The Problem with Humanae Vitae
April 5, 2012
The central flaw in Humanae Vitae , Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical letter on human reproduction and birth control, is that its main teaching—the condemnation of birth control by artificial methods—is difficult to defend. This conclusion arises when we examine the argument in the encyclical itself, as well as when we examine whether this teaching reflects the sensus fidelium, that is, whether the teaching is an expression of the faith of the whole Body of Christ.
First, to the argument in the encyclical itself. As the foundation of the argument, Paul VI repeatedly states that marriage has two principle goals: the union and the generous sharing of self between the spouses, and as an outcome of this love, the production of new life. (For example, “As a consequence, husband and wife, . . . develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.” (#8) And again, “Finally, this [married] love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. (#9) And again, “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (#11))
It is easy enough to accept the natural law argument that one of the two principle goals of marriage is reproduction, as above. However, if the Pope declares this to be the Church’s teaching, then he must declare that God’s will must always be done: all sexual intercourse in a marriage must be unobstructed and completely open to pregnancy. If reproduction is God’s will in natural law for marriage, then no form of birth control can be acceptable.
The encyclical seems to take this position in section 10: “From this it follows that they [responsible parents] are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.”
But then the argument makes an unexpectedly sharp turn. The Pope brings up the practical realities of bringing children into the world, under conditions of poverty and deprivation. He says , “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and 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.” (#10; emphasis added.)
Here the Pope suddenly declares that parents may under certain common circumstances decide to limit reproduction in their marriages. That is, the Pope contradicts his previous assertion that God’s will for marriage is that every sexual act be open to conception, and declares that parents may decide for themselves whether under their circumstances, they will allow God’s natural law to operate in their marriage, or not. One wonders why the Pope enables parents to disregard one of the two main purposes of marriage, namely, reproduction, a purpose which the Pope had earlier attested to be ordained by God in natural law. (“For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation.” (#4) And again, “[A]n act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life.” (#13))
The Pope cannot have it both ways. Either the Law is the Law, and the decision whether a sexual act will result in conception is God’s alone. Or else the “Law” is optional, and spouses can invalidate it according to their evaluation of their “circumstances.” If the Law is not always and everywhere the Law, then the natural law argument collapses. That is, the argument that reproduction is one of the main purposes of marriage loses its foundation. In that case, the Pope has no case against artificial contraception.
A second logical flaw in the Pope’s argument follows from this. The Pope, having previously made the strong case that the natural law regarding openness to reproduction in marriage cannot be violated because this law is the will of God, asserts that one way of preventing conception is morally acceptable. He identifies Natural Family Planning as that single acceptable way. (“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.” (#16; emphasis added.))
The Pope argues that “controlling birth” by Natural Family Planning (a method that takes “advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile”) is acceptable, presumably because it is “natural” rather than artificial. He does not adequately explain how exempting oneself from God’s law by natural means is any more morally acceptable than doing so by artificial means.
Not that he doesn’t try to make the distinction. He writes, “In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former [i.e., Natural Family Planning] the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. “ (#16)
In this argument, the Pope seems incredibly to be asserting that as long as one uses natural processes, one is free to violate the natural law of God. It’s okay to use God’s nature against God’s own will. One wonders whether the same argument would apply to murder by starvation, as opposed to murder by machine gun. The former employs natural processes while the latter uses artificial means.
The Pope, in the citation above from section 16 of the encyclical, admits that parents who use natural birth control, as well as those who use artificial birth control, have as their willful intention to prevent conception. In intention, then, the natural method and the artificial methods are equivalent. In the intentionality of the spouses, there is no difference between the two types of methods.
It seems then that the difference between the two methods has nothing to do with the natural law argument against preventing conception in marriage. The difference is simply that the couple who uses the natural method must employ abstinence. However, whether or not abstinence is a valuable component of the sexual relationship between spouses—and in thirty-six years of marriage, my wife and I have rarely found mutually-agreed-upon abstinence to be useful, except at times of sickness and the like—, nonetheless, abstinence plays no real part in the Pope’s natural law argument. The fact that couples using the natural method of birth control must abstain from intercourse during the wife’s fertile time might seem--or actually be--virtuous, but it has no bearing on the essential natural law issue. The plain fact is that God’s intention that “every sexual act” in a marriage must be open to conception is being violated by both the natural method and the variety of artificial methods.
We are obliged to conclude, then, that there is no real difference between the Pope’s favored method of Natural Family Planning and the artificial methods that he condemns. They both intentionally prevent conception, in violation of God’s intention as it is known from natural law, namely, that every sexual act in a marriage must be open to conception.
Some defenders of the teaching in this encyclical make the argument that the natural method allows God free rein in creating a life if he wishes, because the natural pathways of conception are unobstructed, whereas artificial means obstruct the process and prevent conception. But that is not the case. It is true that the natural method does not obstruct the process of conception. But it is equally true that if God wishes to create a life from a sexual act which is artificially contracepted, he is certainly able to do so. “All things are possible for God,” of course. And this is evident in the fact that there is always a certain percentage of uses of artificial methods which result in pregnancy. God is not limited by whether a natural or an artificial means of contraception is used.
So, the Pope’s argument in this encyclical for natural contraception collapses entirely. But the encyclical also has another quite serious flaw. Despite the Vatican Council’s assertion that the “Church” is the visible manifestation of the Mystical Body of Christ—that is, of hierarchy and laity together—the Pope continues to think in the old way: that the “Church” is the hierarchy alone, entrusted to interpret and teach the law of God. Thus, the sensus fidelium – the constant belief and agreement of the Catholic faithful, as a whole, which is considered to be a testimony to the Divine provenance of a teaching propounded by the hierarchy—is ignored.
Scripture attests that conformity with the sensus fidelium is necessary for the solution of church-wide problems in Acts 15: “The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided . . . .” Resting on the confidence in the rightness of their decision because of this unanimity, the Apostles could write that “it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us . . . .” This confidence led the leaders to see the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in their work.
We have evidence of the witness of the sensus fidelium in the rejoicing of the faithful at the declaration of the theotokos at the Council of Ephesus, and again the joyful popular acceptance of the vernacular mass, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council.
That same joyful acceptance did not greet Humanae Vitae. That this encyclical offended the sensus fidelium is clear both in the history of the document and in its reception by the people.
Over the course of the forty-plus years since its publication—in spite of the official publicity and the “my church, right or wrong” insistence of the ultraconservatives, the Catholics in the pews have not embraced the teaching against artificial birth control. Recent estimates are that less than four percent of Catholic couples in the United States practice Natural Family Planning and that most couples resort to artificial contraception. (“According to an unpublished tabulation of the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth from the National Center for Health Statistics, only 3.6 percent of Catholic women using some form of family planning are using Natural Family Planning.” Catholic Update, July 2007. http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0707.asp.)
So much for the sensus fidelium and for the joyful acceptance of this Church teaching by the faithful in the pews.
The image of the pope facing off against the whole rest of the Body of Christ is surely not what Jesus had in mind when he prayed in John 17 that we all might be one as he and the Father are one.
A troubling consequence of the injunction against artificial contraception is that it creates guilt among the faithful when in fact there is no adequate reason for the injunction. This teaching causes the “otherwise faithful” to feel excluded from the number of those who are comfortable in the Body of Christ.
We must plead: Let the Church no longer be the “Church of NO” in unjustifiable situations. Let it pass on to the people Divine freedom and peace, and become the Church of YES.
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