On July 25, Catholics worldwide marked the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (Of Human Life).
Written in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Humanae vitae was intended to consider whether the “Pill”—a newly developed contraceptive that suppressed ovulation—fell under the overall rejection of contraception that, until the 1930 Lambeth Conference, had been the universal Christian position, and one which the Roman Catholic Church had continued (and continues) to maintain. Pope Paul VI determined that using the Pill to avoid pregnancy was morally objectionable.
Humanae vitae (# 14 https://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html) also reaffirmed the Church’s rejection of abortion which, two-and-a-half years earlier, the Second Vatican Council had branded, along with infanticide, an “unspeakable crime.” (Gaudium et spes, # 24 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html )
I am aware that many friends of the Human Life Foundation and its Review do not necessarily share the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception, and that many people in good faith indeed maintain that availability of contraception should reduce recourse to abortion.
As a Catholic theologian, however, I do affirm the Church’s teaching in Humanae vitae, not just out of “loyalty” but out of conviction, and on this golden jubilee of that controversial document’s promulgation, I would like to share some of its key insights with Review readers. Malcolm Muggeridge, a founding friend of the Human Life Foundation, whose early faith commitments might be called Baptist, converted to Catholicism in part because of Humanae vitae. (https://celebratehv50.com/2017/09/23/a-look-at-humanae-vitae-from-perspective-of-tenth-anniversary/) Closer to my own circles, Dr. John Haas, now President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and formerly an Episcopal priest, also found his way to the Church because of Humanae vitae.
Although contraception and abortion are conceptually distinct, they in fact usually go hand-in-hand. Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul the Great) pointed this out in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae: “But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree” (# 13).
How so? John Paul offered two practical observations.
First, the line between contraception and abortion is not as distinct in practice as theory would have it. Those who would defend contraception say it is one thing to prevent a life from coming into existence, but another to stop the further development of that life once conceived.
Yet some of the most popular “contraceptives” act precisely by blurring that line. The Pill, by hormonally deceiving a woman’s body into acting as if it were at a different stage in the menstrual cycle than it in fact is, can function as a contraceptive by preventing release of an ovum. But the Pill can also act as an abortifacient, by affecting the uterine wall so that a fertilized ovum is unable to implant and therefore dies. An intrauterine device (IUD) functions in a similarly ambiguous way: Some have argued that it inhibits the motility of sperm, preventing conception; others maintain it (also) prevents implantation in the uterine wall, acting as an abortifacient.
Indeed, the “scientific” community manages to get away with insisting that the Pill and IUD are purely contraceptive by redefining “contraception” to mean not the prevention of conception but the prevention of implantation, approximately 21 days later. Employing such verbal legerdemain—halting the continued survival of a fertilized embryo by rendering implementation impossible—is now branded “contraception.”
The point for our reflection here is that some of the most popular means of birth control straddle the line between acting pre- and post-conception. We manage to justify in practice what we neatly separate in theory either by ignoring the practice or by redefining terms, so that “contraception” has nothing to do with conception, only implantation, and “birth control” is equated in the popular mind with contraception, even though by definition anything that prevents birth—including abortion—could logically be branded “birth control.”
Second, this practical blurring of action and accompanying intellectual obfuscation are usually the result of an earlier values shift concerning the good of human life. Catholic theology regards life as an unequivocal good, a good in itself, bonum in se. But contraception has accomplished a certain axiological shift. Life is no longer a “good in itself,” good simply because it is life. Rather, it is a useful good, bonum utile. At best, it is now neutral, at worst, bad, that is, if it collides with goods to which I attach greater importance—whatever that importance may be. Life thus becomes a value to be measured and, as John Paul observes, “The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.”
If life is not self-justifying—if it must somehow otherwise establish its right to exist prior to conception—it is highly unlikely that this weakened regard for the value of life will suddenly become robust and absolute because of conception. Human beings just don’t make those kinds of radical intellectual swings.
Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe observed that societies where contraception acquired widespread acceptance also legalized abortion within a generation. Again, the standard (albeit wrong) thinking is that contraception and abortion should be in inverse ratio: the more contraception, the less abortion. Practical experience, however, shows the opposite to be true: The acceptance of contraception brings the acceptance of abortion in its wake. Anscombe offered her own reflections on this phenomenon (http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/AnscombeChastity.php ), but I think John Paul had it right when he tied both to an underlying attitude toward life as alienable—something that could be sold or transferred—thus making them “fruit of the same tree.”
Humanae vitae argued that the core issue was the meaning of human sexuality: Sexual intercourse could be procreative and it could be unitive. The encyclical insisted that these two aspects of human sexuality—procreative and unitive—were indivisible because human love as well as God’s order demanded it: For man to rend this bond meant he would be willfully playing God.
The last fifty years have been the record of that self-will. The “liberation” of sex from babies that Humanae vitae stood athwart became the “liberation” of babies from sex. Now, parenthood itself has been compartmentalized into genetic, gestational, and social components—tolerated by a legal system loathe to infringe on “choice”—which undermine the parent-child relationship as hitherto understood. The latest “liberation” promised by this process is that of human beings from sex itself, so that sex becomes merely a biological substratum subject to one’s “gender” state of mind, rife again with implications for the parent-child relationship—not least of which is the redefinition of “mother” and “father” into “Parent One” and “Parent Two.”
At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, when the Anglican Church became the first Christian denomination ever to accept the morality of contraception under certain, restricted circumstances, its proponents insisted they were carving out very limited exceptions to the norm. The subsequent history of the Anglican Church—and mainstream Protestantism in general—has demonstrated the corrosive effect of contraception: the exception that destroyed the rule. The same thing can be argued in Catholic circles if “Catholic” is understood sociologically, because even though the Church maintains the continuity of Christian teaching on this subject, general Catholic practice—especially in wealthy, Western countries—has become largely accepting of contraception. One must really ask whether Catholic opposition to Roe would have been more effective if Catholics in the United States had better understood their own Church’s teaching.
Is life always a good in itself, or is it merely a “good” whose value is measurable against other “goods”? That was always the question of Humanae vitae—and it explains why, two years before he himself became pope, the future John Paul II told Paul VI (in the 1976 Lenten retreat he preached for the pontiff), that “we are in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man.”