Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Humanae Vitae—the “untold story”

I begin by thanking Michael P. and Rick for their respective contributions to the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, which was celebrated this past Friday, the Feast of St. James the Apostle.

            While the Tablet essay brought to our attention by Michael and Rick is filled with interesting data, I hope my posting of today will respond to two items in the Tablet article’s commentary. The first is the measure of unfamiliarization the Tablet poll reports concerning the encyclical. Perhaps this posting may help some become more familiar with this important document’s substance. The second item concerns an interesting set of four points that the Tablet commentary provides. In rapid succession, the Tablet article notes that its investigation and poll reveal that “a large proportion of otherwise faithful Catholics are using a range of artificial contraception…” The phrase “otherwise faithful” is misleading because the Tablet piece then goes on to say that more than half cohabited with their prospective spouse before marriage; that there is a reluctance of “modern” Catholics to avail themselves of the sacrament of confession; and, that nearly seventy-five percent of Catholics believe that divorce is the solution to an unhappy marriage and that divorced Catholics should not be excluded from the Eucharist. It seems that the use of the phrase “otherwise faithful” needs to be reconsidered in light of these additional and problematic findings discovered and published by the Tablet. In short, the fidelity of many Catholics, according to the Tablet’s conclusion is shaky on several major grounds, not just one as the Tablet implies in its phrase “otherwise faithful.”

            I now return to the first item on which I shall focus: the lack of familiarization with the encyclical. I would like to address its contents in a brief synopsis. I begin by noting how often the Holy Father, Paul VI, mentions the word love (almost three dozen times, whereas the Tablet article mentions it only once) and his frequent use of this term in the context of the marital relationship between a husband and wife. Paul VI expressed at the outset of his encyclical his realization that the divided commission (of which a majority expressed some interest in altering the Church’s teachings on artificial contraception) presented certain views that “departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church.” [N.6] It would be useful to identify these moral teachings.

            Paul VI began his explication of them in his reminder that love, including conjugal love, has its “supreme origin” in God. Through spousal love, husband and wife become one heart and one soul, and this union enables them to strive for their human perfection. Paul’s words should not be unfamiliar to couples who have been married in a Catholic ceremony because they are reminded by the priest or deacon of their unity through the charge, “What God has joined, no one must divide.” This prescription is intensified by St. Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19) that “a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one. Thus they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined.” Paul VI emphasized this by asserting that the love at the core of a marriage “is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations.” [N.9] This point is deepened as the Pope further reflected that authentic marital love is the gift of one’s self to the other marriage partner: a gift that is mutually enriching.

            Paul VI continued by expressing the Church’s teachings that marital love supports responsible parenthood (and not the understanding given this vital phrase by Planned Parenthood) that expresses the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual relationship of marriage. Marital love blossoms into another gift of self that leads to the gift of life and the posterity of the human race. That is why in the interrogation of the marriage ceremony they have been asked if they will “accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.”

            The encyclical is a potent reminder that fidelity to what God asks of married couples cannot encompass the use of what is artificial and that would interfere with and frustrate God’s divine plan for man and woman who become one. In the aftermath of Griswold (1965) and Eisenstadt (1972) and Roe (1973) and the mentality they encouraged, Pope Paul’s encyclical offers much needed guidance to not only Catholic couples but “all people of good will” in addressing responsibly the expression of human sexuality and its fruition. [NN.13-16] Paul VI may have foreseen the expansion of Griswold by Eisenstadt when he warned that artificial birth control would tempt human weakness, especially of young people who are made all the more vulnerable by the culture of permissiveness, to violate God’s moral law and engage in “an evil thing.” [N.17] He prophetically acknowledged that the “responsible” use of artificial contraception leads to a circumstance in which the man and woman are no longer “one” but become the object of the other in self-seeking pleasure. The reverence and love due each begin to evaporate when one of the marriage partners becomes the instrument of enjoyment of the other. And with this, the love of which Paul VI spoke begins to disappear. The dignity due husband and wife, from one to the other, is forgotten.

            He concluded his encyclical by offering counsel tailored to men and women, married couples, doctors and healthcare professionals, priests, bishops, and moral theologians. But, regardless of one’s identity and position in this list, Paul VI expressed a common charge: a need to master one’s self. The physical instinct of the human person and free will is complemented by one’s reason and the ability to appreciate the role of ascetical practice. As he stated, this does not harm the love between the partners of the marriage but “confers on it a higher human value.” [N.21] He continue by stating,

Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers. [N.21]

            Humanae Vitae is a relatively short text that merits careful study by all Catholics. It takes only a few moments to read. But its impact on one’s life can be enduring. I hope my few comments may serve as a catalyst to others to do what St. Augustine heard so long ago: “tolle legge”—take and read!

RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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