What has been summarized as his most profound theological contribution, Theology of the Body, John Paul II labeled the entire work a “rereading of Humanae Vitae.”
Two days after the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI remarked during his Wednesday audience that the encyclical had “clarified a fundamental chapter … in the field of marriage, family and morality.” “Still,” the pope added, “the Magisterium of the Church could and perhaps should return to this immense field with a fuller, more organic and more synthetic treatment.” 1 At the time, this comment must have left an indelible mark on the mind of a Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla. Once he became Pope John Paul II, there was no field of theology that he returned to more often than the teachings of Humanae Vitae. In fact, what has been summarized as his most profound theological contribution, Theology of the Body, John Paul II labeled the entire work a “rereading of Humanae Vitae.” 2 With the recent controversy surrounding the HHS mandate, it can be highly instructive to reexamine the encyclical in light of the teachings of, not only John Paul II, but the Magisterium as a whole since 1968.
A New Approach
With the advent of the “sexual revolution” and the prevalence of modern rationalism, there was one thing that became readily apparent. The Church could no longer depend on the old pedagogical style of the moral manuals to stem the cultural tide that was pushing for contraception. Although these manuals taught the objective truth, they often came across as legalistic and authoritarian. The Church was viewed as “out of touch” with modern times because the teachings in the classic moral manuals failed to resonate personally with the couples themselves. Because questions of sexual morality are always tied to “the content and quality of the subjective experience” of the couple, 3 the Church had to find a way to speak to couples in this situation.
In many ways, this is what makes Humanae Vitae so groundbreaking for those who have actually read it. The encyclical responds to modern rationalism by framing its moral pronouncement in largely personalist terms. This is the first major Magisterial document that took this approach. Given that Paul VI was reading Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility at the time he was writing Humanae Vitae, 4 we can see that the future John Paul II had a significant influence on Paul VI’s thought in this encyclical. Paul VI agreed that when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, the “personal order is the only proper plane for all debate on matters of sexual morality.” 5
In making moral judgments, personalist philosophy does not look first at either natural or divine law, but takes the truth about man as its starting point. Yet, it discusses the nature of the person by referring to subjective experience. In this way, it is understandable to modern rationalist thinking because it addresses ethical questions from “inside” of man. Because it is wedded to the objective truth about what man is, this truth does not differ from the divine or natural law. It is simply more accessible to man because it relates to his direct experience. 6
An example of this approach can be found in Love and Responsibility when Wojtyla examines the experience of sexual shame. Rather than looking at it from merely a psychological viewpoint, he examines it from a metaphysical viewpoint as well. Shame arises any time something, which by its very nature ought to remain private, becomes public. Since the existence of the person is an interior one that is revealed only to those whom the person freely chooses to reveal it, a person is shamed whenever his interior is exposed to the view of others. In the context of what we are speaking, persons feel shamed whenever their sexuality is regarded as an object of enjoyment for another. From the subjective experience of shame, we find that light is shed on two fundamental truths about man. 7
The first truth is that man is his own master (sui iuris), and thus belongs only to himself. This means that one person must not be an object of use for another. This is what Wojtyla referred to as the “personalistic norm.” The personalistic norm, in its negative formulation, says that a “person is a kind of good which does not admit use, and cannot be treated as an object of use, and, as such, the means to an end.” In its positive form, it states that a “person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” 8 The second truth is that man is incommunicable (alteri incommunicabilis). He cannot be given to another.
It is these two truths, however, that lead to a fundamental paradox. This paradox is captured in one of John Paul II’s favorite quotes from Gaudium et Spes. “(M)an, though he is the only creature on earth which God willed for his own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” 9
A person is sui iuris and alteri incommunicablis, yet, love somehow detaches from the person these two truths. The person who loves wants to surrender himself to the other, and so in loving, he renounces his autonomy and inalienability. This is referred to as the “law of the gift.” Man only finds meaning to his life when he gives himself away.10
The Ends of Marriage: An Explanation
As was briefly mentioned above, the Church traditionally relied on focusing upon the primary end of marriage being “procreation and education of children.” 11 To understand what is meant when one says that procreation is the primary end of marriage, it is necessary to make a few distinctions. First, there is the distinction between finis operantis and finis operis, or the intention, or end, of the agent, versus the end of the act itself. In making this distinction, we see that the Church is not saying that spouses marry for the sake of having children. Nor is she saying that every sexual act must have the intention of procreation. In both cases “end” is meant in the second sense, in that the primary end of marriage itself, and the marital act specifically, is procreation.
This leads to a second necessary distinction, which is: What is meant by the word primary? For most people who do not understand the Church’s teaching, they think that primary means that one thing is thought better than another. However, the Church means primary in two senses. First, because man has an animal nature, the end of sexual activity is “reproduction.” Secondly, because man has a rational nature, primary means that before engaging in the marital embrace, the spouses must be prepared to provide for the children begotten. This necessarily points to marriage, because it is both faithful and indissoluble, and primarily protects the children that are begotten. 12 So we can say that there is no contradiction in Humanae Vitae when Paul VI calls for “responsible parenthood,” 13 while maintaining that “each and every marital act must, of necessity, retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” 14
Although this understanding of the ends of marriage is assumed by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI placed much of the focus on the significance (or meaning) of the conjugal act, rather than on its end. He does this so as to evaluate the sexual act from the interior perspective of the person performing it. This distinction between the meaning of marriage, and the end of marriage, is necessary because it shows that marriage has a value all its own, rather than being just a source of procreation. Only by separating meaning and end can we see the link between procreation and marriage more clearly and deeply. 15
An Integral Vision of Man
Humanae Vitae calls conjugal love “fully human, a compound of sense and spirit…that leads husband and wife…together to attain their human fulfillment.” 16 Without much further explanation, Paul VI is rejecting the modern day version of anthropological dualism which attempts to separate the person from the body. This view of man makes it nearly impossible to accept the teachings of Humanae Vitae. For this reason, John Paul II thought this was one of the areas where a “fuller treatment” was necessary. Much of the teachings in the Theology of the Body are centered on building an “adequate anthropology” that provides an integral vision of man.
Man is a body person. This means that the body is not just something accidental, or a mere house for the soul. The body is not just part of the person, but instead is the person as expressed in the physical world. When the body is separated from the person conceptually, the consequence is that we extend the instrumentality of biological functions (such as thirst) to the spiritual acts (like love). The spiritual acts have meaning in themselves. Because some bodily actions have an inherent meaning, we must respect this in our behavior. 17
If the body is the way a person expresses himself, then in some way man must image God, who is a communion of persons pouring themselves out in an eternal exchange of self-giving love, in his body. John Paul II explains:
(T)he body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it. 18
In revealing something of the mystery of God, the body, in its sexual complementarity, has a spousal meaning. The spousal meaning of the body is the body’s “capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift.” 19 The body, then, has a language all its own in which it can speak the truth about who man is or can tell a lie. Those who practice contraception are lying with the language of the body.
Paul VI also recognized that there was a tension in modernity between the “domination of the forces of nature” 20 and the “mastery of self.” 21 The pope was completely realistic, in that he recognized that if abstinence were easy, this teaching would be readily accepted. However, because it is not, this sets up a great paradox in modern man. The paradox is that man treats himself as a god when it comes to technological manipulation and domination, and as a beast when it comes to controlling his urges and passions.
Yet, the pope is quick to point out all the personalist goods that flow from the virtue of self-mastery. This includes harmony in the home, generosity, and selflessness that permeates the whole of married life for the spouses. 22
This section of Humanae Vitae is one on which John Paul II spent a significant amount of time. He builds on what Paul VI says by recognizing that self-mastery should not be viewed merely as a means to enable one to abstain from sexual intercourse when it is necessary, but is an essential virtue for the true expression of love. It is only the man who truly owns himself that can make a true gift of himself. This virtue, in John Paul II’s eyes, is of great value to man because it enables him to make choices that are worthy of his personhood. 23
The Principle of Totality
With this foundation in place, we are now able to visit the two most controversial statements within the encyclical to explain them more fully. The first is that the Church “teaches that each and every marital act must, of necessity, retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”24 Although this was mentioned briefly above, it warrants further explanation since it relates to a common argument put forth for the licit use of contraception. This argument is mentioned directly by Paul VI when he asks in Section 3 whether the principle of totality might justify “acts causing sterility.” 25
Like much of the encyclical, it only alludes to the argument, and then leaves it to other magisterial work to respond to the argument. Simply stated, the principle of totality holds that under certain circumstances, it is morally permissible to sacrifice the good of a part for the sake of the whole. An example would be when person has his leg amputated so that he might survive, or when a person donates a kidney for the good of another person.
Many try to justify contraception by appealing to this principle in saying that a marriage is, in general, open to children, although each act of sexual intercourse need not be. They argue that if the marriage would be harmed in some way by having children, the good of procreation may be sacrificed for the total good of the marriage itself.
The problem with this argument is that it violates the principle that one may never perform an intrinsically evil act (such as contraception), so that good may come about. Also, the principle only applies to physical organisms (like organs), and not moral organisms (i.e., persons). In a physical organism, the parts are subordinate to the whole. In a moral organism, each part has a value independent of the whole. As we have shown, the conjugal act has a value, and it is not just as part of the whole that it gains its value. 26
The problem with appealing to the principle of totality is that it can lead to justifying nearly anything. For example, there is no reason why an act of infidelity, especially if it might “help” the marriage, would be wrong, as long as the totality of the marriage is faithful. 27
The application of the principle of totality also is related to the second controversial statement. It pertains to what has been called the “inseparability principle.” Specifically, the teaching states that there is an “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.” 28
The Inseparability Principle
As Paul VI mentioned in Humanae Vitae, some couples resort to contraception in order to avoid pregnancy for what they perceive are very good reasons. 29 They justify its use by saying that while contraception does frustrate the procreative aspect of the marital act, it still keeps the unitive aspect intact. They believe it may even facilitate the unitive aspect by removing the fear of possible pregnancy.
However, since the marital embrace is not just a biological act, but a spiritual one that is meant to show love, it must be viewed as more than just two people touching. It must be seen as a true communication between the spouses. Recall that the person by nature is incommunicable (the person cannot be given to another). This is symbolized by the limitations of the conjugal act in that it does not lead to a complete interpenetration of the persons. In this way, the act itself is incomplete despite the desire on the part of the spouses to give themselves fully. The greatest expression of this desire is to give the seed of themselves. Yet, love that is true and deep calls the lover and beloved to transcendence. This transcendence cannot be fully achieved outside of God, but the gift of the child is a symbol of it. In this way, the union of the spouses is based upon a sharing in the unique power of procreation. 30
If contracepted intercourse truly is unitive, then what is the sign of this union? In closing off the act to the power of procreation, the only thing that actually binds the spouses as persons is the sharing of the sensation. Love may still somehow be present in a contracepted act, but this is not conjugal love. Conjugal love is the love of the whole person (body and spirit), and is falsified if body and spirit are not doing the same thing. In truth, it expresses a rejection of the other. It is an offer to give and receive everything of the other person except his/her sexuality. This means contracepted intercourse is not true sexual intercourse. In essence, it not only separates procreation from sex, but sex from love. 31
Natural Family Planning and Limiting Family Size
Paul VI also devotes a whole section to the question of contraception and natural family planning (NFP). In laying out the principles, the encyclical is carefully worded. It speaks of “spacing children” rather than “limiting family size.” The Latin translation speaks of spacing children for “just reasons.” 32 The phrasing not only assumes that a couple intends to have children in their marriage, but that the parents should be guided by the virtue of justice when deciding whether to avoid pregnancy or not. They should be guided by the question as to whether it is just—either to God, ourselves, our children, or even society as a whole—for us to have another child. 33
Both contraception, and determining a woman’s fertility cycle, is an act of human reason. But only in the latter case is reason in accord with nature. Contraception, on the other hand, is “unnatural” then, not because it is something artificial, but because it works against nature. 34
Those who have read Humanae Vitae have commented upon its prophetic character. Paul VI predicted that as contraception continued to gain widespread acceptance, there would be a general lowering of moral standards, opening wide the way to marital infidelity; the young, and those who are so exposed to temptation would lose their incentive to keep the moral law; and man would forget the reverence due to woman, reducing her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires. 35 Given these signs of the times, it is important—now more than ever—to join Blessed John Paul II in “rereading” Human Vitae.
- Pope Paul VI, General Audience, July 31, 1968 (translated from Italian). ↩
- Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 18, 1984. ↩
- Pope John Paul II, General Audience, April 15, 1981. ↩
- Johnson, p32-33. ↩
- Wojtyla, p.18. ↩
- Crosby, p.195. ↩
- Wojtyla, pp.174-194. ↩
- Ibid, p.41. ↩
- GS, §24. ↩
- Wojtyla, p.126. ↩
- Casti Connubii §17. ↩
- Smith, p.52-53. ↩
- HV §10. ↩
- Ibid §11. ↩
- Von Hildebrand, p.71. ↩
- HV §9. ↩
- Von Hildebrand, p.52. ↩
- John Paul II, General Audience, Feb. 20,1980. ↩
- John Paul II, General Audience, Jan. 16, 1980. ↩
- HV §2. ↩
- HV §21. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- John Paul II, Reflections on Humanae Vitae, p.64. ↩
- HV §11. ↩
- HV §3. ↩
- Pius XII, “Speech to the Twenty-Sixth Congress of the Italian Association of Urology.” ↩
- Smith, p.93. ↩
- HV §12. ↩
- HV §10. ↩
- Quay, p.33-35. ↩
- Burke, p.154-166. ↩
- Smith, p.120. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid, p. 121. ↩
- HV §17. ↩