Almost getting Humane Vitae

humanaevitaeI am remiss in not writing about coverage of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that upheld the Roman Catholic Church's prohibition against artificial birth control and contraception. Here's my excuse: When I was old enough to read stories about this topic, coverage of the church's position relied heavily on ad-hominem attacks and priests rarely explained this unpopular church teaching. I knew I would have to go back and re-read Humanae Vitae as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 2006 document against artificial birth control and contraception. (Bear with me. This preamble will be important later in the post.)

I am glad to report that coverage has improved. Gone is the implied criticism that because the Pope and Vatican officials are all single males, they have no right to tell married couples what to do in the intimacy of their bedrooms. In fact, several stories are serious and thoughtful. Yet I think that none truly get religion.

For Religion News Service, reporter Daniel Burke wrote about Humane Vitae and its legacy. His lede struck a fair and accurate note:

Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church.

Either way, 40 years after Paul VI released "Humanae Vitae" on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church.

Throughout his story, Burke treated the encyclical seriously, as a document that Catholics struggle with. For example, he presented what I regard as the best argument against Humanae Vitae:

Lisa Cahill said young Catholics in her ethics classes at Boston College don't understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through what the church calls "natural family planning" but not by other means.

"The arguments don't really fit together coherently," she said. "As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate,why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?"

In addition, Burke also gave readers the historical and theological context in which Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical. While Burke could have dismissed the pope's perspective and rationale, he sought to explain it:

In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially allow artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor "the sweetness of the yoke." Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God's designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman's fertile days to avoid pregnancy -- known as "the calendar method" -- is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are "repugnant" and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.

What Burke did not do, however, was present the encyclical's main argument against artificial birth control and conctraception. As Peter Steinfels notes, Humanae Vitae was not at its heart a warning against the evils of the sexual revolution in general and artificial birth control specifically. Its essence was theological, not sociological:

The central point of "Humanae Vitae" was that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate effort to prevent conception.

It was here that Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of his own papal commission. After extended study and debate, the commission, though heavily weighted with conservative churchmen, concluded that the inseparability of the bonding and procreating aspects of human sexuality had to be respected over the course of a marriage but not necessarily in every instance of sexual intimacy.

Steinfels got that first part right at least. And while like John Allen, Jr., he strives to explain the theological basis of the encylical and church teaching, going so far as to quote from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger a decade ago, his summary too is incomplete.

Humanae Vitae forbids Catholic couples from using artificial birth control for one main reason: those who use artificial birth control attempt to assert mastery over their own fate rather than being open to God's will. It casts the issue as one of control -- Man's vs. God's. As the encyclical states,

[T]o experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source

It is probably too much to expect Burke to described this theological justification accurately. With its elliptical sentences and length, Humanae Vitae is no easy read. (The Bishops' 2006 statement is clearer and better written.) But I do think that Allen and Steinfels, two prominent Catholic thinkers, should have described this admittedly thorny church teaching and encyclical more accurately.

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