The fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae has occasioned a certain amount of Roman Catholic triumphalism, at least among the intellectual class, of the “We told you so!” variety. And there is no doubt that, in its prediction of the moral and social chaos the sexual revolution would leave in its wake, Paul VI’s most famous encyclical was correct.
The belief that sex is an end in itself continues to poison our society, offering an impoverished account of human personhood in which the sexually inactive are at best defective or unfulfilled. It has also brought about rampant pornography and prostitution and their resulting collateral damage. What we need, therefore, are treatments of sexuality that examine sex within a fuller picture of what it means to be a human person.
The latest volume from the Hildebrand Project, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s 1968 The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction, is one such treatment. It offers an important account of both the encyclical and the philosophy underlying it. Like the encyclical, it cannot be reduced to a polemic against artificial birth control. Rather, it is a moving account of human love and a critique of a society that reduces love to sex and sentiment. All Christians can read it with profit.
In this volume, von Hildebrand clearly draws upon earlier arguments from his 1927 book In Defense of Purity: Love is ecstatic and joyful, transcending rational analysis. Von Hildebrand’s key text is Song of Songs, the biblical poem that captures the mystery, power, longing, and exuberance of erotic love. Much conservative Protestant writing on marriage typically neglects the Song for a prosaic, patriarchal focus on male authority and female submission. Those tempted by such a drab view of love ought to read von Hildebrand, for whom passion, mystery, and ecstasy all play their biblical parts.
Yet this love is not about self-gratification. It is both personal and sacrificial, and demands giving oneself wholly to another. Von Hildebrand makes this point in one of many memorable passages:
[The promiscuous] attitude is typically represented by Don Juan in Mozart’s marvelous opera; he says to Leporello: “I would be unfaithful to the female sex were I to attach myself to one.” This is the most emphatic antithesis to being in love. Here the female species is the specific theme and then only under the aspect of unalloyed sexual allurement. Every individual woman is merely an example of the species woman. For the person in love, on the contrary, the charm of the other sex can fully unfold itself only in the individual personality of the beloved; only thanks to his whole personality does the charm begin to glow and speak in its mysterious radiance, only against the background of all the other personal values of the one he loves.
And only the exclusive marital bond provides the context for such love.
Fundamental to von Hildebrand’s case is his distinction between the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual union. This allows him to understand sex as more than merely a means to conception. Human experience speaks to that, given the range of taboos that typically surround sexual activity. Sex is not merely a biological need like thirst or hunger. Even the mysterious nature of conception indicates that sexual union has no real analogy to any other creaturely function. And the Bible makes it the central act of marriage, a relationship that is itself the unique creaturely analogue of Christ and the church and therefore profoundly mysterious. Sex therefore has two good ends: the creation of new life, but also the deepening of the relationship between a husband and wife. Sex with no chance of conception—in the case of an infertile couple, for example—is still a good.
While this distinction is important, it is also the potential Achilles’ heel of the argument against contraception. If we allow that marital sex is a unitive good even when procreation is not the result and even consciously avoided, then we must make the case for why certain means for this practical separation of the two is wrong.
This is where von Hildebrand’s case needs more argument. Following the Church’s teaching, he states that bodily processes—primarily the woman’s monthly cycle—can be used as a means of avoiding conception. But the Pill, interfering as it does with nature, is forbidden. To justify this distinction, he discusses the difference between medical procedures that deal with the merely factual (e.g., a heart transplant) and those that have an impact upon the relational (e.g., the Pill). But that difference is debatable, and to foreclose the matter by a rapid retreat to the concept of “mystery” merely begs the question. That von Hildebrand would have had an answer, I doubt not. But he should have provided it in detail at this critical juncture in his argument.
Humanae Vitae and arguments like von Hildebrand’s have helped fix the connection between contraception and society’s sexual ills firmly in the religious imagination. But was artificial birth control a necessary and immoral precondition of the sexual revolution, or was it simply one technological and morally neutral factor of which the established permissive Playboy culture took advantage? It is notable that the existence of contraception is now arguably irrelevant to the most obvious manifestation of the sexual catastrophe of our time: the popularity of pornography.
To return to the Catholic triumphalism with which I started, I am skeptical of some of its underlying diagnostic assumptions. But even if these are correct, is there a place for “We told you so” triumphalism when that which Humanae Vitae affirms as a moral imperative is one of the most routinely ignored elements of the Church’s teaching? I doubt von Hildebrand would think so. Here is his verdict on those who embrace contraception:
If anyone assumes that the Pope is wrong and that he knows better, he is clearly disavowing his belief in the teaching authority of the Church on morals and thereby ceases to be an authentic Catholic.
Those were strong words in 1968 and they would seem to demand ecclesiastical action, action that seems rarely—if ever—to have been taken. And that raises an embarrassing question: What does it mean for any organization, whether church or political party, to believe a teaching on paper when the vast majority of that organization’s members ignore the teaching with impunity? Given this routine disobedience, attempts at triumphalism look more like exercises in self-deception. When it comes to the sexual revolution, yes: In Catholic teaching you may have told us so. But in your actions, you have not shown us a better way.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.