Reflections on Humanae Vitae
by Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin
Cardinal Desmond Connell, Archbishop of Dublin - Reflections on Humanae Vitae
This is a slightly revised text of a paper read to the joint meeting of the University Pro-Life Society and the John Paul 1I Theological Society held at St Patrick's College, Maynooth on 2nd March, 1999, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
With reference to King Henry VIII, St Thomas More addressed the following remarks to Thomas Cromwell: 'If you will follow my poor advice, you shall in your counsel-giving unto his grace, ever tell him what he ought to do but never what he is able to do ... for if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.' Cromwell neglected this sound advice, and, after he had served as the lion's sharpest claw, the lion discovered that it was hurting himself and tore it off without mercy.
The issue to which St Thomas refers is the relation between power and moral goodness. It is likewise the issue of our present culture, which scientific technology has equipped with unprecedented power. The lion now has many to tell him what he is able to do, but who is to advise him what he ought to do? In the 16th century the Church spoke with the voice of her martyr; today she speaks with the voice of her magisterium in Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae.
We hear that voice at the beginning of Humanae Vitae as Paul VI reflects on contemporary secular culture:
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 (HV, 2).
In these words, the Pope captures the vision of contemporary secularism, which envisages unqualified human domination over nature without any reference to God. Humanae Vitae succinctly expresses the radical opposition between this vision and the vision of right reason confirmed and enlarged by divine revelation. As the Pope declares (HV, 13), we are not absolute masters but related to God as creatures to their creator.
Moral limitations restraining the exercise of power are neither arbitrary - and thereby dispensable - nor oppressive of authentic personal freedom. They reflect the wisdom of God, who exercises his own creative power in truth and goodness and plans the welfare of his creatures in love.
All this brings me back nearly fifty years to my time as a student in Louvain, Belgium had suffered severely in the war. There had been great destruction as well as social divisions between resistance and collaborators. But by 1951, when I arrived, this was changing. The future looked bright, there was an air of optimism - especially because the war had produced outstanding advances in technology. It seemed that control of nature was now in our hands with unlimited prospects for future development. We need no longer be slaves of nature. Since reason is proper to the human person, should we not direct our future by taking the control that reason has placed in our hands instead of submitting to blind and irrational natural forces? Such was the view conveyed in sundry lectures and writings.
Of course, the problem of the destruction of the environment had not yet begun to emerge to qualify the optimism. Concerns about that problem began with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. With the fall of Communism in 1989, indeed, the threat of nuclear annihilation no longer appears to be imminent, even if existing weapons and leaky reactors still give grounds for concern. But other aspects of the destruction of the environment are calling for urgent action through international agreement. In spite of the efforts of farseeing people, governments are slow to awaken to the thickening clouds now clearly visible on the horizon.
An area of deeply personal significance where the outlook promoting control over nature manifested itself was the area of human sexuality. Why submit to the tyranny of biological determinism when our freedom could now take control and regulate sexuality through technology? This was the origin within the Catholic Church of the dispute about contraception and it was rendered acute with the manufacture of the first contraceptive pill in the 1960s.
One way in which this question was raised tended to oppose the biological and the personal, and to regard the biological as a set of impersonal processes to be dominated by rational choice. This tended to introduce an opposition between our biological life and our personal life and to reduce the body to a center of blind biological forces. Because we are persons, able to think things out for ourselves and to make our choices freely, we are under no obligation to subject ourselves to the automatic working of our bodies. We should exercise control over nature, and not submit to the tyranny it would otherwise impose upon us.
Certainly, as persons endowed with reason, we rise in our freedom above the blind compulsions of instinct. But that does not mean that we should treat our bodies as if they were purely impersonal objects, or that the way we treat them has nothing to do with what is due to our personal dignity.
The kind of division of which I am speaking fails to appreciate the unity of the human person. The body is not an extrinsic attachment to our personal being but an integral part of what we are, precisely as persons. It is the flesh and blood in which we grow and develop, express ourselves, relate to others, and eventually suffer and die. It shares to the full in the dignity we enjoy as persons. What is more personal than the smile of recognition on the face of a friend, the sound of a voice, the shrug of a shoulder?
The way one uses one's body makes one the kind of person one is: what is done to one's body is done to oneself because it is one's very self in its embodied reality. The reproductive function cannot be dismissed as a mere biological function precisely because the kind of new life it tends to produce is the life of a person generated through the union of persons. Any attempt to develop a purely personalistic morality independent of biological considerations fails to respect the unity of the human person and disturbs the balance of the moral judgment.
The Pope pronounced against contraception and this has been regarded as the cause of the alienation of many lay people from the Church. But, as with the problem of the environment, the difficulties associated with contraception took time to emerge. Little enough time was needed to show that the new attitude towards sexuality implied the kind of control over this basic dimension of human existence that could justify every kind of permissiveness.
However, there is a far deeper problem that is as yet hardly discussed. We all know what is meant by the unwanted child, but we do not perhaps sufficiently appreciate what may be meant by the child that is wanted. The wanted child is often the child that is technologically planned; the child so produced by the decision of the parents begins to look more and more like a technological product. This is already clear in the case of in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, genetic engineering, cloning; but it may not be altogether absent in the practice of family planning.
A profound alteration in the relationship between parent and child may result when the child is no longer welcomed as a gift but produced as it were to order. Parental attitudes could thereby be affected, creating a sense of consumer ownership as well as a new anxiety to win and retain the child's affection. This is in no way to deny the emotional love between such parents and their child. Yet, the child no longer belongs to the family in a fully personal sense, if it is radically a product rather than a person. So much of parental ambition has been invested in the one or two children that a properly personal relationship may become problematic.
This attitude of parents would convey itself unconsciously to the child, who would experience resentment against a parentage based on power and contribute a new dimension to the kind of teenage revolt we know so well. No child can be happy as a product: the child will find no meaning in a life produced by technology. Here we would have a new source of the decline in religious faith in our teenage population. Already they know that their parents dissent from the teaching of the Church: why then should they not do the same in the ways that suit their convenience? But far deeper than this would be the resentment against a technological world that would tend to reduce them to the indignity of products and derive its meaning from power rather than from gift. This would become all the more acute if they find that the brave new world of prosperity leaves them without hope of participation.
Control over the forces of nature is, of course, the mainspring of the progress of civilization. But if it is exercised without due moral constraint it tends towards destruction: destruction of the environment through stimulation of the consumer appetite, destruction of the social world of interpersonal relations through hedonistic incitement. Disregard for the reverence due to nature entangles in new forms of slavery the freedom that believed it was emancipating itself.
The further we advance in the pursuit of control and domination, the greater is the risk of forgetting what lies beyond our control - the innate integrity of all that we manipulate and exploit, including even ourselves. That original integrity is what calls for respect and reverence, precisely because it is the dignity conferred by the act of Divine Creation. To the extent that we drift away from that attitude of reverence we trivialize our attitude towards nature as well as our relations with one another. This is to live at a superficial level, that is, on a surface that conceals the depth that sustains it. Our vision becomes two-dimensional. But cracks will appear on the surface, and the forgotten depth may then reappear as a threatening abyss with which we have no means of coping. A few examples will make this clear: marriage breakdown, the loss of a child through illness and death, the fear that life is losing its meaning, frustrated ambitions, hasty decisions leaving a legacy that cannot be canceled, the discovery that we are not after all in control of the future.
Needless to say, all this may sound like gross exaggeration and a plausible case can be argued in favor of contraception. In a review of the book accompanying Edward Stourton's recent television presentation, Absolute Truth, (BBC Television), Myles McWeeney had the following to say: 'A change in the ruling on contraception would bring millions of Catholics back into full communion with the Church, and destroy with one stroke the principal source of the gap between teaching and practice that has had such a corrosive impact on the Church's place in the daily lives of modern Catholics. It would also restore the Church's authority in the arena of sexual ethics and personal morality, something for which the need and the demand have become ever more urgent as the bewildering choices offered to us by modern science multiply.'
This quotation attempts to describe the Catholic Church's predicament arising out of the teaching on contraception. It is true that many Catholics dissent from this teaching and live at odds with Church authority. It is also true that dissent on an issue that is regarded as important gives rise to a dissenting mentality that may easily spread beyond that particular issue alone.
Dissent with regard to contraception lay at the origin of what has come to be known as a la carte Catholicism. It is true, finally, that a widespread assumption that the condemnation of contraception is unreasonable has undermined confidence in the Church's teaching about sexual morality in general. And so we are told that, if only the Church would admit that it was wrong about contraception, people would find it easier to accept its authority on a wide range of issues concerning sexual morality about which they now feel unsure.
Put in this way, which at first sight appears very reasonable, it seems that wrong-headed stubbornness on the part of Church authority is causing immeasurable harm to the Church as the People of God.
A question that has to be answered, however, is whether contraception is right or wrong. Where does the truth lie? It has not been an easy question to answer. Husband and wife may have entirely commendable reasons for wanting to avoid conception, and they find it hard to see why they should not take steps to prevent it. It is, after all, the normal intimacy of married life that creates the very possibility they feel they have to avoid. And yet the question of truth should not be ignored. Nor can that question be answered simply by listing the advantages that would seem to follow, if a decision were made in favor of contraception. That would be to make it a matter of expediency rather than truth. Whatever the advantages on offer, it cannot be right to ignore or deny the truth. In presenting his teaching in Humanae Vitae, the Pope was doing much more than making a law to be observed in the Church: he was presenting the truth about contraception. The fundamental importance of discerning and living according to truth is the basic message of what many regard as Pope John Paul II's greatest encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.
But one can even ask whether some of these advantages are as real as they are made to seem. Is it in fact the case that approval of contraception would restore confidence in the Church's authority in the area of sexual morality? How, for example, does the answer we give to the question about contraception affect the rest of sexual morality? That is the question I asked myself as we were waiting for the decision that came when Humanae Vitae was published. It seemed to me then, and the experience of the last thirty years has provided abundant evidence, that the issue of contraception is the linchpin of the whole of sexual morality. The first contraceptive pill had appeared just a few years before. It made contraception simple and safe, and did away for all practical purposes with the difference between normal intercourse during the female infertile period and contraceptive intercourse. But - and this was precisely its purpose - it broke the bond between intercourse and procreation.
That bond is evident in the very form, anatomical and physiological, of our sexual bodily constitution at the basis of the instinctual, emotive, and rational desire not just for sexual intercourse but for the generation of children. It is not, after all, by accident or miracle that children are conceived through sexual intercourse. Between sexual intercourse and procreation there exists an objective bond. This bond with procreation situates sexual relations within a whole order of meaning, which includes the nature of love as an interpersonal mutual gift of self, the complementarity between male and female, the institutions of marriage and family.
Contraception violates that bond, and thereby undermines the world of meaning associated with procreation, by introducing direct opposition between intercourse and procreation. Declaring that this is morally right involves claiming that sexual intercourse is a good so independent of procreation that it is right to have intercourse whilst taking steps to prevent procreation. To give moral approval to this self-sufficiency of sexual intercourse is to withdraw the linchpin from all sexual morality. For if sexual intercourse is a moral good exclusively in itself, there is no reason to disapprove of fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, all of which are explicitly condemned in Sacred Scripture.
Approval of contraception logically extends the blessing of moral approval to the sexual revolution, which has resulted in the chaos of broken families, cohabitation, promiscuity, uncertainty about the limits that define the nature of the family. It has helped to shape a society of widespread divorce, and encouraged such resentment against new life in the womb as to create blindness to the injustice of abortion. Addiction to sex as an absolute good in itself prompts the kind of fascination that flirts with pornography and, at times, even takes the plunge that defiles the minds of the reading and viewing public through the communications and entertainment media. Clouded in a turbulent fog of invasive emotion, they become blind to spiritual reality, and, accepting a degraded dignity as normal, they lose their affinity with the things of God. The currency of the language of love is devalued and placed on a par with the language of lust.
Contrary to the claim of certain kinds of feminism, women above all are dishonored. By its resentment towards motherhood, the contraceptive culture drastically reduces what is distinctively feminine in the relation between the sexes; and women, precisely in their feminine difference, are thereby denied, or even willingly surrender, their proper claim to respect and equality as persons. Before the sexual revolution, a man normally respected a woman, if only because of the danger into which intercourse could lead her. We only have to compare the figures for out-of-marriage births in the past with the escalating figures at present. Contraception has deprived women of a fundamental protection for their feminine personal dignity. They are expected to be readily available, and, if they conceive, the blame for their misfortune is attributed to them: it is their own fault for not protecting themselves, and they can take the consequences. These are the circumstances that often create the pressure for abortion. The sexual freedom in which some women are tempted to take pride is but a radical form of oppression and a denial of their personal integrity.
The teaching of the Church challenges the secularist mentality by asserting that we are not the ultimate arbiters of the difference between good and evil. Because we are dealing here with a human capacity in which the creative power of God is directly involved - the capacity to give life to a human person - it is essential to include God in any determination of right and wrong in the context of sexuality. The mystery of the origin of human personal existence has its deepest roots in the love which constitutes the very mystery of God himself.
Holy scripture tells us that 'God is love'. This is no poetic exaggeration intended merely to convey that the way God loves is free from the ups and downs of love as we ourselves experience it. It is literally true: God is love. Of course, we find this hard to grasp.
None of us would ever say 'I am love' but rather that love is one of the ways, even the most important way, in which we express the life we live. Does this mean that we can do things that God is unable to do? Not at all. But in God love is an absolute fullness of boundless life from which nothing of value is missing. In thinking of our own poor efforts to love we find pale reflections of the wonder of love divine.
Love of its very nature is fruitful. This is because the lover makes the gift of himself or herself to the one who is loved and because that gift is itself a source of life to the extent that the gift is wholehearted. In God, the Father gives all that he is to his Son and the Father and Son pour out all that they are in the Holy Spirit, the gift of their love. The Holy Spirit is the very gift of love eternally possessing the heart of God.
And so, we are given the command to be fruitful in the opening chapter of the Bible: 'So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it"' (Gen 1:27)
This command to be fruitful manifests the purpose God had in mind when he made us male and female. For the difference between male and female gives love between a man and a woman the power to bestow the gift of new life as the fruit of their sexual union. All that God creates is good (Gen 1:1) because it proceeds from his love. In making good use of the gifts with which he endows his creatures, they reflect ever more fully the image of his goodness and love. In the words of the New Testament 'God is love'. In him love is eternally fruitful.
We are made in the image of God and that image is reflected in the capacity of sexual union to bring new life into the world. To speak of male and female is to speak of a dynamic pattern implanted by God in the bodily constitution of our personal being. This pattern is not the mere outcome of blind evolutionary forces to which we may attach whatever meaning we choose; it is a God-given orderliness in the material dimensions of our free and intelligent being. The expression of human sexual love is embodied in flesh; the flesh of the man and the woman is the living reality in which the expression of their love is achieved. But though rich with desire and emotion, it is to be a truly personal expression of love guided by reason and freedom. This guidance situates sexual activity within the structures of marriage and family for the good of husband and wife, of their children, of the whole of human society. For by its very fruitfulness, human sexual love has profound implications for the common social good. It is because union in married love has its meaning from God's act of creation, and does not have to await its meaning from human initiative, that it could be raised to the dignity of a sacrament as an enduring sign of the mystery of Christ's union with the Church. In this way, marriage is revealed in the full splendor of God's design as a source of sharing in the very life of God himself.
The full expression of married union signifies a unique degree of completeness in the manner in which each of the spouses belongs to the other - a mutual total gift from the one to the other. This giving of the one to the other is the heart of the love by which they reflect the image of God. It was in giving all that he had - even his only Son - that God revealed his love to the world. The vocation to love in marriage is a call to a harmony of life that can only be reached through readiness on the part of each to pursue the other's welfare even at personal cost to oneself.
The capacity of full sexual union to bring new life into the world is a source of deepest joy to parents. The common task of husband and wife in the upbringing and education of their children is accomplished especially through the growth of a special form of human companionship distinctive of family intimacy. This is what we mean and reverence when we speak about home. For it is there, in the privacy of the family circle, if we are fortunate in the quality of our family life, that we learn the meaning of love, of generosity, of mutual respect, and develop a healthy sense of identity, understanding of the value of tradition and confident rootedness in the world. There too the great treasure of religious faith raises the heart to God in prayer and extends our horizon beyond the confines of what the world on its own has to offer. This teaches the deepest sense of personal identity, assuring us about who we are, where we have come from, whereto in the end we may hope to be heading. No wonder the family has been called the domestic Church, the place where we grow in the knowledge and the love of God. Nor should we wonder at the Church's concern about widespread weakening of family life and its destabilizing influence on personal, social and religious life.
The family of parents and children is insufficient on its own to provide for the material and spiritual needs of its members. This insufficiency is overcome by sharing in the life of more-inclusive communities of various kinds, through a wide network of social relations, all directed toward the common good of their members. But, however much the family receives in this way, its own contribution to the social good is unique and irreplaceable, if only because the future of the whole of society depends upon the renewal assured by the coming of children into the world. A society deficient in the quality of family life is to that extent on the way to decline.
Human society is rendered possible and can take the various forms with which we are familiar because we belong, not just to ourselves, but to one another as well. Each child comes into the world with a uniquely personal identity and dignity - foreseen, chosen and loved from all eternity by God - but none is unrelated to others. They share most intimately in the flesh in which their parents united and brought them into the world, but this same human flesh is likewise common to every member of our race and lays the foundation of a community in which everyone shares. Brought into being in that common flesh, we share in an all-inclusive family likeness, and this has implications for a moral duty of care and respect for all. In this way the unity of the human race proceeds from the fruitfulness of sexual intimacy. Were that fruitfulness ever to dry up, we should be a people without hope of children, a people without a future.
The fruitfulness of sexual intercourse, then, is central to the design of God's love not just for the welfare of the spouses themselves but for the welfare of their children and of the whole of society as well. It is in the light of the vision I have been trying to sketch that the Church addresses the question of the morality of contraception.
Contraception is any procedure adopted in order to prevent sexual intercourse giving rise to conception. It is not simply a matter of avoiding conception but of taking steps to suppress it. There may be commendable reasons for wanting to avoid conception. In that case spouses may express and foster their mutual love in sexual intercourse during the time when conception does not occur whilst abstaining from intercourse when conception is possible. There is here no manipulation aimed at suppressing conception. People who have no difficulty understanding the difference between avoiding taxation by making use of the opportunity provided by the law, and evading it by suppressing information required by the law sometimes claim that they see no difference between avoiding conception by abstaining from sexual intercourse when conception is possible and evading it by contraception. Avoiding conception differs fundamentally from contraception.
In using contraception the couple desire all that all sexual intercourse involves, but, drawing the line at the generation of new life, they take steps to prevent that happening. The steps they take are directly aimed at breaking the bond between intercourse and conception. What they seek to prevent is not something of minor importance. The gift of new life towards which that intimacy tends as its proper fulfillment has a dignity deserving profound respect. We cannot give moral approval to contraception unless we are ready to claim that the generation of new life is merely a byproduct, an optional extra, instead of a fulfillment that properly pertains to sexual intercourse. From these alternative interpretations - optional extra or proper fulfillment - follow two radically different ways of understanding human sexuality. That is why the issue of the morality of contraception obliges us to choose between Catholic teaching on the virtue of chastity and the sexual permissiveness so widely promoted today.
That the generation of new life is a fulfillment that properly pertains to sexual intercourse is clear from what I have said already about God's creative design. He made human persons in his image as male and female so that the complete expression of their mutual love might, like divine love itself, be fruitful. Pope John Paul II has explored the teaching of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae with new and deeply illuminating insights. To enter into the enjoyment of complete sexual union whilst deliberately obstructing conception involves disrespect towards God as the Author of Life, who made us likewise authors of life in his image through the love expressed in sexual intercourse. That disrespect towards God involves the couple in disrespect towards one another by introducing insincerity into their mutual love. Contraception impedes their acceptance of one another in all that they are as male and female, even though such acceptance is the keynote of the love expressed in sexual intercourse.
Catholic teaching on chastity has to do with the reverence and respect we should have for ourselves and in our relations with others. By this virtue we exercise control over the impulses and emotional pressures that move us to behave in ways that offend against our dignity as sexual persons. It is the safeguard of authentic love, allowing it to develop and flourish in full harmony with the rich endowment of our personal identity as women or men. In that way it promotes the integration into our development of all that derives from the sexual dimension of our personal being.
There is a way of behaving that may be confused with love. It consists in pursuing one's own fulfillment without genuine regard for the welfare of the person one says that one loves. In this case the other person is little more than a means of achieving one's own satisfaction. Preoccupation with one's own desires renders one blind to the personal worth of the other so that the other is not valued for his or for her own sake but rather resented when one's own comfort is challenged. The gift of oneself, which is the tribute love offers to the one who is really loved, calls for patience, understanding and sacrifice of even legitimate interests. All that makes no sense to a selfish person and is simply resented as an unreasonable demand. The ardor of this kind of love, which feeds on the pleasure the other provides, dies down into boredom as one gets used to a stimulation that provides no lasting fulfillment. True love begins with admiration for the worth of the person loved and leads to the offer of the sincere gift of oneself. The first kind of love is wholly self-centered and for this no training or effort is needed: it leads to disillusionment instead of fulfillment. True love has need of a generous spirit, ready to accept the ups and downs through which it will be tested in the fragile reality of human companionship. The words of our Lord reveal the paradox of love: if we set out to keep our life we shall lose it. It is by losing our life that we find it.
The true source of the difficulty presented by the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not to be found at the level of the reasons offered for the teaching itself but at the deeper human level of the authenticity of love. This is the message of the Cross. There the totality of the gift of self is revealed as the heart of love and from that heart flows the water of life. Closeness to the heart of Christ is alone able to create what the Venerable John Henry Newman calls a real assent to the teaching and to provide the strength we need in order to respond to the challenge of love. That is why Humanae Vitae stands out as a distinctively Christian document and will continue to be a sign of contradiction, testing the faith even of many who want to believe.
St. Thomas More accepted death rather than subject his conscience to a power that found itself able to do what he believed it ought not to have done. Today the Church faces an identical challenge. The pastors, charged with bearing witness to the truth she proclaims are not, indeed, threatened with death but with ridicule, dissent and betrayal. The lion has discovered his power and hard is it for any man to rule him.
This document has been published by Humanae Vitae House, Braemar, AB35 5YT, Scotland.
Theotokos Catholic Books - Catholic Articles Section - www.theotokos.org.uk