Fifty years ago this past Wednesday, Pope Paul VI promulgated his highly controversial encyclical letter, Humanae vitae—“Of Human life”. While its content still remains one of the most hotly contested of the Church’s moral teachings, it becomes more apparent with each passing year how right Pope Paul was in both reaffirming and clarifying the Church’s teaching on the nature, purpose, and dignity of married love. His reassertion that the use of artificial contraception is intrinsically evil and that the effects of its widespread acceptance would be detrimental to society have proven to be prophetic. The grave ills that characterize our society today—divorce, abortion, and various perversions—all fall under the “general lowering of morality” clearly predicted by Pope Paul. This encyclical is, as I wrote about earlier this year, more relevant and needed today than it was 50 years ago. In light of this, it has been good to see its teachings revisited in many circles in commemoration of this anniversary year.
At the local parish level, I was very pleased to host a conference to do just that. On Saturday, July 21st, at my parish, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady in Tuckahoe, New York, we hosted a conference titled “Humanae Vitae at 50”, which featured noted speakers and authors Peter Kreeft, Fr. Donald Haggerty, and Theresa Bonopartis. The day began with breakfast and then the proceedings moved into the church for solemn Laudes (Morning Prayer) from the Divine Office. Then we moved to the parish hall to hear our speakers analyze the encyclical’s teachings from divergent perspectives—theological, philosophical and practical.
Fr. Donald Haggerty
The first talk was given by Fr. Donald Haggerty, who is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and has been a Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. He has a long association as a spiritual director for Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity and has authored three books on the spiritual life published by Ignatius Press, the most recent being Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God. In his lecture, Fr. Haggerty delivered a holistic presentation on the encyclical—its context, content and reception. He explained how the turbulent 1960s were a period of social and moral revolution, during which it seemed as if every institution was being questioned and changed. Religion, marriage, and the family were certainly not exempt from the radical spirit of the time.
In this context Pope Saint John XXIII established a commission whose membership was greatly expanded by his successor, Pope Paul, to study the matter of the Church’s total ban on artificial contraception. The Church’s labeling of the use of birth control as intrinsically evil was increasingly viewed to be antiquated and rigid. The majority opinion of the commission recommended a change in the Church’s teaching that the use of contraception no longer be considered an intrinsic evil but subject to the consciences of the faithful for use in certain circumstances. This majority, but not unanimous, opinion of this commission was leaked to the media, which led to the widespread expectation that the Pope would alter the Church’s moral teachings on the permissibility of artificial contraception. Priests in parishes and professors at Catholic universities were already teaching that contraceptive use in particular cases was permissible. But to the surprise and disappointment of many, and against tremendous opposition, Pope Paul, in his finest moment, definitively clarified as an exception-less norm of morality that the use of artificial contraception is intrinsically evil.
Fr Haggerty detailed the tumult the encyclical caused. He noted in particular some of the newspaper headlines upon the encyclical’s release that read “Vatican Edict Condemns Birth Control”, “Pope Bars Pill”, and “Vatican Outlaws Contraception” which all imply a papal decision about a moral issue that was, until then, undecided. But this is entirely false, of course. The use of contraception was not a matter open to divided opinions in Catholic moral theology. In fact, as Fr Haggerty importantly notes, the core teaching of Humanae vitae was nothing new at all. The Church’s constant and continuing prohibition of contraception, dating back to the early fathers of the Church and repeated throughout the centuries, was even explicitly reiterated a mere 38 years prior to Humanae vitae’s promulgation with Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti connubii. When Pope Paul explicitly condemned all artificial birth control methods as intrinsically evil, that is, with no exceptions in any circumstances, he was saying nothing new but was simply repeating and reaffirming the Church’s perennial teaching on this matter.
A basic question underlies this whole study. Does every marital act require an openness to human conception or can conjugal love and fecundity be separated at times? In answer to this, Fr Haggerty warns against those who propose the principal of totality by which the use of contraception can be justified in individual instances as long as the marriage is ordered to the favoring of fecundity in the totality of the married life. Fr Haggerty clarified:
It is not just a permissive openness to contraceptive use that is at stake with this erroneous view, but a breakdown in traditional moral theology and in understanding what constitutes a moral act that lurks in the shadows. The principal of totality—the view that it is the overall openness in the marriage to having children and not particular contraceptive acts that is decisive morally, is in effect a principle espousing allowance for exceptions to the prohibition ordinarily in place. One cannot speak then, of an intrinsically evil act if exceptions are permitted. On the other hand, if an action is by its nature intrinsically evil, that is, evil in itself as an action, no good intention, no overall principle of totality can justify a deliberate choice of this action.
In this first lecture of the conference, Fr Haggerty was effective in articulating the perennial teaching of the Church that the use of artificial contraception in every circumstance, despite any so-called “good intention”, is intrinsically evil. There is an inseparability principle to the conjugal act. As the encyclical states: “…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” (HV 12).
Dr. Peter Kreeft
The second speaker of the conference was the well known philosopher and prolific author Dr Peter Kreeft. He framed his discussion of moral questions by referencing the scene from Mel Gibson’s masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, where the Lord Jesus meets His Mother on the Via Dolorosa. Dr. Kreeft mentioned the look of consternation upon the Virgin Mary’s face, as if she was thinking, “Why O Son, must you have to go through with this?” The Lord gives His answer while embracing the Cross: “See, Mother, I make all things new.” Dr. Kreeft explained how this profound scene details the essence of Christianity which is the centrality of Christ in all things. As a result, His disciples must evaluate everything in light of Him. He changes everything and makes all things new to us. Every moral question must take His will—which never contradicts reason or the common good—into account.
With regard to the particular moral question of the use of artificial contraception, Dr .Kreeft spoke of the theological virtue of charity, which Christians are called to exemplify in marital relations. “Love”, he said,
is an icon of the Trinity. Most people think that God being love is a very nice idea but that God being a Trinity is a ridiculous one. But if God is love, He must be more than one person. If He is only one person than that would be self-love which is egoism. There must be an other in God. Our fundamental moral obligation as Christians must be to give of ourselves to our neighbor in charity. And so, in this, we see how the high calling of love is present in God, Who is the essence of all reality.
Eros (sexual love) is an image of agape, that is, divine love, which is charity, seeking the good of the other. Sexual love is a passionate desire to unite with one’s spouse. The conjugal union would no longer be an act of love mirroring God’s own divine love if it is obstructed by contraception and used only for one’s own gratification.
This point is articulated best, according to Dr. Kreeft, within Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” which he suggests is the needed antidote to the sexual revolution—a revolution, he says, which “is the most disastrous revolution to happen to Christianity. It is destroying the fundamental building block of every good and happy society—the family.” In marriage the two spouses become one flesh; this is an image of Gods love for His Bride, the Church. The conjugal union between a husband and wife is an image of our ultimate destiny when we shall be one with God in heaven. This union is only made possible by Christ and that is why He makes all the difference in any Christian’s evaluation of the morality of contraception.
The final speaker for the conference was the inspiring Theresa Bonopartis. After suffering the hurt and sorrow from having procured an abortion, Theresa has devoted her life to the pro-life movement. Theresa is the director of Lumina: Hope & Healing after Abortion, an apostolate for those, both men and woman, who are suffering from the regret of an abortion. Her story is recounted in her book A Journey to Healing through Divine Mercy: Mercy After Abortion, published by Marian Press.
As Fr. Haggerty and Dr. Kreeft analyzed the subject of contraception from the theological and philosophical perspectives, Theresa approached the topic from the lived and practical experience. She framed the context in which the encyclical was written very well:
It was 1968. We were the ‘Woodstock Generation.’ The peace symbol was our sign, and our slogans were: ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ and ‘make love not war!’ Little did we know we were starting a new war that is still raging to this day… Changes were taking place in what the view of true love was. Society’s perception of human sexuality, marriage and the family were changing. We saw too much hate in the world and we thought we had the answers in free love. But in truth we had no idea what that love was. Instead, we confused it with non-committed sex. We supported birth control to live lives that we saw as ‘freeing.’ It is this mentality that prompted Paul VI to write Humanae vitae seeing how it would open the door to a multitude of human sins and and the deterioration of the moral order of society.
Theresa detailed how Humanae vitae’s warnings played out in her life before her conversion. That part of her story is, unfortunately, not unique. In a culture that accepts the use of contraception for “sex without consequences,” in a culture where even in marriage the procreative meaning of the conjugal act is excluded by means of birth control, dysfunction and hurt ensues. There is no such thing as sex without consequences. When the conjugal act is cheapened, the unitive meaning of love is also inevitably diminished. Contraception does not enhance relations between husband and wife as spouses become more selfish and less generous with one another. The high divorce rate in our culture testifies to this sad reality.
And the cheapening of the conjugal act contributes strongly to a culture in which life itself is considered cheap. Life is devalued, and the most unnatural act imaginable—a mother killing her own child—becomes accepted and even celebrated in the pro-abortion movement. Theresa made a clear case that the widespread acceptance of contraception inevitably leads to the widespread acceptance of divorce and abortion. All of these are the great ills facing society today, and all were warned about by Pope Paul in Humanae vitae.
The conference closed with a panel question-and-answer session. The questions displayed a clear engagement of all the attendees with the lectures from our speakers. The message of Humanae vitae was heard and accepted. The positive response of the attendees gives one reason to hope. There is very little today more controversial than the content of Humanae vitae’s moral teachings. But if taught clearly and with conviction, hardened hearts can be softened to the saving truths of God’s plan for the nature, purpose and dignity of married love. This was just one conference at a local parish. May there be many more initiatives such as this in the remainder of this anniversary and beyond.
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