Humanae Vitae and the New Evangelization

This year sees the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Over the years, the encyclical has received quite a mixed response across the Church. Even now, we still have theologians, bishops, and others suggesting that the conscience of the individual should be able to over-ride the moral norm that sexual intercourse, which is deliberately contraceptive, is always intrinsically wrong.

Why has the encyclical been received so badly? It is well-known, of course, that Pope Saint John Paul II highlighted the need for further work on its personal and anthropological underpinnings. Pope Paul VI had, in large part, concentrated on stating the moral norms. A good deal of further work has now happened on the foundations of the encyclical, however, and yet, it is still the case that a large proportion of Catholics fail to accept its teaching. It is as if a secular mindset still shapes the reactions of many Catholics to Humanae Vitae.

Accounting for secularity
The philosopher Charles Taylor developed a convincing account in his book, A Secular Age, of what it means to live in a secular world. He used the term “social imaginary” to denote the images, expectations, and ideas that underpin our social lives. If these conditions of life in a given society preclude attention to God, then Taylor referred to the society as secular. It is the “social imaginary” that legitimizes or underpins one’s practices. Drugs that are designed to make the birth of a child less likely to occur, after all, had to be imagined before they could be developed.

One of the fundamental reasons for secularity that Taylor picked out is our craving for control. The rise of science has seen significantly greater possibilities for us to control our lives. Indeed, medical science now offers us some scope, at least, to control human fertility. Along with other factors, Taylor linked this new-found capacity for control to the pursuit of ends that are limited to the ordinary flourishing of human lives. The pursuit of purposes that lie beyond this horizon, purposes that might be linked to a divine presence, for instance, are effectively off limits in a secular society.

Taylor also spoke of the “buffered self” as an integral part of a secular society. Individuals take responsibility for their own lives in ways that are substantially independent of any divine initiative, or outside spiritual influence. By contrast, Taylor referred to religious societies as those in which people are “porous” to the action of God, or to the influence of spirits, rites, cosmic forces, relics, shrines, and so on. Taylor linked the rise of this buffered identity to the Reformation, and to the work of a reform applied to oneself. A buffered self, furthermore, sees the body as a site for manipulation, rather than as an integral part of who they are as a person:

The disengaged, disciplined agent, capable of remaking the self, who has discovered and thus released in himself the awesome power of control, is obviously one of the crucial supports of modern exclusive humanism.

Control and regulation in Humanae Vitae
How, then, does this play out in relation to Humanae Vitae? Pope Paul VI began his encyclical by recognizing that we now seek to exercise instrumental control over our own bodies, minds, emotions, and social lives. While it is reasonable, up to a point, to control one’s drives and emotions, it is something quite different to actually control and regulate birth itself. The encyclical, nonetheless, clearly suggests that it is possible to “regulate birth” in different ways, whether through honest (19) or unlawful (14) means. If one is to “take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system, and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile” one is said to be engaged in “controlling birth” (16). The title of the encyclical, in fact, includes the Latin phrase “recte ordinanda” in relation to human birth, which can be translated as “right ordering.”

The encyclical excludes “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (14). The Italian here is “di rendere impossibile la procreazione,” while the Latin is that procreation is impeded (“ut procreatio impediatur”). The issue here is partly the translation of the Latin, although in practice it is the text in the different modern translations that matters as much. After all, it is understood that the encyclical was originally written in Italian, and only then translated into other languages. Procreation, however, cannot be rendered straightforwardly impossible by the use of a drug, for instance, in attempting to prevent a pregnancy arising from sexual intercourse. One review, for instance, found that over 10 percent of all episodes in which given means were employed in the ongoing attempt to avoid a pregnancy while engaging in sexual intercourse, nonetheless resulted in a pregnancy after 12 months.

While it is possible to intend to prevent procreation, it is not actually possible to carry through on this intention in any absolute fashion, even when employing methods that might promise control. One cannot in fact completely separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act.

Humanae Vitae declared “that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children” (14). The actual direct interruption of the generative process already begun, however, is not completely under one’s own control. One can only attempt to directly interrupt the generative process already begun. The only definitive ways to prevent the birth of a child are either to refrain from the marital act, or to perform an abortion. It is not surprising that the phrase “birth control” was popularized by Margaret Sanger, a key figure in the legalization in the United States of what has been termed contraception. She claimed that women should be willing to abort their children in order to regulate birth. The “Majority Report of the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate” itself had adopted the language of control and regulation, and it seems that Pope Paul VI carried this forward into the encyclical.

Paul VI, furthermore, asked whether a “more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile, into a licit and provident control of birth.” This assumes that rational processes exist that can actually render the natural processes involved straightforwardly infertile. It is not possible to identify an infertile time in an absolute sense. This is not to deny the effectiveness of fertility-awareness based methods in making it less likely that a child will be conceived. It remains the case, however, even with perfect use of the best such methods, that something like one in a hundred women will become pregnant after a year. What I am questioning is the wisdom of using words such as “control” and “regulation” in relation to such methods.

Or again, the encyclical suggested that “responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children” (10). It is not possible, however, to decide to have more children. It is really quite incredible that Pope Paul VI used such language in the encyclical. One highly-cited review has suggested that around 9 percent of couples can be identified as experiencing infertility in a given year. One can only decide to try to have more children, or to try to avoid having children.

One final example will suffice—while drugs that are designed in the first instance to prevent a pregnancy do work in different ways, a secondary effect is that the implantation of a newly-conceived child is made less likely. It is also the case that intrauterine devices, and intrauterine systems, inhibit implantation. It is, thus, far from wise to simply refer to methods that are designed to make it less likely that birth will occur as “contraceptive,” ignoring the fact that birth may be regulated instead through early abortion. It might be better to refer to such methods as “contraprolive,” from the Latin word proles that means offspring, rather than contraceptive. And yet the official English translation of Humanae Vitae on the Vatican website even now refers to “contraceptive methods,” without a direct term for this phrase in the Latin. While medical science on these matters has developed since the 1960s, one might possibly have expected greater caution in the encyclical on this issue. The encyclical does rule out abortion as a means by which to regulate birth, but awareness of the possible presence of an unborn child is missing from references to medical, or other interventions, that are designed to “regulate birth.”

An encyclical that undercuts itself
One can, of course, say that Pope Paul VI did not see fit to add qualifications to his argument. It is true that the encyclical acknowledged that man does not have unlimited dominion over his specifically sexual faculties (13). Those above examples suggest, however, that the inherent limitations of methods of “birth control” were not appreciated keenly by Pope Paul VI. What we see, rather, is that the encyclical draws on a “social imaginary” idea that views control over human fertility as a given. In drawing on a secular mindset in this way, I would argue that the encyclical undercuts itself. If regulation is what one is looking for above other considerations, then a secular viewpoint would find it folly to dispense with methods of control that are perceived to be effective.

None of this means that one should not seek to take responsibility for parenthood, or (for suitably serious reasons) not take advantage of times when a child is very unlikely to be conceived through marital relations. What it does mean is that such responsibility cannot be exercised through any absolute form of control. If the possibility of the birth of a child is to be ruled out absolutely, then the only way to ensure this is to cease marital relations.

What is more, an over-emphasis on the possibilities for control and regulation means that the Creator’s role is downplayed. We can see why Charles Taylor linked control and unbelief together in defining what constitutes a secular society. In and of themselves, terms such as regulation, control, and planning do not draw attention to the need for docility before God. Gaudium et Spes taught that married couples “will fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence towards God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort” (50).

When you realize that a “social imaginary” predicated on control has taken hold for so many in relation to sexuality and children, it is easy to see why Humanae Vitae is still such a hard sell across the world. Sexuality is primarily seen as a source of entertainment and pleasure, leading to a fulfillment in which God has no obvious role to play. Children, by contrast, are seen as a burden, complicating one’s employment, breaking into one’s free time, and placing a strain on the environment. The material conditions of society support this view, something that Taylor argued is highly relevant in determining our social practices, and “social imaginaries.” The world around us, after all, is usually designed around small families: cars are made for four or five people, as are houses, salaries, tax regimes, and so on.

Would it be the case that a mindset that highlights, for instance, how children are a gift from God would lead to a more satisfying life together for couples? Charles Taylor spoke of the malaise that flows from the adoption of a purely rational “instrumental” attitude to human life, one that is closed off (buffered) from God: “In the effort to control our lives, or control nature, we have destroyed much that is deep and valuable in them.” An emptiness follows in the wake of our attempts to regulate and control, especially in so far as this leads to the destruction of human life. There is a hollowness to many of our reasons for avoiding the birth of children. Do we really expect united families to result when one prioritizes careers, and comfortable lifestyles, over new life? Humanae Vitae constitutes a courageous witness to truth, and it provided a prophetic analysis of the malaises of modernity, but this need not mean that the encyclical is above critique.

The challenge of demonstrating what it is that leads to life, and what it is that leads to death, is a key issue in our attempts to evangelize in a secular world with renewed vigor. We need to appreciate the difference that a secular world makes to the work of evangelization. In the remainder of the article I would like to take this a step further, and briefly highlight some ways forward for the New Evangelization.

A New Evangelization
Charles Taylor included, within A Secular Age, a discussion on apologetics. “We imagine that we have to start elsewhere, first showing that God exists, then that he is benevolent, then the nature of his commandments, and that they are to be obeyed.” Taylor suggested that there is a clear way in which arguments such as this open the door to atheism. Such argumentation fails to recognize that far more is needed than the intellect in order to sustain a “social imaginary” and its associated practices. I do not imagine that this is something that can be established in a flash, but there are ways forward.

In the first instance, one needs to ground any “social imaginary” in what is actually the case, in reality itself. If it is not possible to exercise an absolute form of control unless one adopts more drastic methods, as it were, then this needs to be recognized. Lie upon lie is told in order to sustain today’s dominant “social imaginary” of control, an imaginary that blots out any transcendent dimension. Sterilization, for instance, is often assumed to be straightforwardly effective, whereas this is far from the case. One review suggested that around 80 women out of every 1000 could expect to become pregnant within 10 years of a sterilization procedure. In an era of fake news, spread by social media, we can appreciate that truth is something that is advanced, or despised, on a communal basis. There is a role for each one of us in employing language that faithfully reflects what is actually the case. The pro-life movement has undoubtedly been at the forefront of speaking up for blunt truths about human sexuality. In this way, it acts as an essential aspect of the New Evangelization.

Beyond what can be controlled
Are there things of great worth that lie beyond our control, things that come to us from God? This question is given an answer in the affirmative when we fully appreciate the value of a human life, and the presence of Christ sustaining that life. The conception and birth of a child is not something that we can just order at will. Awareness that a child is precious is particularly evident amongst couples who find themselves unable to conceive, or to carry children to full term. In helping to establish a society that is open to belief in God, a privileged place most certainly exists for services and support to assist married couples who find themselves infertile. One is also likely to see a recognition of the great worth of the human person in large families. The issue here is not simply about what is moral, or immoral (or about parenthood that is either responsible or irresponsible), but about what is needed to establish a Christian society. One evangelizes if one encourages a married couple to be open to having a large family. To offer practical support to a large family is to evangelize.

Humanae Vitae recognized the following: “The right and lawful ordering of the births of children presupposes, in husband and wife, first and foremost that they fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life … “ (21) The true joys of family life need to be appreciated more fully in our parishes and communities. A blessing is not primarily something that one regulates, or gives to oneself, it comes from the hand of Another. After all, at a Catholic wedding, married couples answer “Yes” to the question “Will you lovingly accept children from God … ?” And, on the other hand, there would be a great value in giving concrete expression to sorrow by saying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary each day for nine days, for instance, where a couple “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (10).

More than just a moral code
It is striking that Humanae Vitae focused tightly on spelling out the moral code, as Pope Saint John Paul recognized. Taylor argued, however, that stopping with a focus on a narrow moral code itself represents an outworking of a secularization of thought and practice. He suggested that the tendency to concentrate only on the natural law emerged, in part, as a less divisive way of thinking during the 18th Century, in order to reach beyond confessional disputes. Such an approach, though, excludes “Christology, devotion and religious experience from apologetics and much preaching.” Taylor suggested that this powers an exclusive humanism, one in which God has no role to play.

The entire horizon of Christian practice, and communal life, will be needed if the moral norms of Humanae Vitae are to be perceived as convincing. What is needed for Humanae Vitae to be received with faith is a social and religious imaginary that draws attention to the role of the Creator in human life at large. In section 21 of the encyclical, Pope Paul VI acknowledged the need for an awareness of the blessings of children, but he devoted the lion’s share of his attention to self-mastery, effort, domination of instinct, asceticism, and discipline. These terms are all characteristic of what one would expect of a buffered-self, of someone immune to a divine or spiritual influence from beyond oneself. What is needed above all, however, in living a chaste and responsible life are gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as piety and wisdom, as Pope Saint John Paul explored in his theology of the body.

There will be many more areas to consider. As one final example, one might consider the continuity of life across the generations. Commentators observe that the primary sin committed by Onan in spilling his seed on the ground was to avoid the raising up of children for his dead brother (Gn 38:8-10). Work to support continuity amongst the generations forms an integral aspect of evangelization. Taylor argued also that an exclusive humanism is closely associated with an individualism that allows little scope to pay attention to the good of others.

Any shift in the way that Humanae Vitae is received will require a transformation of the frames in which people think, feel, and live, a transformation that opens up awareness of the initiative that Christ takes in our lives. Care does need to be taken with the language that we use to speak of the moral norms that accord with a flourishing of human nature. There is certainly scope for revised translations of Humanae Vitae that disrupt the secular framing of words, such as “control,” “planning” and “regulation”; and, indeed, for further magisterial teaching at an opportune time. Pope Saint John Paul was insistent that respect for the work of God represents an essential feature of what is needed for a true reception of Humanae Vitae. Each one of us has a role to play in establishing a Christian mindset that manifests a reverence for the work of the Creator within marital relations, and for the preciousness of human life.

Dr. Peter Kahn About Dr. Peter Kahn

Dr. Peter Kahn writes regularly for the Catholic Truth Society, London. His booklets for CTS include "Passing on Faith to Your Children" (which is available from Ignatius Press) and "Facing Difficulties in Christian Family Life." He earlier edited the Catholic Student Guide (Family Publications, 2006), and acts as chair of the Academic Council at the School of the Annunciation, the center for the new evangelization at Buckfast Abbey, United Kingdom. Peter lives in Warrington, UK, with his wife Alison, and their seven sons.