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WHAT ARE THE main points of disagreement about the morality of contraception? Why is it that so many think the use of contraception is morally justifiable and a sign ("of responsibility, whereas others count it among the grave sins against marriage? It is striking that the most ardent voices on each side are Catholics who, one would think, share fundamental values. But we find Catholics disagreeing about the purpose of marriage, about the place of children within marriage, about how one comes to discern God's will about marriage as well as about the morality of contraception. Moreover, in the last two decades Catholic moral theologians have experienced a veritable division in their ranks and have found that they have very serious disagreements about the principles that ought to inform moral decision making. What could account for the sharp disagreement among them on these matters? It would be strange to say that the encyclical Humanae Vitae was the cause of these disagreements, but it is probably true to say that Humanae Vitae disclosed the initial stirrings of these disagreements and that the dissent against the encyclical has sharpened them.
For whom was Humanae Vitae written? First, it seems fair to say that it was not written to convince skeptical non-Christians. This is not to say that Pope Paul VI thought the arguments of Humanae Vitae would be unpersuasive to non-Catholics-indeed, it is addressed to "men of good will" as well as Christians. Insofar as anyone accepts the principles of natural law and has an authentic understanding of the nature of marriage, he or she, in the understanding of the Church, should also object to contraception. Humanae Vitae was written, though, primarily as a teaching document for Catholics, that is, to instruct Catholics, who were expected to have identifiable fundamental beliefs in common; it therefore drew on principles that have had a revered place in the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition. Nor is this to say that the teaching of the document could be expected to be unproblematic for those who share these beliefs and know how to apply these principles; the arguments are complicated enough that questions can be raised about links in the arguments even by those predisposed to accept them. But what is most certainly the case is that there should be no expectation that those who do not share the principles traditionally employed by the Church in moral teaching will find the arguments convincing or satisfactory.
It should also be kept in mind that Humanae Vitae was not designed to defend the principles informing its teaching. Rather, it relied on principles developed throughout the history of the Church. Portions of this chapter and later chapters of this book will examine and to some extent explain these principles and the contemporary challenge to them. But what this chapter hopes to establish is the grounds of disagreement for the dispute surrounding Humanae Vitae: it will show that although the early advocates for a change in Church teaching did not think they were promoting a radical change in the Church's thinking on moral matters, the principles informing their advocacy, in fact, were precursors to radical change. The first portion provides a very brief history of the Church's opposition to contraception with the primary intent of showing the constancy of that opposition. The second portion involves an analysis of the reports written by the special commission set up to advise Pope Paul VI in his writing of the encyclical. These reports serve to show the status of the debate on contraception before Humanae Vitae. They also suggest the kind of arguments used both by those who sought to challenge the Church's teaching and also by those who worked to defend its teaching.
A Brief History of the Church's Condemnation of Contraception
Among Christian churches there was nearly undivided opposition to contraception until the early part of this century. The reasons for the Catholic condemnation can be found in the writing of Catholic theologians, answers from the Holy See in regard to questions about penitentials, and statements of national hierarchies of bishops. The most extensive history of the Church's condemnation of contraception is to be found in John T. Noonan's Contraception. In his introduction, in an overview of the Church's teaching on contraception, he concludes:
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 teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever.
In spite of this strong statement about its likely immutability, Noonan's treatment of the history of the Church's teaching subtly supports the hope that it may change. Indeed, the last sentence of Noonan's introduction seems to undercut the force of the paragraph cited. There he suggests that developments in the doctrine may be forthcoming and observes, "[my] study may provide grounds for prophecy." As special consultant to the commission that eventually advised Pope Paul VI that a change in Church teaching was warranted, Noonan reportedly played an instrumental role in leading the commission to this conclusion. Thus, because of his conviction that a change would and should be forthcoming, Noonan's witness to the unbroken opposition to contraception in Church teaching is particularly forceful. Here, then, let us (largely following Noonan) briefly trace the major contours of this unbroken tradition before we consider in much greater detail the break that took place in the middle decades of this century.
In the early centuries of the Church there was a strong emphasis on the procreative power of sexual intercourse. Christians in these centuries were noted for their reverence for life, in particular their reverence for new life, both the infant and the fetus. Their condemnation of contraception was part of their overall interest in not interfering in the life-giving processes that they believed were the domain of God. In the fourth century, Augustine wrote extensively about sex and marriage, largely in the context of the controversy with the Manichees, who opposed marriage, heterosexual union, and procreation. Augustine, who spoke of the three ends of marriage as offspring, fidelity, and sacrament, insisted that spouses must respect the procreative purpose of sex. He is understood to condemn artificial contraceptives explicitly in a passage where he condemns the use of "poisons of sterility" (sterilitatis venena) by husband and wife.
Noonan considers the next period in the history of the Church's opposition to contraception to be the age of the monks from Soo to 1100 and notes that there was repeated and constant opposition to contraception in this period. In the sixth century Saint Martin included condemnation of "steps taken that a woman not conceive" in a list of canons intended to instruct Christians in out-of-the-way corners of Christendom. Penitentials of the period regularly condemned potions that seemed to have contraceptive powers, and penalties were severe. One of the most important texts from the penitentials reads: "If someone [si aliquis] to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink, so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide." This text became a part of the law of the Catholic Church until 1917. What are we to make of the statement that contraception is to be treated as homicide? Noonan earlier in his history noted that the practice of calling contraception "homicide" was not a "biological" or "legal" description, but a moral one. That is, the authors of these texts did not think that contraception killed an actual human being but that it prevented a human being from being conceived, from coming to life; they assessed this prevention to be the moral equivalent of homicide.
Thomas Aquinas spoke of contraception as wrong, not because it was equivalent to homicide but because it was an act against nature; his became the more common justification for the condemnation of contraception. His view rested on the premise that God was the author of nature and that respecting the order of nature was respecting God's will.
During the following centuries (1450–1750), greater numbers of authors attempted to determine more precisely the role of pleasure in sexual intercourse and the extent to which seeking pleasure alone could justify having sexual intercourse. This analysis never served to justify tampering with the procreative power of intercourse, although it did allow the deliberate subjective intention to have sexual intercourse when one did not wish there to be a conception. Noonan thinks that a change in the teaching on contraception might have been expected to have followed the development of understandings of what are moral intentions for intercourse. Yet, as he notes, "The prohibition against contraception resisted modification. It was, indeed, not merely passively retained and transmitted, but actively maintained and defended by arguments. The repetition, variations, and patterns of argumentation are the best internal index to the doctrine's strength."
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, concerns about growing population (Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798) were first expressed. Contraception was cautiously proposed by some (not Malthus) as a possible solution. In the next century the use of contraceptives became widespread to the point that many European states legislated against contraceptive propaganda and there were laws in the United States against such practices as sending contraceptives through the mail, importing contraceptives, and in general distributing contraception. Nonetheless public opinion and medical opinion were changing and in the Anglican church this led to a change in church teaching.
In 1930 Anglicans broke ranks with nearly the whole of the traditional Christian opposition to contraception with a declaration at the Lambeth Conference that permitted use of contraception by married couples, for grave reasons. Shortly after this event Pius XI, on December 31 , 1931, issued Casti Connubii. There he reiterated Catholic opposition to contraception, applauded elevated notions of conjugal love and parenthood, and explained that confining conjugal acts to known infertile periods, for right reasons, was morally permissible. Casti Connubii is widely considered as a good instance of a true development in the Church's teaching on marriage. That is, it remains within the framework of accepted principles, accepts legitimate development of those principles, and shows the proper implications and applications of those principles. Pius XI's encyclical indicated that the recent greater appreciation of conjugal love developed by several moral theologians was a legitimate deepening of the traditional evaluation of love between the spouses; he also explained that use of the infertile period in a woman's cycle (relatively recently acquired knowledge) was not contraceptive and was not opposed to the Church's understanding of natural law.
The condemnation of contraception in Casti Connubii was nonetheless unequivocal. Casti Connubii reiterated the constant teaching of the Church that "the sacred partnership of true marriage is constituted both by the will of God and the will of man. From God comes the very institution of marriage, the ends for which it was instituted, the laws that govern it, the blessings that flow from it; while man, through generous surrender of his own person made to another for the whole span of life, becomes, with the help and cooperation of God, the author of each particular marriage, with the duties and blessings annexed thereto from divine institution." Casti Connubii also states, "Amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place" and notes, "The Creator of the human race Himself ... in His goodness wished to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life...." The condemnation of contraception is listed first because contraception is an "evil opposed to the benefits of matrimony":
First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances.
But no reason, however grave may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
Pius XII in several of his addresses reiterated and clarified this teaching in the following decades; in particular he explicitly acknowledged the licitness of the use of the infertile period to regulate births. Within the Catholic Church the position of Casti Connubii was virtually unchallenged until the middle decades of this century.
First Stirrings of Dissent
In 1962 John J. Lynch, S. J . , writer of notes on moral theology for Theological Studies, stated, "Since theological discussion of the anovulant drugs began some four or more years ago, moralists have never been less than unanimous in their assertion that natural law cannot countenance the use of these progestational steroids for the purpose of contraception as that term is properly understood in the light of papal teaching." They were also agreed that anovulant pills had certain licit therapeutic uses. Both of these views were confirmed by Pius XII in his September 12, 1958, speech to a congress of hematologists. Lynch took notice in this year of an article published by Dr. John Rock, a Boston physician, who described himself as a Catholic and who had been instrumental in the development of the progesterone pill and was highly energetic in his promotion of the pill and his advocacy of a change in Church teaching. Lynch describes Rock's work, The Time Has Come, as "illustrat[ing] the sort of specious reasoning, unreasoning emotionalism, half-truths and fallacies to which the faithful are being exposed on this elemental question of the oral contraceptives." Noting that an abundance of theological literature had been published over the last four years to counter these "adverse influences," he declared that the problem of the moral status of the pill was a "theologically closed issue."
Excerpted from Humanae Vitae by Janet E. Smith Copyright © 1991 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 15, 2001
HUMANAE VITAE: A GENERATION LATER is three good books between two covers. It is a meditation manual for very serious young men and women considering Christian marriage as a path to holiness. Secondly, it is a book about recent Roman Catholic theological debates on the link between personal fulfilment in marriage and openness to children. Finally, A GENERATION LATER argues for the truth of a vision drawn from natural law and personalist philosophies of the rock bottom elements of any SECULAR marriage.*** The best part is also the briefest: Chapter 8, ¿Self-Giving and Self-Mastery: John Paul II¿s Interpretation of HUMANAE VITAE.¿ The Pope proves a tough but profound read. His grounding of marriage in the creation stories of Genesis could help men and women all along the Judeo-Christian spectrum rediscover God¿s plan for a human nature created equally male and female. This part of Professor Smith¿s large book reminds of St Francis de Sales leading ordinary people to seek personal perfection and holiness. *** Less devotional and more scholarly are the large portions of the book in which Janet Smith presents, interprets and defends against ¿revisionist¿ Catholics the theological and biblical teachings on human sexual behavior of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XII and Paul VI and culminating in the personalist insights of John Paul II. Christians who make Scripture the firmest anchor of personal belief may be pleasantly surprised by Bishops of Rome hard at work to derive from Sacred Texts a vision of married behavior which firmly unites both the life transmitting and the personal bonding dimensions of married sexual intercourse. *** The book is weakest in sketching a non-revealed, purely philosophical ethics of sexual behavior. Janet Smith herself wonders if a Western philosophy teacher today is not inevitably influenced by what she has learned from Jewish and Christian teaching and practice. Secular readers might well prefer more reliance on Plato and Aristotle and less on Thomas Aquinas. Professor Smith sketches an exalted vision of secular marriage. All men and women everywhere, if they have good will, self-discipline and a well-formed conscience will see in the special form of friendship called marriage that it is meant by nature to be heterosexual, life long, exclusive and that its acts must not permanently separate the life-generating and the friendship-forming dimensions of sexual intercourse. ***
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