Humanae Vitae: Another Approach

In his interview in early March, Pope Francis was asked about Humanae Vitae and supported its teaching as I indicated in my previous blog. Here I would like to focus just on a few words of his response as follows: “The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth. . .”

Blessed John Paul II did that quite extensively in his series of 129 lectures (1979 to 1984) known as the papal Theology of the Body, but they are not easy reading. Ten years later in an effort to reach out to ordinary people, he wrote his Letter to Families from Pope Paul II, and of special relevance to Humanae Vitae he wrote:

“In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. The logic of the total gift of self to the other involves a potential openness to procreation: in this way the marriage is called to even greater fulfillment as a family (n.12, Feb 2 1994, italics in original).

“…called to confirm the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant.” I was thrilled to see those words the first time I read them because they seem to be saying in different words something that I have been saying since 1967: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant.” Let’s call that expression the “covenant theology” even though it would be more accurate to call it a “renewal-of-the-marriage-covenant” theology.

Perhaps one of the problems with the transmission of the biblically-based teaching of the Catholic Church on love, marriage and sexuality—including birth control—is that these teachings are sometimes seen as separate entities and not as reflecting a basic truth about the meaning of sexual intercourse. Perhaps the covenant theology can be helpful in this regard.

First of all, if, in God’s plan, sexual union ought to be a renewal of the marriage covenant, then it is easy to see the immorality of bestiality, adultery, fornication, incest, solitary masturbation, and sodomy. Obviously, none of these are a renewal of the marriage covenant. Sexual union has a God-intended meaning:  it ought to be exclusively a marriage act.

Within marriage, sexual union ought to be a true marriage act. It ought to renew the faith and love and permanent commitment of the couple’s original marriage covenant, for better and for worse. No, couples do not have to have all of this on their mind as they approach the marriage bed; that’s the meaning of the phrase “at least implicitly” in the covenant theology statement above. But notice what the body language of contraception says (and this includes contraceptive behaviors such as mutual masturbation and marital sodomy). The contraceptive marital embrace says, “We take each other for better but definitely and positively NOT for the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.”

Thus contraception does not renew but instead contradicts the marriage covenant. It is dishonest. And that, in my opinion, is what makes it immoral.

I do not claim that internalizing this concept of the marriage act somehow automatically makes periodic abstinence easy. On the other hand, when a person sees the intrinsic covenantal meaning of the marriage act, Catholic teaching about the moral wrongness of marital contraception may become easier to accept and understand. This was the experience of Kimberly and Scott Hahn when they were still Protestants, and they are certainly not unique.

Coming next: What God has put together…

John F. Kippley
http://www.nfpandmore.org where Sheila blogs every week.

 

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Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II re Humanae Vitae

In an interview commemorating the first anniversary of his election as the Bishop of Rome on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis made some wide ranging comments.  Of special interest are his comments on Humanae Vitae. 

“It all depends on how the text of Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended that confessors show great kindness and attention to specific situations.

“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”

It is not impossible that for some the mention of “people’s situations” will raise the ghost of situation ethics.  In that vein, I am reminded of a long sentence in which Karl Rahner wrote as follows:

“If we Christians, when faced with a moral decision, really realized that the world is under the Cross on which God himself hung nailed and pierced, that obedience to God’s law can also entail man’s death…..”  [and several more conditional clauses],

“then there would be fewer confessors and spiritual advisors who, for fear of telling their penitent how strict is God’s law, fail in their duty and tell him instead to follow his conscience, as if he had not asked, and done right to ask, which among all the many voices clamoring within him was the true voice of God, as if it were not for God’s Church to try and distinguish it in accordance with His law, as if the true conscience could speak even when it had not been informed by God and the faith which come from hearing.”  (Nature and Grace, 1964 edition.  The complete quotation is in Sex and the Marriage Covenant, Ignatius, 2005, p.205.)

Speaking about exceptions to the moral law, Pope John Paul had much to say about the doctrine of marital non-contraception affirmed in Humanae Vitae, and many of his comments are in Sex and the Marriage Covenant, Chapter 7 “Forming a Correct Conscience.”  A summary is found on page 148 as follows:

  • “to hold out for exceptions as if God’s grace were not sufficient is a form of atheism [September 17, 1983];
  • denying the doctrine of marital non-contraception is “equivalent to denying the Catholic concept of revelation” [April 10, 1986];
  • it is a teaching whose truth is beyond discussion [June 5, 1987];
  • it is a “teaching which belongs to the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine” and “a truth which cannot be questioned” [March 14, 1988];
  • it is a teaching which is intrinsic to our human nature and that calling it into question “is equivalent to refusing God himself the obedience of our intelligence’ [November 12, 1988] and finally,
  • “what is being questioned by rejecting that teaching . . . is the very idea of the holiness of God” [November 12, 1988].

I can understand the emphasis on mercy when a confessor is dealing with persons and couples whose sexual behaviors have become compulsive and who thus may lack the psychological freedom necessary either for serious sin or for acts of love.  Such acts are the subject of moral pathology.  However, I have yet to see dissenters making the case against Humanae Vitae in terms of almost uncontrollable compulsion.

There is no contradiction between the writing of Pope John Paul II and the comments of Pope Francis, just a difference in emphasis.  Perhaps the promotion of mercy will bring about increased concern for the meaning of the marriage act that Pope John Paul II strove so hard and for so long to enkindle.

John F. Kippley, also at www.nfpandmore.org, March 10, 2014