Friday, May 2, 2014

A Prophetic Work of Genius

The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.

The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings.

The changes that have taken place are of considerable importance and varied in nature. In the first place there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequence that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships. This can easily induce public authorities to be tempted to take even harsher measures to avert this danger.

There is also the fact that not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family.

Also noteworthy is a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, of the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love.

But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man's stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.

This new state of things gives rise to new questions. Granted the conditions of life today and taking into account the relevance of married love to the harmony and mutual fidelity of husband and wife, would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is felt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort?

Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1-3

Reflection – Pope Francis has recently drawn new attention to the 1968 encyclical that clarified and confirmed the Church’s unchanging teaching on contraceptive methods of family planning. In a recentinterview with an Italian newspaper, he called Pope Paul VI’s encyclical a work of “genius… prophetic,” said that his predecessor “had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural ‘brake,’ to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.”

Pope Francis went on to say that the question before us is not one of “changing doctrine, but of going into the depths.” In the service of going into those depths, I thought it might be helpful, especially in light of the upcoming Synod on the Family, to actually read the encyclical together (it is an encyclical that many have strong feelings about, but few have actually, you know, read). I don’t intend to reproduce the whole thing sequentially on the blog—we’re not going to be all birth control, all the time for the next weeks, but a little bit here, a little bit there, until we get through it. It’s not that long, actually.

Besides, I haven’t had nearly enough hate mail in my Inbox lately, so clearly I must be slipping. (That’s a joke, folks. Don’t e-mail me unless you include a cute picture of a puppy dog.)

We see in these first paragraphs the problem being elucidated with great clarity and insight. The transmission of human life has always been a matter of grave importance, both a joy and a great challenge for married couples. It is the pre-eminent way in which human beings co-create with God—no creative work can compare with the co-operation of a man and a woman in bringing forth into the world a human being, made in God’s image and likeness, beloved and desired by God from all eternity, made to share in the divine nature by grace. It is clear that there are few matters more bound up with human thriving and meaning and richness of life than the question of marriage and children and family.

And yet… we know it is no small thing, no easy task, and never has been. And our modern age (if 1968 still counts as ‘modern’ today) has introduced new difficulties and new possibilities, which the Pope outlines very neatly here. And so these first paragraphs lay out the question – is it time to change the Church’s teaching? As long as people are essentially willing to have children in marriage, can they not at least temporarily make themselves sterile in the interest of rational family planning? Is this not commensurate with human dignity and our rational participation in the task of co-creation with God? 

This is the question, the problem, that was before the Church then (and now), and we will leave it there for today. Tune in tomorrow for the next thrilling installment of… Humanae Vitae: The Blog Series.


  1. Now, I do realize, folks, that not everyone reading this blog precisely agrees with the Church on this teaching. So, I serve notice here that, while I will try to respond to arguments offered in the comments, (my time and other commitments allowing), I will not be responding to mere statements of "You're wrong! The Church is wrong!"

  2. The Church is not wrong. Virtually all Catholics eschew Humanae vitae, deeply closeted, self loathing, pseudo celibate, clericalist clergy aside.

    1. While I don't agree with you, Moe, about contraception, I do wonder about how the idea of the "sensus fidei" fits in here. ("All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth. The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals." - Catechism of the Catholic Church 91-92).

      The statistics do show that most (90-98%) Catholics do not accept the Church's position on contraception, but yet we also have the clear, unchanging, and received-from-Christ (at least implicitly) teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is a moral evil, something that cannot be allowed, even if people use it with good intentions.

      How can so many people be wrong about something very fundamental?

      And, on the other hand, how can the idea of the sensus fidei ever apply? When is there ever universal agreement on a doctrine right from all the bishops to the last of the faithful?

    2. Erin - God bless you! Well, here is a link about the sensus fidelium as understood by Pope Benedict:
      It is a term that has, in fact, been abused to mean 'doctrine/truth by public opinion poll', when in fact it is something much deeper and richer than that. I would say there are examples of the sensus fidei that are real and rich. Jesus is risen from the dead, for example. God is merciful and forgives the sins of his people. The Church is the Body of Christ in the world. These are not things defined by council or encyclical, but truths that are self-evident to those who possess the supernatural theological virtue of faith. It is a misapplication of the s.f. to apply it to only recently controverted matters of moral teaching that reflect more on the sexual, familial, and social pathologies of modernity than any 'movement of the Spirit'. In short, s.f. is a meaningful and important term, but is misapplied in these specfic matters - that is my understanding of the subject, anyhow.

    3. Thank you for the link, Father. It's helpful, but can you provide any more detailed resources on the meaning of sensus fidei?

  3. One day we might have to take a step backward as far as technology goes to sustain our livelihoods. People have and do too many things these days that have no value to the family. In the past a larger family sustained itself through work, chores, and multiple generations in the same household. We may have to get back to that one day to take care of our elderly and become more frugal with our resources. Large families had a function for each of it's members. I think Pope Paul VI had it right...amazing document really. Today it is a culture of death with people showing little restraint and commitment to the family. I hope that Pope Francis can accomplish much with the coming Family conference to help we Catholics and the other many denominations that watch our actions on this topic. Maybe we should trust God on this matter too and follow the commandments for a change. Thanks for this blog and your attention to it. MH is amazing and all I know about it is what I have goal is to visit one day.

    1. Thanks for you thoughtful and insightful comments. I believe you are on to something quite important here - it's much bigger than one specific teaching about one specific practice - there is a whole way of ordering life, family, and society that is deeply inter-connected with all this stuff. Actually, what we're trying to do at MH is very relevant to what you're writing here - hopefully you will be able to visit us some day!

  4. You may enjoy King Solomon on Meaning of Life as an added perspective to this article.

    Regards and good willl blogging


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