against the possibility of "using" another person, or of being used, by experiencing a sexual urge in the absence of love. Modesty is what we call the steps taken to protect others and ourselves from "using" and being "used" in this way.

If modesty is the response to shame, chastity is the virtue that saves sex for love and protects it from abuse. It is only when someone can say, "Right now, I would like to have sex, but I know it would not be good for her or for us, so I won't" that love has conquered use. And since one of the reasons why sex now might not be good is the risk of an untimely pregnancy, only those methods of spacing or limiting births that depend on continence, safeguard love.

Love in marriage

There is a short section on birth control near the end of the book, under the heading of "justice towards the Creator", but the whole argument has been heading in this direction. Love in marriage, to be a possibility, needs two things: desire for what is truly good for the other and free acceptance of the child. To deny the child is to deny one of the conditions that makes spousal love possible. Sex does not create love, which comes into being through the free choice of the man and woman for each other, but it makes the rules. Marriage is an institution that, aside from medical problems, leads to children. When children are denied, what remains is abuse, the use of another as an object of pleasure.

But if all this is true, why didn't the feminists see it? If they felt abused because they were abused, because their contracepting marriages had indeed turned marriage into a kind of prostitution, as some claimed, why did they further the sexual revolution that was the source of their distress? Why didn't they see the problem? Well, some women did. They would then convert to Catholicism or some other pro-life tradition, and never be heard from again as far as the secular media were concerned. Among prominent feminists, only Germain Greer came to see and was permitted to say in public that the contraceptive society was abusive to women. Interestingly enough, she had to leave the First World to see this. She had to live with women who were fulfilled by children, rather than threatened by them, even to consider this as a possibility.

Utility as a frame of mind

The cause of the blindness lies in part with the utilitarianism of our civilization, a utilitarianism so complete that it mistakes itself for kindness. If you suggested to a young married couple, childless after five years of contraception, that their relationship was one of mutual use rather than love and at risk for divorce, they would not know what you meant. They are so used to justifying everything through personal use and personal choice, that perhaps they can see no other kind of good. "If we both want it, it must be O.K. Use by mutual consent is not abuse."

Not so. Use by mutual consent is not love. Love is possible where two people are united in desire for a common good: my pleasure and his pleasure are two things, not one. Two egos may run in parallel for a time, but they have no power to unite because they cannot be shared. In any case, nobody wants to be loved simply for what he can provide, even if he gets something in return. That is a transaction, not love. The bitterness left behind most affairs and broken marriages comes from the realization, too late, that it was never love. Looking back, one sees only "use."


Thirty years after Humanae vitae, the Church's teaching is even harder to explain to the world than it was when the encyclical was written, or when Fr. Wojtyla was hearing the penitents that occasioned the writing of Love and Responsibility. People are accustomed to a contraceptive society, but we must remember that since the abuse is real, the pain is real also. It only needs to be given a name. This is not a matter for billboards and conferences, which tend to address the converted, but for courageous and compassionate friendship.

I am thinking primarily of women here, because it has to begin with women, one friend at a time. As a place to start, I recommend a careful readings of Love and Responsibility. This book suggests an approach to try: we must appeal to the fundamental dignity of the person. Each woman needs to be helped to recognize in her own life how contraceptive use has cheapened and demeaned her. She needs to see that love is not a mutually selfserving partnership, but a choice in favour of what truly benefits the beloved, and finally, that what truly benefits each one of us is a life based on truth, beginning with the truths God has expressed in nature. High sounding words in a materialist age, but in my experience, even women a long way from the Church can be moved by such an appeal.

Catherine Collins, a mathematician, lives in Ottawa with her baby daughter and husband Michael. She is author of New Journey to God.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Catholic Insight
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Collins, Catherine
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Previous Article:First call for conscience law.
Next Article:Born of the spirit.

Related Articles
HV (Humanae Vitae)-positive Catholics: seeking our place in the Church.
Humanae vitae - 30 years: the effects of the Winnipeg Statement.
Humanae vitae - 30 years: choose life.
Humane vitae - 30 years: and now for the good news.
Humanae Vitae: "failure" to freedom.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters