Good Life

April 24, 2007

Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later
Janet E. Smith (CUA Press, 1991)
441 pp. First reading.

In this book, Janet Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas (at the time of publication), looks at the evolving arguments for and against the teachings of the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Humanae Vitae confirmed the Church’s condemnation of contraception, and the effects of its teaching are still loudly reverberating through the world. There is probably no moral teaching that has been more unpopular in the intervening decades, and the widespread dissent from the teaching has done great damage to Church authority. Humanae Vitae is, therefore, an important document in our own time, and any book that seeks to clarify its reasoning must be welcomed. In this book, Smith’s intention is not only to clarify the Church’s arguments, but to defend them.

She begins by situating the debate spawned by Humanae Vitae in historical context. The most important point about this debate is that prior to the twentieth-century it didn’t exist. The Catholic Church, and all Christian churches along with her, had been consistent and united in regarding contraception as immoral. Smith quotes John Noonan, who made this point forcefully:

“Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, ‘Contraception is a good act.’”

The first crack in this united front came in 1930 when the Anglican Communion – often on the vanguard of the unravelling of tradition, it seems – ruled that contraception could be permissibly used by married couples provided they had “grave reasons”. It was enough. By the late 1960s the use of contraception had become widespread, such that the reaffirmation of the traditional position in Humanae Vitae came as a bombshell.

When I purchased the book, I expected (under the influence of the subtitle, perhaps) that it would be a sociological survey of social changes since the sexual revolution that could plausibly be tied back to the use of contraception: smaller families, greater wealth, upward mobility for women who could now work for longer stretches without children, but also childlessness and death-spiral demographics through large swaths of the West, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and young people who, in the words of John Paul II, “live their love under the banner of impermanence and sterility”. But I was wrong in my expectation. The arguments are not empirical, but philosophical and (at times) theological. Her aim has been to present the best arguments that each side, pro and con, have developed since the encyclical was issued.

After the historical overview, Smith presents the Christian theology of marriage, emphasizing the degree to which the Western idea of marriage implicitly assumes that marriage will lead to children. For instance, the fact that marriage must be faithful and indissoluble is derived from its orientation toward parenthood. Deny that foundation and, as we have seen, the implications begin to waver. She also makes an important distinction between reproduction and procreation, the latter being the ennobled, human form of the former, the form assumed when sexuality is conditioned by a rational, reflective nature.

After a chapter covering a few philosophical preliminaries, such as natural law theory, analysis of acts and intentions, the concept of intrinsic evil, and various principles – the principle of totality, the principle of tolerating the lesser evil, the principle of double effect – which have figured largely in the debates, she presents four distinct arguments in defence of the Catholic position, analyzing each in some detail. She continues by taking up specifically theological questions related to Humanae Vitae, such as how its arguments and conclusions are supported by Scripture, the place of conscience in Catholic ethics, and an inquiry into the degree of authority of Humanae Vitae‘s teaching.

This is followed by a survey of the arguments offered by those who dissent from the Church’s teaching. These arguments include both criticisms of the orthodox arguments and positive arguments in favour of a revised teaching. Smith stresses that revisionists have been unable to defend their own arguments using traditional principles of Catholic moral theory, and so their project has necessarily involved changing that tradition (which changes have implications beyond this one issue).

Finally, she presents the distinctive arguments in defence of Humanae Vitae that have been given by Pope John Paul II. His approach, though non-traditional in many respects, is nevertheless consistent with the tradition.

Probably the most controversial teachings of Humanae Vitae is this: “Each and every act of marital intercourse must remain ordained to procreation” (HV 11) or, equivalently, “The unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act are inseparable” (HV 12). The Church discerns two primary purposes in human sexual activity: to strengthen the love between husband and wife (its unitive meaning), and procreation. It teaches that a proper respect for the dignity of human nature requires that both purposes should be honoured. Though this teaching has been confirmed and strengthened by Christian revelation, the teaching itself does not, at least in some of its forms, depend upon that revelation. Consequently the proscription of contraception is not, in the Catholic understanding, a “religious issue”. It proposes its arguments to all people of good will.

It is sometimes claimed that the Church objects to contraception because it is “artificial”. This perception is probably strengthened by the fact that the form of family planning which the Church condones has been called “Natural Family Planning”, and the conjunction of “artificial” and “natural” is too tempting to resist. It should be resisted, for it places a false stress. Smith argues that if we are to understand the Church’s reasoning we must understand that the argument is not about technology per se, but is deeply connected to the fact that contraception subverts a human, generative act. Each of those three italicized words is important.

The first argument in defence of Humanae Vitae Smith considers is the so-called “Intrinsic Worth” argument. The major premise is “It is wrong to impede the procreative power of actions that are ordained by their nature to the generation of new human life.” Human life is such a great good that actions which could result in its creation should be reverenced and encouraged. We might make an analogy with our treatment of corpses: a corpse is not a living human being, but we treat the body with respect because of its close association with human life. In a similar way, we could argue that the sexual act derives value from its close association with human life, and to deprive it of that association deprives it of that value. True, contraception does not actually destroy a human life, but it is a kind of vote against human life, and why should it be good to vote against something good? (Perhaps because the vote is understood as a vote for some other, mutually exclusive good. I’ll return to this idea below).

Another argument Smith calls the “Contralife Will” argument. The major premise is “It is always wrong to have a contralife will”, the minor premise that “The use of contraception entails a contralife will”. This, it seems to me, is similar in flavour to the previous argument, but differs in that it involves none of the complexities of “powers” and “natures” that are present in the former. It also seems less secure, to me at least. Does using contraception really entail a contralife will? It is objectively contralife, true, but that does not necessarily imply that the will concurs.

Both of these arguments seem to be open to challenge in one particular way. They argue that human life is a good and that having children is therefore good. One may agree, but argue that this does not imply that “each and every act of marital intercourse must remain ordained to procreation”. Is it not enough that such acts be procreative “on average”, or over the course of one’s life? Procreation is one good among many, and it ought to be honoured, but must be balanced against other goods. Contraception would then be licit, so long as it did not proceed from a determination to never have children. This is the so-called “principle of totality”: under certain circumstances it is morally permissible to sacrifice the good of a part for the sake of a whole.

What shall we say about this principle? It seems that it would be licit to sacrifice some physical good for the sake of a greater physical good (as when we amputate a leg in order to save a person’s life), but is the same accounting licit for moral goods? Much turns on the meaning of “sacrifice the good”. Do we merely surrender and forsake a good, or do we undermine and subvert it? If the former (as when one refrains from sexual activity, thereby sacrificing the good of children) it would seem to be licit; no one is obliged to obtain all possible goods. Even here I think consideration would have to be made of the relative values of the good sacrificed and the good obtained. But if by “sacrifice” we mean “subvert”, then the matter is quite different. It seems then to imply that one may do evil in order to obtain a good result, which is false. It would seem to imply, for example, that one could have an occasional affair if it might help one’s marriage in the long run. It is easy to see, then, that the principle of totality must be invalid if it requires that one commit a specific evil act in order to preserve or obtain a good.

It seems, therefore, that the conclusions of Humanae Vitae would be strengthened by an argument with a sharp focus that would clarify why “each and every” sexual act must be open to the possibility of life, why “each and every” contraceptive act is wrong. In my judgment, the best candidate discussed by Smith is what she calls the “Special Act of Creation” argument. The major premise is “It is wrong to impede the procreative powers of actions that are ordained by their nature to assist God in performing His creative act that brings forth a new human life.” This argument relies on the theological premise that each human soul is created by a special act of God. In “each and every” fertile sexual act, a new human being is really and proximately possible, and this means that God Himself is present in a special way. Recall Dante’s beautiful lines in which he says that the Glory of God

per l’universo penetra e risplende
in una parte piu e meno altrove

(penetrates in splendour throughout the universe
in one part more and in another less)

In a fertile conjugal act, God’s glory lies in wait, ready to shine forth with special splendour. Contraception, from this perspective, is “an act that shuts God out of the arena designated by Him as the locus of His creative action”. In the words of John Paul II, use of contraception asserts that “it is lawful not to recognize God as God [that is, as Creator]“. Contraception can only be practiced with a clear conscience to the extent that we are unaware of God’s creative presence in the world. In this sense, the Church’s condemnation can be understood as a defence of the religious worldview itself. The strength of this argument, in my view, is that is applies forcefully to “each and every” contraceptive act. A weakness is that it can be expected to have force only for religious people.

The last argument Smith presents is framed in terms of the two meanings of human sexual acts: the unitive and the procreative. Humanae Vitae declares that these two are inseparable. Retaining only the former leads to abortion and homosexuality; retaining only the latter leads to sperm banks and test-tube babies. The Church rejects both extremes. But it has frequently been claimed by those who challenge the Church’s teaching that these two meanings of sexuality, far from being inseparable, are actually in conflict with one another. After all, how can a couple express their love for one another sexually if they are afraid they would be unable to support another child? Surely there must be room for the unitive meaning without always bringing in the procreative?

A few comments come to mind immediately. The first is that the variability of a woman’s fertility means that there are times when the possibility of conception is not present. The second is that if there is indeed a conflict between the two meanings, why should it always be the procreative aspect that is sacrificed? A glance at the natural world suggests that, whatever purposes the sexual act may have, its primary purpose seems to be the engendering of offspring. Why should it be acceptable to sacrifice that primary meaning? Isn’t that rather like someone who eats for the pleasure and companionship it affords, but rejects the primary purpose of eating — nutrition — by vomiting the meal up afterwards? It does seem a tad disordered.

The Church, however, turns the table on these kinds of questions. She teaches that it is contraception that pits the two meanings of sexuality against one another. There is something odd, after all, about a profession of love that says, “I really want to be one with you — just let me get my barrier in place.” But the argument the Church actually offers goes deeper, and has been set forth with particular consistency and thoughtfulness by John Paul II. He argues that sexual union is a potent expression of the mutual self-giving which is to characterize marriage. Certain acts, like a kiss, or like a slap, have an objective meaning; they are an unambiguous body language. The sexual act is another such act, and it expresses union, love, and commitment. Yet when contraception intervenes in this act, it expresses the opposite.

“Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love…” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)

In other words, a rejection of the procreative potential of the sexual act damages, in an objective way, the personalist, unitive meaning of the act.

There is more that could be said, but I have already gone on at some length, which was not my intention.

In closing, I think it is worthwhile to attempt a sketch of the main considerations that appear to be underlying the Church’s thinking in this matter. The first is that she grounds her whole argument in the dignity of human life: human life is a great good, and ought not be be rejected, even when weighed against other goods. Second, the fact that human beings are invited to collaborate with God in the generation of new human life is an immense privilege and honour, and that invitation ought not to be neglected or disdained. Finally, the sexual act expresses in the deepest way the self-giving that is the heart of a marriage. It is a much grander, more profound thing than the prevailing culture takes it to be.

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One Response to “Good Life”

  1. There is much in support of Church teaching with regard to marriage, family and sexuality at Since many desire to have a better understanding of Humanae Vitae, my husband, John, added a sidebar: “Understanding Humanae Vitae.” The free and short online NFP manual at the above website covers the theology in Part 1, “NFP: What and Why.”
    Sheila Kippley
    NFP International

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