Harold O. J. Brown
Thirty years ago Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). It came as a chilling blast to liberal Catholics and others-the population control establishment, for example-who hoped for a major change in the Church’s stand on artificial contraception. With the Second Vatican Council still a very recent memory and aggiornamento still in the air, many Roman Catholics as well as others expected the Pope to “bring the Church up to date” and validate at least some forms of artificial birth control, which many Catholics were already practicing.
Although Pope Paul was known to be a man with conservative and traditionalist inclinations, the pressure on him to concede on this point was intense. There was a kind of neo-Malthusianism in the air, with the Club of Rome warning of The Limits of Growth and Paul Ehrlich menacingly brandishing The Population Bomb. It was taken for granted that humans were reproducing themselves too rapidly for individual societies and the earth as a whole to sustain. In his preamble to Roe v. Wade five years later, Jus tice Harry A. Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court would offer “population pressure” as one of the reasons for permitting abor tion on demand.
The Pope threw a bomb of another kind to social engineers of Planned Parenthood and the hedonis tic practitioners of the Playboy philosophy: Humanae Vitae rei t erated the traditional Roman Catholic (and general Christian) conviction that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage and that artificial means must not be used to prevent concep tion. It was not until 1930 at the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican bishops that any Christian body had ever explicitly authorized the use of contraceptives. It was only in the mid-1960s that two decisions of the Supreme Court explicitly authorized the distribution of birth control as a constitutional right, first to married couples (Griswold), then to everyone (Baird). While most Protestant leaders regarded artificial con tra cep tion with some misgivings, in the absence of a foundation in natural law they had not developed good and prin cipled arguments for dealing with it. To the extent that contraception was regar ded as a Catholic preoccupation Protestants tended to be tolerant of it.
The Pope used the traditional natural law arguments of Catholicism against contraception, essentially maintaining that it is a violation of natural law to divert a function from its natural and presumably divinely intended use, in this case, to replace procrea tion with mere recreation. This was a tactic that would not impress most Protestants, whose limited openness to natural law thinking was under direct assault from the eminent Karl Barth (1886-1968), for whom, as for his fundamentalist detractors, only the Word, i.e., biblical revelation, really counts.
Since Scrip ture does not explicitly mention contraception, many Protestants were left speechless. The first divine com mand, “Be fruitful and multiply,” might seem to have been ful filled already, and if Onan was slain by the Lord for “spi lling his seed,” one could argue that his offense was not contra cepting by coitus interrup tus, but refusing to fulfill the command of Lev i rate marriage on behalf of his deceased brother (Genesis 1:28, 38:8-10; the command is made explicit later, in Deuteronomy 25:5-6).
Scripture is in fact not terribly explicit on such matters; one can well argue, on scriptural grounds, that “multiplication” is not the sole reason for marriage and sexual congress. Not a few passages of Scripture say that husband and wife should delight in one another without mentioning children (e.g., Prov erbs 5:18-19), but the Bible also makes it plain that marriage is for children, if not only for children. Consequently, Protes tants who support contraception have regularly argued that it should be practiced with restraint, only within marriage, and for the purpose of spacing children, not of preventing them altogether. The difficulty is that once it was established, the permissibility of contraception proved impos sible to control.
Perhaps the Pope’s valiant sally was simply too late, for both medical and societal developments were overrunning such bar ri cades as still stood, or that he was attempting to erect. After 1958 the birth control pill began to be available, and for the first time in human history sexual intercourse appeared to be possible without fear of pregnancy. Medicine had also made progress against one of the other prudential impediments to sexual li cense, venereal disease.
The Pope’s arguments did not carry the day, not even with many of the higher clergy and rank-and-file Roman Catholics. However, as the late French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune used to say, Seul Dieu pardonne vraiment, l’homme pardonne parfois, la nature ne pardonne jamais: “God alone truly pardons, man some times pardons, nature never pardons.” The acceptance of ar tificial birth control does not necessarily entail acceptance of abortion; indeed, Margaret Sanger herself, the founder of Plan ned Parenthood, opposed abortion for the very logical reason that abortion kills a child. However, once the easy acces sibil ity of contraceptives made the sexual revolution possible, abortion on demand followed contraception as an even ruder assault on “the laws of nature” and, we might add, “of nature’s God.”
Pope Paul’s arguments failed not because they were unsound, but for other reasons: they interfered (as all divine law, both natural and revealed, will do) with human autonomy; and they came too late, when they had already been overrun by medical developments and the sexual revolution. Now society is caught in the whirlwind, with massive rates of abor tion, unwed motherhood (or “single parenting,” as PC language puts it), sexually transmitted disease, the widespread collapse of the natural family, and an aging population in all developed coun tries. Protestants, who once looked with a certain super cilious ness at the Pope and his commitment to “outmoded values,” are now forced to contemplate the wreckage of a society in which both the Bible and natural law are scorned. Seul Dieu pardonne vraiment, l’homme pardonne parfois, la nature ne par donne jamais.
Harold O. J. Brown is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. He is also editor of the Religion and Society Report.
Humanae Vitae rests on two pillars. One is reverence for the purposes to which sex and marriage are ordained; the other is reverence for the human body, for its natural cadences and operations. To those who prefer to theorize at greater heights, the latter is especially scandalous. For in the background of Humanae Vitae are not only the odorless and immaterial substances of will and thought and promise, but also the embodiment of those intangibles in flesh: glistening eyes and soft dark orifices, moisture and menses, muscle and bones and blood. Rightly so, for body and spirit are equally the concern of the adoring God, who by Creation fused them, by Incarnation assumed them, and by Pentecost infused them. In our day it isn’t the Christians who sweep the body under the carpet and speak of love only in pretty priggish abstractions. Look rather to those who find that reverence for the body’s lovely ways gets in the way of the unlovely things that they want to do with it.
So deeply has God wrought His purposes upon the human body that it is not merely fruitful but rhythmic-providing not only for the bringing forth of children but for their spacing. To deprive an act of conjugal love of its potential to breed new life is not only irreverent but needless; rather than hindering nature, we have only to cooperate with it. Discipline is difficult, but as experience confirms, the difficulties themselves are ordained to our many-fold good, and avoided only at peril.
I am grateful to Paul VI for saying these things, and hope that I will not be blamed for remarking what also needs to be remarked: that he did not say them convincingly. Though addressed not only to Roman Catholics but to “all men of goodwill,” Humanae Vitae is both diffuse and elliptical; its premises are scattered and, to non-Catholics, obscure. Though the encyclical letter is magisterial in the sense of being lordly, it is not magisterial in the sense of teaching well. It seems to lack the sense, which any discussion of natural law requires, of what must be done to make the self-evident evident, to make the intuitive available to intuition, to make what is plain in itself plain to us.
The greatest obstacle to the communication of Paul VI’s message is that the spirit of the age has burdened most people with a false picture of nature. Their eyes dazzled by what technology can do, when they gaze upon human nature they see not a Design, but a canvass for their own designs. Because they can sever the causal link between sex and procreation, they suppose they have severed the link between sex and procreation. This helps to explain why, despite having been vindicated by the passage of time, the Pope’s warnings about the moral and social consequences of contraception have been so roundly ignored.
First the encyclical admonishes that artificial contraception will make it easier for people to rationalize sexual immorality. When modern people hear this they are dumbfounded. If there is artificial contraception, how could any sex be immoral? The pill changed human nature, don’t you see? For old nature the old rules were necessary; for new nature we have new ones. If the new ones too should prove confining, we’ll change our nature again, just as we did before. It is the same sort of reasoning that leads some people to propose making future astronauts like tadpoles because on long space journeys they won’t need legs.
The Pope’s second warning is that husbands who become accustomed to artificial contraception will “lose respect” for their wives; finding it unnecessary to heed the cadences of feminine fertility, they will disregard the cadences of feminine feelings too, finally demanding that their wives be ready for sex at all times. Of course the Pope was right-but this is turning out to be one of those cases where the new rules too prove confining and we must “change” human nature yet again. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? With the woman’s version of Viagra, maybe she can.
Paul VI’s third admonition was that once people view artificial contraception as morally indifferent, it will become an instrument of state policy; governments will interfere in the mission which God has given intimately and exclusively to spouses. And so, of course, they have. The difficulty is that in order to object to the interference, one must believe in the mission. Anyone who regards artificial contraception as morally indifferent has already rejected the mission. But not to worry: Once women become more like men, fertility rates will fall so rapidly that not even the most obtrusive commissar will think the growth of population a threat.
The nature of a thing, said Thomas Aquinas, is a purpose implanted in it by the Divine Art, that it be moved to a determinate end. Human nature is not an object to be manipulated, but a creation to be honored: not just a collection of processes, but an embodiment of purposes. The teleological link between sex and procreation persists even after the causal link is broken, for in the long run, to demand the gift of conjugal love without its accompanying fertility is to demand the impossible. The end of saying “I will give myself to spouse but not to children” is to say “I will give myself to no one; I belong to myself.” Deliberate sterility insults the past and destroys the future; it makes us like the animals, who have neither history nor hope.
J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas and author of Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (InterVarsity Press).
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. (Cap.)
Thirty years later, in an age when the word “prophet” seems worn out by misuse and overuse, one man still has a lock on the title. Paul VI was prophetic. Because in Humanae Vitae, he was right.
In presenting his 1968 encyclical, Paul VI cautioned against four main problems that would arise if Church teaching on the regulation of births was ignored. First, he warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to “conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” Exactly this has happened. Few would deny that the rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease, and out of wedlock births have all massively increased since the mid-1960s. Obviously, the birth control pill has not been the only factor in this unraveling. But it has played a major role. In fact, the cultural revolution since 1968, driven at least in part by transformed attitudes toward sex, would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable contraception. In this, Paul VI was right.
Second, he also warned that man would lose respect for woman and “no longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium,” to the point that he would consider her “as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” In other words, according to the Pope, contraception might be marketed as liberating for women, but the real “beneficiaries” of birth control pills and devices would be men. Three decades later, exactly as Paul VI suggested, contraception has released males-to a historically unprecedented degree-from responsibility for their sexual aggression. In the process, one of the stranger ironies of the contraception debate of the past generation has been this: Many feminists have attacked the Catholic Church for her alleged disregard of women, but the Church in Humanae Vitae identified and rejected sexual exploitation of women years before that message entered the cultural mainstream. Again, Paul VI was right.
Third, the Holy Father also warned that widespread use of contraception would place a “dangerous weapon . . . in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” As we have since discovered, eugenics didn’t disappear with Nazi racial theories in 1945. Population control policies are now an accepted part of nearly every foreign aid discussion. The massive export of contraceptives, abortion, and sterilization by the developed world to developing countries-frequently as a prerequisite for aid dollars and often in direct contradiction to local moral traditions-is a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural reengineering. Again, Paul VI was right.
Fourth, Pope Paul warned that contraception would mislead human beings into thinking they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies, relentlessly turning the human person into the object of his or her own intrusive power. Herein lies another irony: In fleeing into the false freedom provided by contraception and abortion, an exaggerated feminism has actively colluded in women’s dehumanization. A man and a woman participate uniquely in the glory of God by their ability to cocreate new life with Him. At the heart of contraception, however, is the assumption that fertility is an infection that must be attacked and controlled, exactly as antibiotics attack bacteria. In this attitude, one can also see the organic link between contraception and abortion. If fertility can be misrepresented as an infection to be attacked, so too can new life. In either case, a defining element of woman’s identity-her potential for bearing new life-is recast as a weakness requiring vigilant distrust and “treatment.” Woman becomes the object of the tools she relies on to ensure her own liberation and defense, while man takes no share of the burden. Once again, Paul VI was right.
From the Holy Father’s final point, much more has flowed: In vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation, and embryo experimentation are all descendants of contraceptive technology. In fact, we have drastically and naively underestimated the effects of technology not only on external society, but on our own interior human identity. As author Neil Postman has observed, technological change is not additive but ecological. A significant new technology does not “add” something to a society, it changes everything-just as a drop of red dye does not remain discrete in a glass of water, but colors and changes every single molecule of the liquid. Contraceptive technology, precisely because of its impact on sexual intimacy, has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility, and marriage itself. It has detached them from the natural, organic identity of the human person and disrupted the ecology of human relationships. It has scrambled our vocabulary of love, just as pride scrambled the vocabulary of Babel.
Now we deal daily with the consequences. During a single week this past July, news media here in Denver informed us that (1) nearly 14 percent of Coloradans are or have been involved in drug or alcohol dependency; (2) a special commission appointed by Governor Roy Romer praised marriage while simultaneously recommending steps that would subvert it in Colorado by extending parallel rights and responsibilities to persons in “committed relationships,” including same-sex relationships; and (3) a young east coast couple were sentenced for brutally slaying their newborn baby. According to news reports, one or both of the young unmarried parents “bashed in [the baby’s] skull while he was still alive, and then left his battered body in a dumpster to die.”
These are the headlines of a culture in serious distress. American society is wracked with sexual identity and behavior dysfunctions, family collapse, and a general coarsening of attitudes toward the sanctity of human life. It’s obvious to almost everyone: We have a problem, and it’s killing us as a people. So what are we going to do about it? What I want to suggest is that if Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself. In seeking to become whole again as persons and as people of faith, we would do well to revisit Humanae Vitae with open hearts. Jesus said the truth would make us free. Humanae Vitae is filled with truth about our sexuality, our purpose as human beings, and the nature of married love. Lived selflessly, it is a source of real joy. We impoverish ourselves and those we love by ignoring it.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the Archbishop of Denver.
One who goes out of his way and meddles in strife not his own, says the Proverb, is as one who pulls a dog by the ears. It is unlikely to be a beneficial experience for either party. A non-Catholic, and especially a Jew, must hesitate, therefore, before presuming to offer a critique of a papal encyclical. Humanae Vitae in particular has been a contentious document among those who, to use Pope John Paul II’s metaphor, are my younger brothers in faith. A thoughtful and loving brother must surely avoid aggravating any discord in his beloved younger brother’s family.
Two aspects of the encyclical, however, invite me, indeed call me, to reply. First, the encyclical is not simply addressed to the “faithful of the whole Catholic world,” but also to “all men of good will,” among whom I hope to be counted. More importantly, the encyclical is not based upon Christian doctrine, but explicitly on natural law. If Humanae Vitae’s analysis is correct, it is as binding upon me and my Jewish brethren as it is upon Catholics and the rest of the human family, since we all share the same nature, just as we all share the same Creator.
Natural law theory has never been an important part of Jewish thinking. It is not simply that with the Written Law, the Oral Law, the Codes, the Commentaries, the Supercommentaries, and the Responsa, we have enough law to deal with already, thank you. More importantly, Judaism stresses the fallibility of unfettered human moral reasoning. The Talmud is full of examples in which we are told that certain laws are made explicit because otherwise human reasoning would have led to error. True, we do not share the concern our Christian brothers have about the corrupting power that sin wields over a fallen mankind. But we do stress the pernicious influence of self-interest in moral decision-making. The hazard of self-interest is greatest, because it is most insidious, when we think it influences us least.
What moral insights can we achieve with natural law alone? Those raised in the Catholic tradition may think of the glorious systemization of Thomas Aquinas. Others may admire the noble code of the Stoics. But human reflection on nature and its inherent laws has far more often led to subjugation, exploitation, and rationalization than it has to the sort of justice for which John Paul II and others have spoken so passionately. Even Aristotle concluded that natural law justified the subordination of slave to master, woman to man, and foreigner to Greek. The ultimate fruit of natural law unguided by revelation is not justice, but paganism.
Humanae Vitae is far from pagan, of course. It assays to be “a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.” But by reversing the proper priority of those two sources, the encyclical has inevitably opened the door for error.
The encyclical argues that there is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” In fact, though, it is a commonplace observation that this connection established by God is anything but inseparable. A woman’s natural cycle of fertility and infertility, both monthly and over her lifetime, shows that the connection is at best intermittent. The natural law argument by design can cut both ways. It could as easily lead to the reasoning that because God willed us to be fertile intermittently, we may legitimately will the same thing, and act accordingly.
It is precisely acting on this human will of intermittent fertility that is so adamantly proscribed by Humanae Vitae. It is striking that it is condemned not simply as wrong, but as “intrinsically wrong.” Even homicide cannot be so described, since occasionally it may be morally licit, as in cases of self-defense.
The encyclical argues that we may “take advantage of the infertile period,” but it “condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception.” Simultaneously willing infertility and engaging in coitus is permitted, apparently, but not tinkering with the physiology. In both cases, of course, the couple “are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.” The difference is that in the former case “the 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.” The encyclical sees sexual abstention during times of suspected fertility as the only contraceptive technique conforming to natural law. The view of human nature thus proffered, however, is too pinched to encompass the multidimensional reality of our existence. The desire of married couples to engage in sexual intercourse is a process at once physiological, psychological, and often spiritual. On the physiological level alone it engages all the senses, the circulatory system, the respiratory system, the alimentary system (whose functions are temporarily suppressed), and the endocrine glands, to say nothing of the generative organs themselves. I cannot agree with Humanae Vitae that the frustration of this complex multisystem physiological process is somehow more natural than simply retaining a few milliliters of semen behind a latex barrier. The natural law argument is unpersuasive, because it is so-unnatural.
Humanae Vitae also makes consequentialist arguments in favor of its proscription of artificial contraception. The most important one, I believe, is that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” This may be true. But the reverse risk is also present. A couple who engage in periodic sexual abstention may deny the wife the satisfaction of her desires when they are at their peak, during the time of her ovulation. The result would be an even greater disregard for her physical and emotional equilibrium.
Ironically, periodic abstinence during the period of least fertility (and hence least female desire), as described in the Hebrew Bible, is never even mentioned in the encyclical. Yet it would serve the goal of forcing the couple to intermittently disengage sexually, and see each other as more than sexual objects. Moreover, the periodic abstinence would allow a renewal of sexual desire between husband and wife, reducing the risk that familiarity and satiation might lead to dissatisfaction and desire for novel sex partners. That, coupled with the episodic use of contraceptives that our God-given rational nature has discovered, could lead to a satisfying marital life and to mutual respect, along with the fulfillment of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” I would be the last to argue that such a program can be justified by natural law. It does not have to be. We know it by revelation.
Eric Chevlen is a physician in Youngstown, Ohio.
Sarah E. Hinlicky
Married love is the very image of God. It is, for Christians, inherently trinitarian, a dynamic embodiment of love between man, woman, and God. The creation of humankind demands that it must be this way: “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Neither man nor woman alone is a complete image of God. Just as the Holy Trinity is a communion of Persons in love, so humanity was created as distinct persons in need of one another’s love. Adam, searching through the created world for a companion, found none suitable, and God saw it was not good for him to be alone. Eve comes from Adam, from his flesh, and they are split into two: it is their joy and gift from God to become one flesh again. Together, united by their Lord in holy love, they take part in the divine life.
This, then, is the Christian meaning of marriage: self-giving, self-joining love, by the love of God and on the pattern of His own trinitarian love. It is the godly exercise of both freedom and commitment, the highest spiritual calling. Such love encompasses all aspects of one’s being, the soul and the mind and the body, intertwined with the spirit. In marriage, man and woman seek to become one flesh again, and the sacrament of marriage by the grace of God allows that reunion to take place. The physical union of sexual love is the most powerful expression of the rediscovered unity in God. Its power-on account of pleasure, intimacy, and unity-is so great and affects both men and women so deeply that it has been sacramentalized in marriage to encourage stronger love and union between lovers.
Sexual love is a good in itself. It need not be-in fact, cannot be-explained, reduced, measured, or justified. It simply is, a beautiful and mysterious expression of God’s impossible, irrational love for humanity. Within a God-given marriage, lovemaking occurs by the free desire of the spouses for one another, for pleasure or comfort or closeness, in joy or in sorrow. It is not confined by rational limits, and it is not merely instrumental to any other purpose. To restrict it by reference to other ends is to fundamentally misunderstand holy eros.
When spouses have such an abundance of divine love, it is their joy to have children together. Mutual love grows into another life. By God’s gracious gift, the child comes into being through their unity, spiritual and physical. The divine calling to marriage means that they are not merely objects in nature, or at the mercy of their biology. By love and by spirit they elevate their physical bodies to a higher plane, above the ordinary programmed procreation of other animals. Rather, as free agents in communion with God by love, they can choose wisely when to have children, and how many. To some are given the strength and enthusiasm to devote themselves to large families; others are blessed with smaller families. Either way, the central concern is always love and communion with God.
In this light, it is clear that the use of birth control by married couples can be a great blessing. It permits them time to grow in greater love and commitment at the beginning of a marriage, and to prepare themselves for the great task of parenthood. It is difficult to believe that nonabortafacient forms of birth control are intrinsically evil, for if they were, surely they would produce evil results in the couples that use them; and yet there are very many spouses who employ contraception with only beneficial results. Paul Evdokimov, an Orthodox theologian, puts the matter succinctly: “It is perfectly clear that one must avoid all complicity with decadent morals. But one must equally steer away from every attitude that renounces human responsibility and invokes divine Providence too lightly.”
When men and women abuse the availability of contraception to facilitate promiscuity, or when spouses in principle reject children as an invasion of their isolated lives, it is not out of a disdain for the law. It is from a lack of love. Lovelessness is forbidden by the God of love, and so all of His commandments are meant to foster love. It is to this divine ethic of love that all men and women of good will should adhere.
Sarah E. Hinlicky is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.
Gilbert Meilaender and Philip Turner
As theologians representing the Lutheran and Anglican churches who seek a common mind with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we think it most appropriate for us to direct our attention to the first of the questions posed for this symposium: “Do you judge the argument of Humanae Vitae with respect to artificial means of contraception convincing?” Our answer in brief is no, but before stating our reasons, we should note that we share in many ways what appears to be a major concern of Paul VI’s encyclical. Like him, we believe that the tendency of modern society, and along with it many Christian people, to make an absolute separation between what we will call the “purposes” and the encyclical calls the “meanings” (ratio) of both sex and marriage is contrary to the order of creation, subversive of the matrimonial estate, and harmful to individual men, women, and children. Indeed, we will suggest that, if anything, the encyclical understates the harmful results of this separation.
On what ground(s) is the use of “artificial” means of contraception prohibited by the encyclical? The central argument is that “there is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning” of the conjugal act. It is simply the case, so the argument goes, that acts of sexual intercourse are by their very nature open both to engendering and strengthening the unity of a couple and to producing offspring. Hence, in order to keep together what God has joined in creation, Paul VI concludes that “it is necessary that each conjugal act (emphasis added) remain ordained in itself . . . to the procreating of human life.”
This primary line of argument is supported by several secondary ones. Among these is an argument which, though implied rather than directly stated, seems to us to play a larger part in the letter’s reasoning than its understated place might suggest. In several ways the encyclical suggests that procreation constitutes “the supreme gift of marriage.” Even though, in accord with Gaudium et Spes, the Pope makes no attempt to rank the “meanings” of sex and marriage, he clearly teaches, in accord with Roman Catholic tradition, that procreation is chief among these meanings and, given the heightened emphasis procreation repeatedly receives in the letter, it is not surprising that he should so firmly require that every act of sexual intercourse remain open to the transmission of life.
With respect both to Humanae Vitae’s chief line of argument and to the secondary argument we have noted, the encyclical states that its teaching “is rooted in natural law” and is “illuminated and made richer by divine revelation.” Yet, despite its reference to divine revelation, the letter’s only references to Holy Scripture pertaining to the issue in question are two citations from 1 John and Ephesians-passages that are, in fact, related only indirectly to the issue at hand. Though the first three chapters of Genesis are generally cited as loci classici for beginning a discussion of marriage and sex, they are not discussed in Humanae Vitae. Had more adequate reference been made to Holy Scripture, it might indeed have proved to be the case that “a teaching rooted in natural law” would have been “illuminated and made richer by divine revelation.” Had more attention been given to these and other related passages, it might have been the case that no ranking of the unitive and procreative purposes would even have been implied by the argument.
A more sustained attempt to interpret the witness of the Bible leads, we believe, not to a hierarchy of meanings but to a transformation and unification of the purposes to be found in both marriage and sexual intercourse. This transformation treats the one flesh union of husband and wife as the overarching purpose of both marriage and sexual intercourse. A union of one flesh is, however, a complex rather than a simple notion. As displayed in Holy Scripture, it contains a multiplicity of purposes and goods: namely, the unity of the couple, the procreation of children, and the establishment of the basic unit of human society. Within the overarching purpose of a one flesh union, no one of these purposes and goods enjoys priority over the others.
In accord with God’s creative will and by his gracious blessing the sexual act within marriage expresses and nourishes the one flesh union of husband and wife, and, as an aspect of that union, it gives rise to children who incarnate it. Within a union of one flesh, it is important that the sexual act give rise to children, whose presence is a sign that self-giving love is creative and fruitful. It is equally important that children be conceived and reared by spouses who regularly and joyfully give themselves to each other in the sexual act-and who can, therefore, understand their children both as gifts of God and as integral to their call to marriage. Spouses should dutifully and gladly embrace all dimensions of the gift God gives us in marriage. Neither more nor less than this is, in our view, biblical teaching.
What of natural law? In its very nature the sexual act, as a human act, requires the intervention of human reason and will. Human beings do not come together and mate only at certain seasons of the year, and God himself has so arranged the laws of nature that there are infertile periods in a woman’s cycle. The encyclical seems mistaken, then, in holding that intentional use of infertile periods and use of contraceptives are essentially different in that the one “uses a faculty that is given by nature” and the other “impedes the order of generation from completing its own natural processes.” If a husband and wife want, as they ought, to hold together within their marriage the love-giving and life-giving purposes of sex, they must “make love” not as the other animals mate but in ways that will fittingly and appropriately realize and sustain each of these purposes within a union of one flesh. Hence, the use of technique to assure the spacing of children and to enhance the shared love of spouses should be understood not as a violation of the natural law but as a right use of reason in support of the divinely intended purposes of marriage.
By giving a couple moral permission to use the natural rhythms of the menstrual cycle as a means of spacing the birth of children, the encyclical itself recognizes the distinctively human character of the sexual act. Likewise, contraceptive intercourse may sometimes be a fitting means by which husband and wife aim to nourish simultaneously the procreative and unitive purposes of their marriage. We recognize, of course, that the encyclical itself rejects the line of argument we put forward here, but we simply cannot find in its reasoning any coherent rationale by which to reject contraceptive intercourse within marriage as long as procreation is not excluded in principle from the overarching good of the one flesh union.
Once its central argument has been presented, Humanae Vitae goes on to make an appeal to the good sense of its readers by asking them to consider “what consequences will follow from the methods of contraception and the reasons given for the use of contraception.” Among the consequences listed are (a) adultery, (b) “a gradual weakening in the discipline of morals,” (c) a loss of respect of husbands for their wives, and (d) the mandating of contraceptive practices by public authority. We leave open the question of how accurate these predictions have proven to be. We believe, however, that it would have been more prescient to mention two results of the separation our society seems increasingly willing to make in principle between the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage.
Since the publication of Humanae Vitae, sex has become increasingly a form of play (which we then try vainly to convince our children they are not ready for). In addition, new reproductive technologies have made childbirth and nurture into a voluntary project one can pursue for private reasons apart from any thought of marriage. Together these developments have played havoc with the public meaning of marriage. It has become less and less a public vocation that presents each couple with a task and more and more a private arrangement entered into by individuals for their own purposes. As we noted above, this subverts the order of creation, the estate of matrimony, and the wellbeing of men, women, and children.
As Protestant theologians we are well aware that the Protestant churches, in allowing the use of contraceptives, have failed to accompany this permission with effective catechesis and discipline with respect to the purposes of sex and marriage. The evidence seems to indicate, however, that, at least in this country, Roman Catholic catechesis and discipline have not fared much better. We are-jointly-faced with something far more profound than a decline in morals. We face subversion of the public meaning of marriage. Roman Catholics may quite rightly ask of Protestants a new seriousness in our understanding of the purposes of marriage and in our intent to hold these purposes together within the bond of marriage. We, in turn, may rightly ask of them that an argument which is not adequately grounded in Scripture and which, simply as an argument, has proved singularly unpersuasive no longer be made a cause of division within the one Church. Together then we can reassert the seriousness of marriage as a public institution in which we undertake a threefold task-to give rise to the next generation, to preserve the integrity of the basic unit of society, and to love with fidelity that neighbor whom God gives us as husband or wife.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. Philip Turner is Associate Dean of the Yale Divinity School (retired).
R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
The effective separation of sex from procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age-and one of the most ominous. This awareness is spreading among American evangelicals, and it threatens to set loose a firestorm.
Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
At the same time, evangelicals overcame their traditional reticence in matters of sexuality, and produced a growth industry in books, seminars, and even sermon series celebrating sexual ecstasy as one of God’s blessings to married Christians. Once reluctant to admit the very existence of sexuality, evangelicals emerged from the 1960s ready to dish out the latest sexual advice without blushing. As one of the best-selling evangelical sex manuals proclaims, marital sex is Intended for Pleasure. Many evangelicals seem to have forgotten that it was intended for something else as well.
Thus, the evangelical reaction to Humanae Vitae was, generally speaking, dismissal and disregard. Pope Paul VI apparently caught many Catholics by surprise with his total rejection of “artificial” methods of birth control, but most Protestants seemed to expect this reaffirmation of Rome’s historic tradition. Indeed, birth control became fixated in the Protestant mind as a “Catholic issue.” That is, until recently.
A growing number of evangelicals are rethinking the issue-and facing the hard questions posed by reproductive technologies. Several developments contributed to this reconsideration, but the most important of these is the abortion revolution. The early evangelical response to legalized abortion was woefully inadequate. Major evangelical bodies and denominations-including even the Southern Baptist Convention-accepted at least some version of abortion on demand.
The evangelical conscience was awakened in the late 1970s, when the murderous reality of abortion could not be denied. A massive realignment of evangelical conviction was evident by the 1980 presidential election, when abortion functioned as the fuse for a political explosion. Conservative Protestants emerged as major players in the pro-life movement, standing side-by-side with Catholics in the defense of the unborn.
The reality of abortion forced a reconsideration of other issues in turn. Affirming that human life must be recognized and protected from the moment of conception, evangelicals increasingly recognized Intra uterine Devices (IUDs) as abortifacients, and rejected any birth control with any abortifacient design or result. This conviction is now casting a cloud over The Pill as well.
Thus, in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation’s Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church’s teaching. In this light, a new evangelical assessment of Humanae Vitae is in order, and its thirtieth anniversary is an opportune moment.
At this first level, a theologically grounded understanding of sex would require that evangelicals agree with the encyclical’s opening statement that “God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important mission [munus] of transmitting human life.” This mission of the stewardship and transmission of life runs counter to the secular mind, but is central to the biblical vision. Such a view stands in sharp contrast to our culture’s prevailing treatment of children as inconveniences or as accessories for the extension of the ego.
We must also recognize the prophetic character of the encyclical’s warning about the inevitable result of the contraceptive mentality. As Pope Paul VI warned, widespread use of birth control would lead to “serious consequences,” including marital infidelity and a general erosion of morality. In reality, The Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.
Against this tide, a biblical vision of human sexuality must include what the encyclical identifies as the integrity of conjugal love within the marriage bond. This marital union is indeed intended for the procreation and parenting of children, and conjugal love is to be “both faithful and exclusive to the end of life.” In the context of that bond, the unitive and procreative meanings of conjugal love are to be connected. So far, so good.
For most evangelicals, the major break with the encyclical’s teaching comes at the insistence that “it is necessary that each conjugal act remain ordained in itself to the procreating of human life.” This claims too much, and places inordinate importance on individual acts of sexual intercourse, rather than the larger integrity of the conjugal bond.
Thus, I believe that the encyclical would be strengthened by an affirmation of the very “principle of totality” it rejects. The focus on “each and every act” of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage that is open to the gift of children goes beyond the biblical demand. Since the encyclical does not reject all family planning, this focus requires the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” methods of birth control. To the evangelical mind, this is a rather strange and fabricated distinction.
Nevertheless, thirty years of sad experience demonstrate that Humanae Vitae sounded the alarm, warning of a contraceptive mentality that would set loose immeasurable evil as modern birth control methods allowed seemingly risk-free sex outside the integrity of the marital bond. At the same time, it allowed married couples to completely sever the sex act from procreation, and God’s design for the marital bond.
In joining arms against the Culture of Death, evangelicals will find much common ground with conservative Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, whereas Catholics distinguish between “natural” and “artificial” methods of birth control, evangelicals will focus on the critical distinction between abortifacient and nonabortifacient forms of control.
Standing against the spirit of the age, evangelicals and Roman Catholics must affirm that children are God’s good gifts and blessings to the marital bond. Further, we must affirm that marriage falls short of God’s design when husband and wife are not open to the gift and stewardship of children.
For evangelicals, much work remains to be done. We must build and nurture a new tradition of moral theology, drawn from Holy Scripture and enriched by the theological heritage of the Church. Until we do, Catholics are not likely to be impressed by our arguments. For now, Humanae Vitae remains an unanswered challenge. It is high time evangelicals answered the call.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Most objections to Humanae Vitae are born from a simple misunderstanding of what it argues against, and a surprising unawareness of what it argues for. Three objections in particular arise again and again; if the confusion about the Catholic teaching on contraception is to be straightened out, we must address them, and the encyclical itself gives us the resources to do so.
The first common objection goes like this: “Humanae Vitae is a condemnation of artificial contraception. What it sees as immoral is the fact that something artificial is interposed into the conjugal act. But clearly what is artificial is not necessarily immoral.” We can begin to answer this objection by stating the obvious point that Paul VI, in conformity with the traditional doctrine of the Church, does indeed condemn artificial contraception. But the argument made in the encyclical is not nearly so narrow as that; in reality it has almost nothing to do with the nature of any specific contraceptive device.
Although the opposition of the terms “artificial” and “natural” is the most familiar lens through which to read Humanae Vitae, it is secondary to the encyclical’s larger concern-namely, “responsible parenthood,” the properly ordered use of the gifts God gives in marriage. The issue, then, is not captured in the word “artificial.” What is wrong is not something “artificial,” not a “thing.” What is wrong is contraception itself: the deliberate will, the choice, to subvert the life-giving order and meaning of the conjugal act.
A second common objection to Humanae Vitae claims that couples who contracept are in fact giving each other the “gift of self” in the same measure as couples who practice Natural Family Planning (NFP). The former, so the objection goes, are no less generous with each other because there is a physical barrier between them that stops procreation from taking place; their intercourse realizes their one flesh union just as fully as the latter couple’s does.
Paul VI addresses this objection directly. Conjugal acts, he states, “must remain open to the transmission of life” to serve the good of procreation. But he goes on to say that without that openness, sex doesn’t advance the unitive good of marriage either. A sexual union in which contraception takes place and thus in which the procreative good is actively thwarted, he implies, is not a one flesh union at all. Husband and wife are not fully giving themselves to each other; there is a barrier between them, and it is as much spiritual as physical. The acts of intercourse performed by married people in such a context may be sexual, but they are not marital.
Some argue that as long as a marriage is open to life “in principle,” contraception is acceptable and licit. They make the point precisely: the only way contraceptive intercourse can possibly be morally justifiable is if the good of procreation is thought of as a “principle” rather than as something to be worked toward in the reality of our physical world. By definition, not excluding procreation in principle implies not excluding it in reality.
A third objection very often raised against Humanae Vitae asks this crucial question: Does the issue of how births are spaced have anything at all to do with the natural law? Since Paul VI takes for granted that the relation is self-evident and requires no elaboration, we need to point out more explicitly how the natural law informs-and can be thwarted by-the regulation of births.
When Paul VI states that every act of intercourse “must remain open to the transmission of life,” he is reasoning from the principle that everything is ordered by God to an end, and that to perform an action that willfully changes the course of something that is moving toward its given end is to act in contradiction to God’s design. It is to commandeer what God has inscribed in His universe, rerouting it toward an end one prefers; it is not to be responsible to God in tending His gifts.
In strictly biological terms, the simple physical act of intercourse is directed to the conception of a child: This man and this woman come together, these organs and cells meet, and if the timing is right a new life begins. The Church perceives this as an example of an act ordered to an end, and ordered that way by the Creator. In other words, it is a manifestation of the natural law by which all things, physical and spiritual, are divinely ordered.
But conjugal acts are meant for more than having children. As Paul VI himself states, there is another end-unity-to which they are ordained. If a couple decides they ought not procreate for a time, the need remains for them to seek union with each other; the most obvious way to do so is through sexual intercourse. But how, in such a circumstance, can both divinely given ends of intercourse be preserved? According to Catholic teaching, they can-if the couple does not contracept.
Paul VI writes that “every action [is illicit] . . . which proposes, either as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Proposing to render procreation impossible means, simply put, willing directly against the order of intercourse and consequently against new life. Two distinctions can be made on the basis of natural law with regard to this proscription. The first is between contraception and NFP; the second is between wrongful and licit uses of NFP itself.
Couples who contracept introduce a countermeasure into an act known beforehand to be potentially causative of a new life, a countermeasure whose sole purpose is to make it impossible for a new life to come to be. Contraception is an act that can only express the will that any baby that might result from this sexual encounter not be conceived. It actively subverts the progress of intercourse toward its end; it completely detaches the unitive and procreative goods. Moreover, it manifests a will aimed directly against new life.
The method of NFP is never contraceptive; it never renders procreation impossible. Couples who practice it add no countermeasure to the conjugal act to stop it from attaining its natural end, but simply abstain from sex at certain times. Their intercourse is always “open to the transmission of life,” even if no life can come about from it.
Nonetheless, there can be uses of NFP that are not consonant with the natural law and the moral principles enjoined on parents. A husband and wife may leave open the possibility of procreation by using NFP, but if what they really and directly will is that it not be possible for a baby to be conceived, that a new life not come to be, their action cannot be adjudged morally good.
For example: imagine a young married couple who are planning a long vacation in Europe a year from now. They want to do a good deal of traveling when they are there, and a new baby would be an inconvenience. They choose to use NFP, and the wife does not become pregnant. What is the moral status of their action? No fault can be found with their method, but as we have seen, it is not only “method” that is at issue in Humanae Vitae; there is much more to responsible parenthood than that.
Paul VI states that if a decision to space births using NFP is to fall under the category of “responsible parenthood,” it must be “made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law.” Discerning the seriousness of one’s motives is precisely the task of a well-formed conscience, without which we are apt to confuse our personal preferences with moral goods. A well-formed conscience ought to tell us that, at least in ordinary circumstances, inconvenience on a vacation (or whether one takes a vacation at all) is not a morally serious reason for preventing the conception of a child.
NFP practiced in this way is just as contrary to God’s design as contraception, but for a different reason: in this case the husband and wife do not use a wrongful means but refuse to cling to the right end. They might still want to have a baby “in principle,” but for selfish reasons-reasons untutored by conscience-they reject having one in fact. NFP is never contraceptive, but the will can be.
Many examples may be cited of a regulation of births that respects all the goods of marriage and intercourse; as Paul VI notes, “physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions” can all play a role in the decision to space births. To take a very clear case, imagine that a married woman has been diagnosed with cancer; she and her husband and their doctor resolve to bring her cancer into remission, a task that would be nearly impossible under the financial and physical strains of childbirth. To facilitate their goal, they decide to abstain periodically from sexual intercourse.
This couple wants to be responsible to the gift God has given them. In fact, they may “want” a child. But like laborers in the vineyard, they must plant in due season. Their circumstance calls for prudence; the wife’s health needs to be restored, for the good of the whole family. This couple’s will is not directed against life but toward remission, toward health, and in the end toward justice for all involved-that is, toward a significant moral good that bears upon the good of responsible parenthood. Their will does not divert the divinely given order of intercourse from the ends of unity and life, and neither does their method.
Humanae Vitae is not a simple-minded condemnation; this is shown by the very fact that the Church asks married people to consider all the goods of their way of life. Especially as John Paul II has subsequently explicated the teaching, it is rich and positive. One of the most remarkable gifts God has given us is the ability-the vocation-to participate in His life-giving and unifying love; in marriage we can do this, as Paul VI puts it, by “collaborat[ing] with God” in the work of generating and sustaining life. Contraception allows us to collaborate when we want to, on our terms. But the Church’s teaching enables us to collaborate with God at all times, even when prudence requires the spacing of births.
Alicia Mosier is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.
Janet E. Smith
Recent textbooks presenting the Catholic teaching on contraception have, I am glad to report, begun to give it a positive evaluation. It is laudable and right that they make clear that the IUD and chemical forms of contraception on occasion work as abortifacients-that is, they sometimes work by preventing the implantation of the fertilized ovum (the new human being). Yet when it comes to explaining why contraception itself is wrong, these texts often give a false explanation. They claim that the Church condemns contraception because it is artificial, and that natural family planning is morally acceptable because it is not artificial. In truth, the artificiality of contraception figures not at all in the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Certainly, the Church teaches that contraceptives commonly known as “artificial birth control” are morally impermissible, but it is not because of their artificiality that they are condemned.
It is not surprising that many people think this is the Church’s teaching because many Catholic publications written by “experts” and even receiving imprimaturs say so. I recently found this teaching in two very popular textbooks and a marriage preparation text that are considered to be “conservative.” This misrepresentation of the teaching of the Church may explain at least in part the resistance of some to Church teaching; they rightly reason that the Church is guilty of a terrible and manifest inconsistency. “Artificial” simply means “made by art,” and things made by art are regularly approved by the Church. Moreover, are not some of the methods of natural family planning reliant upon such artificial tools as thermometers?
That “experts” hold and propagate this view is, however, less easy to understand and perhaps not very forgivable. None of the recent statements on this teaching-Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, the extensive deliberations of Pope John Paul II, and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church-give the slightest suggestion that the Church opposes contraception because it is artificial. The books I reviewed were written very recently; one unfortunately suspects their authors of having failed to read key texts. Indeed, one is at a loss to determine what source they have for their claims.
Since I can give only a brief presentation of the Church’s teaching here, I recommend that everyone consult the documents mentioned above. Those who appreciate precise and profound philosophical reasoning should read Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s recent pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae provides a magnificently clear and accessible presentation of Church teaching, arguably the very best to date. It should be as widely distributed as possible. My explanation here will be a more technical consideration of the distinction between natural and artificial.
While it is true that the Church does approve of the use of artificial things, it insists that they must first be subject to moral evaluation. Donum Vitae states that “[reproductive technologies] are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life.” Later the document states, “If technical means facilitate the conjugal act or help it to reach its natural objectives, it can be morally acceptable. If, on the other hand, the procedure were to replace the conjugal act, it is morally illicit.” The Church approves of what is artificial when it facilitates nature and disapproves of it when it violates nature. The distinction between facilitating nature and violating nature is key-“artificial” forms of contraception violate nature. So do some “natural” means that have historically been used as contraceptives, such as seaweed and natural sponges; these too fall under the condemnation of the Church.
The natural law upon which the Church bases much of its moral teaching has a very specific understanding of “nature” that unfortunately eludes many. The “nature” referred to in “natural law” is not biological nature but human nature-our nature as rational, free, and relational creatures. Acts that violate the rational, free, and relational nature of the human being are thereby unnatural and immoral. Appeals to “natural law” are appeals to the dignity of the human person, not to biology.
Contraception violates the dignity of the human person in several ways. It reduces the sexual act to a merely biological act on the level of animal existence. Humans freely and rightly contracept and sterilize other animals because their existence and their sexuality have a merely instrumental value. Their sexuality is ordained to the propagation of the species, and since species are ultimately ordained to the benefit of human beings, we can manipulate them to our benefit. Although our ingenuity allows us to manipulate the human sexual act in the same way, morality prohibits this. The vulnerability of the human person and the intrinsic value of human life set strict conditions for having sex morally.
The sexual relationship between spouses is one of God’s great gifts to mankind. Relating to one’s spouse enables human beings to overcome their existential loneliness and their selfishness by participating in a common good of inestimable value-the bringing into existence of another creature with an immortal soul.
The sexual act is morally performed only within marriage where it has the ordination both to deepening the union of the spouses and to building a family. Sexual acts that fail to deepen the union or deliberately preclude building a family are thereby immoral. Contraception violates both meanings of the conjugal act. It obviously violates the procreative aspect of sex, but it also impedes the union of the spouses.
Contraception treats the procreative meaning of the sexual act as though it were an impediment to spousal union. But the conjugal act is meant to be an act of total self-giving, which includes giving the power of becoming a parent with another. Spouses who contracept are not giving totally of themselves to one another; in violating the baby-making power of the sexual act, they confine their act to being ordained solely to mutual pleasure. They are not achieving the union proper to spouses, but are holding back from each other and preventing God, if He so chooses, from creating a new human life.
On the other hand, couples using methods of natural family planning are respecting the nature of the conjugal act through their acts of self-denial. They do not violate the baby-making power of the sexual act because it is not present in a way to be violated. They refrain from acts of conjugal intercourse during the fertile periods because they have judged that responsible parenthood requires them to limit their family size temporarily or permanently. In these instances, their spousal union is deepened and confirmed by their abstaining from sexual pleasure.
The Church’s teaching on contraception embraces the deepest of human values, both natural and supernatural. To reduce it to a rejection of the “artificial” falsifies and trivializes it. The Church’s teaching is surely an exaltation and an exultation of the natural, properly understood, and we shortchange ourselves if we fail to realize this.
Janet E. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas and editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right (Ignatius).