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Synod of Bishops 2015
October 20, 2015
What the Church, the Body of Christ, has called true and good yesterday cannot possibly become false and burdensome today
A tapestry of Blessed Paul VI hangs from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica during his beatification Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As they are gathered in Rome to discuss the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World,” the Synod Fathers ask themselves how to find new impetus for the pastoral care of the family. For this purpose it is important precisely to individuate the challenges that confront the family in today’s societies. At least according to some sociologists, the biggest challenge is the sexual revolution (cf. M. Eberstadt, “The New Intolerance”, First Things, March 2015), whose principal characteristic is the separation between sexuality and procreation. Living in a post-revolutionary world, we often find it difficult to appreciate the radicalness of this revolution and its heavy impact on how people today live their sexuality, their marriages and their family life.

The magisterial pronouncement that most strongly proposes an alternative to the sexual revolution is Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae. In the working document for this year’s Synod, one can find two opposite attitudes toward this document. Paragraph 137 expresses a pragmatic approach that takes its orientation from the contemporary world. While it praises the wisdom of Humanae vitae, it fails to summarize its main content, and with a pre-Conciliar casuistry it empties the encyclical of its normative value (cf. D. Crawford – S. Kampowski, “An Appeal”, First Things, September 9, 2015). In the preceding paragraph 49, on the other hand, we read that “Paul VI, in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae, displayed the intimate bond between conjugal love and the generation of life.” One could say that this is indeed the document’s principal argument which it is well worthwhile expanding upon, as we will do here in what follows.

Marital Love: The Basis of the Norm

In paragraph 14 Humanae vitae expresses a norm against sexual acts that are deliberately rendered sterile (this is what it means by “contraception”), calling them intrinsically dishonest. In support of this norm it proposes a fundamental thesis whose foundations we will examine in a moment. The thesis is the following: a contraceptive sexual act can never qualify as an act of conjugal love. This is the essential meaning of the so-called “inseparability principle” proposed by the encyclical, according to which there is an inseparable connection between the unitive and the procreative significance of the marital act (HC 12). If this is the case, then it will be clear how contraceptive intercourse violates the sixth commandment, the main point of which is precisely that sexual intercourse is for marital love alone. In other words, the contention is that in contraceptive intercourse a man has sex with his wife without treating her as his wife; a woman has sex with her husband without relating to him as her husband, so that, whatever it is they are doing, they are not performing an act of spousal love.

Now what is the basis of this claim? To see this, we need to ask what it takes for a sexual act to be an act of spousal love. A number of requirements need to be fulfilled. First, quite obviously, it needs to be a sexual act performed by spouses, that is, by a man and a woman who have joined their lives through a public promise of mutual fidelity, sexual exclusivity and openness to the generation and education of children. By making this pledge, the two unite in marriage, which is the institution of marital love, which, in turn, is a love with a mission: “the most serious role [munus=an office with its related duties] of parenthood” (cf. HV 1). This mission of generating and educating children is what distinguishes a marital friendship from other kinds of friendship. As the Second Vatican Council says, “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory” (GS 48). The love proper to husband and wife is thus one that has a particular mission and with that a peculiar comprehensiveness. As there is no greater union two people can achieve on earth than being the father and the mother of each other’s children, so there can hardly be a greater expression of love than saying to the other, “I want you to be the mother/the father of my children.” In this sense, what it means to be a woman’s husband is to be the potential father of her children. What it means to be a man’s wife is to be the potential mother of his children. The fact that the man and the woman look at each other in this manner in no way implies that they are instrumentalizing each other in view of procuring offspring. It only means that marital love is ordered to forming a family, which is the aspect under which a marital friendship is specifically different from all other kinds of friendships.

A second condition a sexual act needs to fulfill in order to be an act of marital love is that it is in itself apt for procreation. It needs to be chosen as a generative kind of act. Inasmuch as a marital act consummates and sums up what marital love is all about, this act itself needs to have the characteristics of marital love. Now marital love is human, total, faithful and exclusive and fruitful (cf. HV 9). In order for a sexual act to be a marital act, the spouses need to relate to each other in that act as husband and wife, i.e., as the potential father and mother of their children. Here contraceptive intercourse evidently falls short. Inasmuch as through their own interventions on their bodies, the spouses deliberately render themselves and their act sterile, their choice is evidently for an inherently sterile kind of sexual act. This is the aspect under which the act is chosen. It may be accidentally fruitful through contraceptive failure, but the possibility of “accidents” does not change the fact that by attempting to render themselves and their act sterile, spouses choose sexual acts that are as sterile as anal or oral intercourse. Independent of the method used, whether barrier or chemical methods, a contraceptive sexual act cannot be called a marital act, because on the level of what the spouses choose, they do not relate to each other as spouses, that is as potential father and mother of their common children. Their potential father- and motherhood is precisely what they have deliberately excluded. They perform a sexual act without relating to each other in that act as spouses. In this sense, the act cannot consummate or sum up what marital love is all about.

Hence, contraceptive intercourse can never be called an act of spousal love, even if performed by spouses. Thus, it falls under the matter of the sixth commandment “You shall not commit adultery,” or put differently, “Sex is for spousal love.” It follows that as a negative moral norm contained in the Ten Commandments, the norm formulated by Humanae vitae expresses a truth about our being, about our good and about our love that is valid always and everywhere. It expresses a moral absolute that does not admit exceptions. Hence, Paul VI refers to contraceptive acts as acts that are “intrinsece inhonestum,” intrinsically dishonest (HV 14). It is true that fidelity to this love is sometimes difficult, that it involves sacrifice and the maturity of the virtues, but sacrificial love is at the heart of the Gospel.

Contraception and the Pastoral Care of the Family

In a final step, we want to emphasize that the teaching of Humanae vitae, which reiterates the Church’s constant teaching that every sexual act, to be humanly fulfilling and pleasing to God, needs to be an act of marital love, is no minor point in the immense sea of challenges facing the pastoral care of the family today. The effective rejection of Humanae vitae from the part of secular culture and from a large portion of the pastors and the faithful of the Church has been at the origin of a vast array of today’s challenges, which cannot be adequately dealt with by the Church unless she finds the strength, courage, and evangelical parrhesía to re-propose the document’s teaching in its fullness, demanding though it may be.

In paragraph 17 of Humanae vitae, Paul VI predicts what will happen if his teaching is not going to be heeded. The spread of contraceptive practices “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” A man “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.” Finally, he conjectures that civil governments will be tempted to impose measures of population control on their people. All this has come true, which is a sad fact that speaks in favor the encyclical’s teaching and should encourage the Church to rediscover its truth and beauty and proclaim it with more conviction.

Further, the ideology of gender–denounced by Pope Francis as “ideological colonialism” (In-Flight Press Conference from the Philippines to Rome, January 19, 2015) and as “an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it” (General Audience, April 15, 2015; cf. also Laudato si’, 155)—can only arise in a culture that has forgotten the link between sexuality and procreation. If sexual activity is severed from any thought of procreation, then sexual difference will lose its meaning. Only in a culture which has completely severed the exercise of the sexual faculties from any consideration of procreation can sexual orientation become more important than sexual difference, opening the door also to the question of same sex “marriage.” If sexual acts are not thought of as generative kind of acts, then, as G.E.M. Anscombe already saw in the early 1970s, there is no reason why they should have to be performed by a man and a woman and not by two men or two women (cf. Contraception and Chastity), or, we may add, by three men and/or four women.

We must remember that by their acts of conjugal love, a man and a woman do something that goes beyond the two. They insert themselves into the great current of human generations. They remember their origin and launch themselves toward the future. Inasmuch as these acts are potentially fruitful, the spouses go beyond the isolation of the couple; they transcend themselves toward the third, toward a common life project, which is the potential child. This is true even if they do not directly intend to procreate a child or know that, for reasons independent of their will, they are unable to conceive. They retain their “intentional openness” to procreation as long as they choose a generative kind of act. For this nothing more is needed than to use the appropriate organs and not to manipulate oneself or the act. An exercise of the sexual organs that is intrinsically sterile (mutual masturbation, anal or oral intercourse) or that has been deliberately rendered sterile (contraception, sterilization) does not have this transcendent dimension, and herein lies its privation, its evil.

Apart from the issues of same-sex unions and gender, also all moral and pastoral problems related to artificial reproductive technologies (from the question of the morality of the procedures in themselves to related issues such as surrogate motherhood or the fate of so-called surplus embryos) are linked to the rejection of Humanae vitae: if one can have sex without babies, of course one can have babies without sex.

Final Appeal

Scripture allows us to think of the Church as a body, the Body of Christ (cf. Eph 1:22-23), a living organism extended through space and time. What she called true and good yesterday cannot possibly become false and burdensome today. For almost two thousand years there had been a universal Christian consensus on the immorality of contraceptive practices (cf. Noonan, Contraception). It was only with the 1930 Lambeth Conference that for the first time in history a Christian denomination publicly challenged this view. Ever since then, beginning with Pius XI’s encyclical Casti connubii of the same year, the Catholic Church’s Magisterium has explicitly affirmed the immorality of contraception. This position was then re-confirmed by Pius XII who calls immoral “every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life.” He adds that “no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one,” emphasizing in unambiguous words that “this precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law” (Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives, October 29, 1951).

Now Paul VI did not promulgate Humanae vitae because he thought that the strong statements of his predecessors left room for doubt. Rather, what occasioned the encyclical was the invention of the hormonal pill (cf. GS 51, n. 14). The original question was not whether contraception could be morally licit after all, but simply whether the use of the pill would qualify as contraception, given that its use was not covered by Pius XII’s definition of that practice. In deciding about the question of the pill by slightly modifying the definition of contraception previously given by Pius XII, Paul VI also reaffirmed the teaching of his predecessors (cf. HV 14), which in turn has been consistently upheld and defended by his successors. Thus, in clear language, St. John Paul II, speaking of the teaching of Humanae vitae, points out: “It is not, indeed, a doctrine invented by human beings: it is inscribed by the creative hand of God into the very nature of the human person and has been confirmed by him in revelation. To put it into question thus is equal to refusing God himself the obedience of our intelligence” (Discourse to the Participants of the II International Congress on Moral Theology, November 12, 1988).

Paragraph 137 of the Instrumentum laboris effectively implies that the explicit and constant teaching of the papal magisterium of several popes can be changed, which, in turn, means that this teaching was not, in fact, objectively true. Now if the papal magisterium does not derive its authority from being a ministry at the service of truth, then its exercise can only be based on power. In other words, the text under discussion proposes that papal and ecclesial authority is based on will rather than on reason and truth. This would of course spell the end of papal authority, which, if it is to exist at all, must be based on truth and not on power (cf. Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Given all the above, we strongly appeal to the Synod, for the good of the family, the Church and society, to reflect deeper upon the meaning of sexual difference with its relation to fruitfulness and to acknowledge and promote the teaching of Humanae vitae: against all odds, against all ideologies that want to destroy the family and ultimately the Church of God herself. We urge the Synod Fathers to follow the example of Our Lord and refer to “the beginning” – to God’s original plan for the family from the moment of Creation (cf. Mt 19:8), a plan that is inscribed into the very nature of the human person and which alone corresponds to our true and authentic good. Finally, we plead that the Synod reaffirm and expound on the teachings of Saint John Paul II, whom Pope Francis has raised to the honor of the altars and given the title of “Pope of the family” (Homily at the Mass and Rite of Canonization of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II, April 27, 2014). 

About the Author
Stephan Kampowski 

Stephan Kampowski is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Following his doctoral dissertation on the action theory and moral thought of Hannah Arendt, his recent work has focused on issues in bioethics.
About the Author
David S. Crawford 

David S. Crawford is the Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Family Law, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC.

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