Column: Worrying “Humanae Vitae”

To be published July 22, 2008. Here’s hoping I won’t get hit by lightning, here in Zamboanga City!

The most vexing papal encyclical of modern times marks its 40th
anniversary on Friday. Recent events have certainly conspired to spirit
“Humanae Vitae” back into the news. Only the other week, Ozamiz Archbishop
Jesus Dosado issued a pastoral letter asking the priests in his
archdiocese to consider denying Holy Communion to anti-life politicians.
The virtual FATWA prompted me to reread Pope Paul VI’s ardent, anguished
love letter to an unchaste world.

Perhaps I am mistaken, or I am the one confused, but in reading the
encyclical again I thought I detected a mistake in its reasoning, or at
the least an unfortunate confusion.

* * *

Like other Catholic faithful, I have come to the conclusion that, in the
specific Philippine experience, unchecked population growth is downright
unchristian. The increasing strain on our resources condemns many if not
most of the 2 million babies born every year, and their families too, to a
life of poverty. (To study the issue in greater depth, I signed up early
this month as a member of the Philippine Center for Population and

In my view, the point of departure for any discussion on population growth
and the “proper regulation of the propagation of offspring” (to quote from
Pope Paul VI’s dedication in “Humanae Vitae”) is not dogma, but practice;
not “theory,” but experience. Surely (a prayer disguised as an assumption)
the Christ who admonished the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man
and not man for the Sabbath would understand.

* * *

I think, however, that it is also possible to argue from “theory,” that
the theology behind “Humanae Vitae” is not above discussion. Indeed, the
encyclical’s language is lucid, and the pope’s sympathy for the plight of
married couples transparent. (I am using Janet E. Smith’s closely worked,
lovingly detailed translation, found in the anthology she edited, “Why
Humanae Vitae was right: A reader.”)

The heart of the matter lies in Article 11. The key passage in Smith’s
translation reads: “an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning
and the procreative meaning, and both are inherent in the conjugal act.”

As phrased in the English version available on the Vatican website, the
passage adds appositives: “the 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.” (This is also the same translation used in the
Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Article 12 draws the inevitable conclusion: “that each conjugal act remain
ordained in itself to the procreating of human life.” The meaning is
clearer in the Catechism: “each and every marriage act must remain open to
the transmission of life.”

* * *

If, to quote the encyclical’s first sentence, “God has entrusted spouses
with the extremely important mission [munus] of transmitting human life,”
and if both the unitive and procreative dimensions inhere in the conjugal
act, why should spouses perform the act during infertile periods?

The absolute nature of this mission requires an absolute rule. Thus, “each
and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Why,
then, engage in the act at those times when there is no possibility of
transmission? Shouldn’t the Church call for abstention from sex during
infertile periods?

Of course, “Humanae Vitae” (and a host of other Church documents since
1968) recognized the dilemma. “The Church is not inconsistent when it
teaches both that it is morally permissible for spouses to have recourse
to infertile periods and also that all directly contraceptive practices
are morally wrong,” the encyclical reads. “These two situations are
essentially different. In the first, the spouses legitimately use a
faculty that is given by nature; in the second case, the spouses impede
the order of generation from completing its own natural processes.”

I don’t know, but this strikes me as mere rationalization, with the Church
substituting authority for legitimacy. Isn’t the use of artificial methods
of family planning, reached after a judicious and reasonable weighing of
options, also the legitimate application of a natural faculty? (The answer
is No only when the Church withholds its sanction.) And isn’t “recourse to
the infertile period” an act of intellectual dishonesty? The same argument
against artificial methods can also be deployed against natural ones: “God

Of the many acts of criticism leveled against “Humanae Vitae,” I find
Bernard Haring’s first response in Commonweal magazine, just over two
months after the encyclical came out, to be the most moving. Haring, a
friend of Paul VI, praised the pope’s “courage” for doing “the most
unpopular thing,” and noted that the pope had admitted in public that the
letter had caused him “no small suffering.” But Haring also wrote: “The
argumentation of ‘Humanae Vitae’ rests mainly on two points. The first is
the constant teaching of the church; the second is the absolute sacredness
and inviolability of the biological functions in every use of marriage….”

By the first he means that there is in fact no direct scriptural sanction
for the teaching. “‘Humanae Vitae’ differs from ‘Casti Connubii’ by no
longer making the effort to base the teaching of the church in this matter
on Genesis 38.” By the second he means that the encyclical runs counter to
Vatican II, where “the absolute sacredness of the biological rhythm was
explicitly rejected.”

Given these nuances of faith, isn’t it only reasonable to suppose that
some of the faithful, as sinful as the rest, cannot follow “Humanae Vitae”
in good conscience?


Filed under Newsstand: Column

2 responses to “Column: Worrying “Humanae Vitae”

  1. good thinking…. when you write on this again, would appreciate if you could elucidate on the last two paragraphs. thanks 😉

  2. Hi, John: emailed you my thoughts on the matter.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s