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Monday, May 21, 2018

Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, Part 1

This may be the most important papal encyclical of our time.  On July 25th it will mark the 50th anniversary of its publication.  This was selected as a short read in our Catholic Thought Book Club on Goodreads.  You can find the encyclical on the internet for free, here, and it’s only about fifteen pages.  You can read this in an hour.  The following are my thoughts followed by an energetic discussion which I’ll post a few excerpts.

Let me start the discussion on Humanae Vitae, in pointing out the context of the encyclical and the central question to be discussed.  These turn out to be paragraphs two and three. 

The Holy Father points out three contemporary issues that has caused the need for this Papal Encyclical, which is subtitled, “on the Regulation of Birth.”  Let’s recall that the encyclical is dated 25 July 1968, and this is in the upheaval of many post World War II revolutions.  There is the huge population spurt across the world, the social revolution of women entering the work force, and sexual revolution mostly caused by the easy access and mostly reliable devices for contraception. 

I found the Holy Father’s phrasing of women’s new choices in society to be very compassionate: “a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society.”  That’s actually quite sensitive and respectful to a woman having choices when such choices were socially denied. 

However, in paragraph two, Pope Paul VI lays out some social forces that are at countervailing odds.  On the one hand, there is the escalating population, the economic pressures that come, the freedom that women to shape their lives against a new mentality that in control of one’s life controls the very nature of God’s will.  That third subparagraph of paragraph two is well worth quoting:

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.

What Pope Paul VI finds most disturbing is the control of life over the transmission of life. 

The third paragraph I think crystalizes the central thesis.  The first subparagraph justifies a review of the moral norms of married life, and we will see that in the next series of paragraphs.  But the second subparagraph is where the central thesis resides, and I think worth quoting in entirety:

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.

First, I’ve never heard of the “principle of totality.”  So I looked it up.  It ultimately comes from Thomas Aquinas and natural law, but brought to contemporary society by Pope Pius XII in a 1952 address:  

On September 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII gave an address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System. On that occasion, the Holy Father discussed the Principle of Totality at length and in the contrasting terms spelled out in this question. The principle itself is the general notion that, since parts are ordered for the good of the whole, they may be disposed of, if necessary, for the good of the whole. The application to a human person is that “parts” (i.e., organs, digits, etc.) may be mutilated, severed, removed, or otherwise debilitated if, by so doing, one benefits the person.

But more specific to the issue at hand can be summarized by this definition from ethics:  

The principle of totality states that all decisions in medical ethics must prioritize the good of the entire person, including physical, psychological and spiritual factors. This principle derives from the works of the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the philosophy of Aristotle with the theology of the Catholic Church. The principle of totality is used as an ethical guideline by Catholic healthcare institutions.

So what Pope Paul VI is asking in paragraph 3.2 is whether this control of life, while it may address the issues of the need for control, may in the end be more harmful to the totality of the individual and married couple.  In looking at the totality of the human experience, is that control more harmful than good?


Irene responded:
It would seem to me that most Catholic couples have decided that controlling the number of pregnancies does more good for their experience and for the health of the mother, than harm. I am not married, so I am not speaking from experience. And I am not trying to argue for or against papal teaching. I am only trying to answer Manny's question. From listening to people and watching contemporary family life in the developed world, it seems that the principle of totality would have most couples saying that the benefit to the whole is greater when pregnancies can be planned. Women in abusive relationships have more freedom to find safety for themselves and any children they already have if they are not pregnant or fearing pregnancy. Couples can better provide financially and emotionally for children if they do not have more than they can care for. Many women have died in child birth leaving older children motherless because they could not prevent medically inadvisable pregnancies. Although abstanence could limit pregnancies, we know that the sexual act bonds two people. To prevent couples from a mutually affectionate sex life can weaken the emotional bond of the marriage. For all of these reasons and more, even though the average Catholic has never heard of this principle, many have made the decision that the greater good for the whole is the use of birth control.

My Response:
Not my question, Irene. Pope Paul VI's question. And what I think his argument will be (I have not read it all yet) is that when one considers the totality of the individual and marriage, it will not be beneficial. Do the near term positives, as you outline, outweigh the long term harm he sees as a result of the control? That is a true test. Well we know his answer. I'm anxious to read what he sees as the long term harm. I haven't gotten there yet.

Yes, the majority of Catholics apparently have determined that birth control (and to my shock abortion) is the greater good. But that doesn't mean it's correct. After all Christ Himself says that divorce is unacceptable. And yet I think most Catholics have determined that's not part of the greater good either. Just because the majority of Catholics make the decision they do doesn't mean it's not as a result of a fallen world, and therefore a sin. And doesn't the Church determine it's a mortal sin to use birth control?

Irene’s response:
Yes, the Church does prohibit the use of artificial birth control. that is why I prefaced my answer with the disclaimer that I was not arguing against Church teaching. I was only trying to answer thee question from an experiential stand point. The Church will bring into their perspective some things that are less easily perceived by the average person. So, as I tried to post, this is how the average lay couple would see the benefits or harm to the total organism, the woman or the couple or the family playing out.Not married, I have no skin in this game. And, I certainly would not advocate for disobeying Church teaching. I realize that my little perspective is too limited to think I know better than the Church. But, if asked my personal opinion, I am not sure we won't see this reversed at some point.

My Response:
Yes, I agree, that is the calculation the average lay couple makes, but that's contingent on whether they are conscious of Church teaching. I went most of my life not knowing about the restriction to contraception. I had no idea until I became devout and started learning as much as I could.

Kerstin’s Reply:
Yes, I agree, that is the calculation the average lay couple makes, but that's contingent on whether they are conscious of Church teaching. I went most of my life not knowing about the restriction to contraception. I had no idea until I became devout and started learning as much as I could.

Irene’s Response:
I am not sure I would attribute artificial birth control as the cause for increased divorce rates, same sex marriage, the growing acceptance of LGTB rights, and the declining awareness of or fidelity to God in society. I think there are many factors. We harnessed the power of the atom to wipe out entire populations, developed the technology to understand and manipulate genes to cure serious birth defects, empowered women in professional and economic realms, sent probes to the edge of our solar system and seen the pictures of distant planets. Although the availability of artificial birth control certainly offered married women greater freedom to pursue lives outside the home and allowed people to engage in sec without the fear of pregnancy, I do not think it alone brought about all the changes we currently observe.

My Response:
Irene, granted we're dealing with a complexity of phenomena, so there's no one thing that's a causal link, but the notion of recreational sex which resulted from contraception certainly can be linked to higher divorce rates. The whole sense that sex is a means to personal satisfaction and not procreation alters the outlook. If a spouse no longer provides that satisfaction - either they are no longer desirable or has become routine - then the rationale for someone else becomes justified. There has been many a "mid-life" crises that has resulted in divorce.

As to homosexual issues, that understanding too was altered as a result of the sexual revolution which stemmed from contraception. If sex is no longer primarily for procreation but now for personal satisfaction, then the notion of homosexuality is no longer that of a perversity - which is how it was characterized when I was young - but just a variation on how one achieves that satisfaction. It wasn't contraception per se that altered our understanding, but because of contraception we looked at sex differently. There was a middle step in the causal chain.

I’m going to end it there.  There were lots of good comments but I think I captured all sides without repetition.  Stay tuned for more posts on this.

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