At the Heart of It All: An Anthropological Vision of Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae and Deus Caritas Est
I. Introduction: Humanae Vitae A prophetic teaching
Shortly after my ordination to the priesthood in 1977, I found myself visiting with a parishioner in the rectory of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Md. The parishioner was not a happy camper. Oh, it wasn't anything I had said or done. I was so recently ordained I hadn't yet had enough opportunity to offend anyone personally something I later rectified. No, this parishioner was unhappy with the church and came to tell me he was leaving it. His complaints were multiple and wide-ranging. But at the heart of them all was the teaching of the church on contraception. "Any church," he said, "that would issue a statement as uncompassionate as Humanae Vitae can't be the true church." My maiden voyage on the seas of apologetics foundered. The gentleman thanked me for my time and left.
He also left a deep impression on me. I prayed for him and his family, for his decision no doubt affected his wife and children. At the same time, his decision to leave the church, far from causing me to doubt the soundness of Humanae Vitae, alerted me to how prophetic and pivotal it really is. It put me on a journey, guided by the magisterium, of coming to realize the indispensable role which the teaching of that controversial document plays in defending life, supporting the family, and working for justice and peace. Had Pope Paul sided with the majority opinion of the commission authorized to study the question of contraception, an opinion that favored changing the church's teaching, more than a solitary moral teaching would have been lost. Instead, the hinges of the church's teaching on the dignity of the human person would have been unfastened.
On this 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I am honored to stand before you to pay tribute to Pope Paul VI and to offer an account of the prophetic and pivotal role which Humanae Vitae plays not only in the teaching of the church but indeed in all her attempts to build a civilization worthy of the human person. I also hope that these reflections on the teaching of Humanae Vitae will help us see more clearly how efforts to defend life, to protect the institution of marriage and foster family life, and to build a more just, peaceful and ordered society are linked and mutually reinforcing, thanks to a common anthropology. My prayerful desire is to contribute to the goal of this conference: to bring about a more profound harmony among these various ministries for the sake of the new evangelization.
II. Seemingly Dead on Arrival
I was a junior in high school when Humanae Vitae was issued 40 years ago. In fact, I was on a date with a fellow member from our parish youth group. She followed church issues a lot more closely than I did in those days. In fact, it was she who first told me that the pope had "come out against birth control." She also opined that his arguments from natural law were all wrong. Her concerns certainly trumped my question about whether to play miniature golf or to go bowling.
The fact is that my friend echoed the hostile reaction that greeted Humanae Vitae. Whether she knew it or not, she also echoed one of the principal arguments raised against it. Dissenting theologians and other commentators averred that, while the documents of Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, were personalist in tone and thus more attuned to insights and aspirations of modern life, Humanae Vitae was a step back. Gaudium et Spes, they claimed, offered a fuller account of human freedom, dignity and responsibility whereas, they alleged, Humanae Vitae reverted to an older style of moral reasoning that narrowly focused on the natural functions of the sexual organs a style of reasoning no longer credible. Claiming, among other things, that the argumentation in Humanae Vitae against contraception relied on a threadbare analysis of the biological processes of procreation, these commentators charged Humanae Vitae with "biologism" and "physicalism." Some observers also claimed that Paul VI failed to view the human person as an "enfleshed spirit" endowed with dynamic aspirations and abilities to control the forces of nature, including those of his own body; rather, they said his encyclical adopted a more static view of man as a dualistic combination of body and soul, a compilation of matter and form subject to the syllogisms of an abstract natural law that owed more to ancient philosophy than to either the Gospel or to a more current view of the universe.
This sort of commentary tended to drive a wedge in the minds of many between the positive teaching on the human person and marriage in Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes and the supposedly narrow prohibitions found in Humanae Vitae. Issued in a time of ferment in the culture at large and a time of upheaval within the church, Humanae Vitae thus received a largely negative reception. Many did not take the time to read and understand the document; they only focused on what they saw as its needlessly harsh and repressive prohibition of "the pill." Furthermore, they discounted the dire societal problems Pope Paul predicted would follow the widespread acceptance of contraception. These included a decreased sense of morality, the objectification of women, marital infidelity, divorce, coercive governmental population control programs and abortion. Of course, these and many other manifestations of the "culture of death" have since come to pass in these last four decades.
One who did take the time to study Humanae Vitae deeply was the cardinal archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. In 1978, on the 10th anniversary of Humanae Vitae and the same year he would ascend to the papacy, Cardinal Wojtyla gave an address titled "The Anthropological Vision of Humanae Vitae." It was a careful analysis of the profound harmony between Humanae Vitae and Gaudium et Spes. In non-technical terms, I would say that the point of that address was to show that Humanae Vitae not only remained true to the vision of man found in Gaudium et Spes, it also further developed that vision a claim directly contrary to what many dissenting theologians were saying. The future pope had all the credentials necessary to make this claim. As early as 1960, he wrote Love and Responsibility, an explanation of the church's teaching on marital love that incorporated many personalist insights. Cardinal Wojtyla also advised Pope Paul as he was preparing his encyclical.
As Pope John Paul II he would go on to develop these insights in talks on "the theology of the body" (delivered in a series of Wednesday audiences), his exhortation titled Familiaris Consortio, his "Letter to Families," Mulieris Dignitatem and a host of other writings and talks. For our purposes, however, Wojtyla's 1978 address (which was recently translated into English by Dr. William May) will help point the way in demonstrating the continuity of the vision of man found in Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae, a vision that is also key to the church's social teaching, a vision that has been further amplified by Pope Benedict XVI, especially in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. It is this vision of man that is at the heart of it all.
III. Integral Vision of the Human Person in Christ
Perhaps no one did more than John Paul II to present and develop the Christian anthropology the vision of man found in Gaudium et Spes. This has been described as the program of his papacy. But even before he became the pope, we see him defending Humanae Vitae by appealing to its continuity with Gaudium et Spes on the basis of a shared view of the human person. He begins his address by noting that Humanae Vitae, as a document on conjugal morality, presupposes a vision of the human person. Indeed all authentic moral teaching rests on a proper understanding of the human person. Humanae Vitae does not systematically spell out this vision but rather refers to it in summary form at strategic junctures in the encyclical. Thus, the understanding of the human person taught by Gaudium et Spes is infused into the whole document. Indeed, at the basis of Humanae Vitae Wojtyla detects "a broad portrait of anthropological thought" and "a coherent understanding of the truth about man."
This anthropological vision, moreover, is found in the encyclical's analysis of an action, namely, the conjugal love of husband and wife. The encyclical dealt with the act of marital embrace in such a way that it becomes the prism through which the human person as man and woman can be seen in their truest light both objectively and indeed in their interior understanding of themselves and their vocation. Thus, by applying the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes to the act of conjugal love, Wojtyla claims that Humanae Vitae actually builds on and deepens what Gaudium et Spes says about the human person.
True to Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI read "the signs of the times" in Humanae Vitae. He took into account the real life conditions in which the question of contraception long the accepted teaching of the church was revisited. Like Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae examined contemporary human progress in dominating the forces of nature, including population growth. Both documents also pointed to the same danger, namely, that, in a march of progress more or less devoid of ethics, man may well deny decisive truths about himself. To echo Wojtyla's language, "technical man" and "economic man" cannot tell the whole story about the human person. In exercising dominion over his life, man comes face to face with his own knowledge of good and evil. Unless his creative genius and daily decisions are guided by what is true and good (as Gaudium et Spes warns), man is in danger of being enslaved by the very forces he has unleashed (GS, 9). For example, in some countries the technical ability to control the growth of population has led to repressive policies forbidding couples from having a large family just as Pope Paul VI warned. Thus in his activity, the human person must take responsibility for his own being and value and that of others.
The point which Cardinal Wojtyla was making here is that Pope Paul VI, in weighing the question of the transmission of human life, took seriously the zeitgeist as well as the advice that was offered to him. At the end of the day, however, guided by the Holy Spirit and faithful to the constant teaching of the magisterium, Pope Paul VI moved decisively to defend the whole truth about man by condemning that which cleaves the procreative and unitive dimensions of the conjugal love. In prophetic fashion, Pope Paul VI lifted up procreation as the pre-eminent act in which man takes responsibility for his own being and value as well as that of others. Indeed, the very struggle which the issuance of Humanae Vitae precipitated showed, according to Cardinal Wojtyla, that a true understanding of conjugal morality goes to the heart of the struggle "for man himself, for the meaning and value of humanity." Thus, without systematically describing the integral vision of man found in Gaudium et Spes, the encyclical refers to it at crucial points and correctly claims that its teaching is based on a total vision of the human person.
It is to that integral vision that we now turn. In Paragraph 7 of Humanae Vitae and with explicit reference to Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI writes: "The question of having children, like other questions regarding human life, cannot be adequately addressed by examining it in a piecemeal way, that is, by looking at it through the perspectives of biology, psychology, demography and sociology. Rather, [the question] must be addressed in such a way that the whole man and the whole mission [munus] to which he has been called will be taken into account for this mission pertains not only to his natural and earthly existence but also to his supernatural and eternal existence." Commenting on this passage, Cardinal Wojtyla observes two things: 1) Both Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae anchor the ethics of marriage in what is "essentially human," that is, in an integral vision of man (see GS, 49); 2) Wojtyla concludes from this that the dignity of the human person is thus the "essential content and meaning" of the vocation of marriage.
Furthermore, the analysis of Humanae Vitae of the structure and operation of sexual organs (see HV, 10), far from being a detached biological analysis, employs what is called the principle of totality in integrating them into a complete vision of the human person in his subjective and objective dimensions. Experience teaches that when an integral understanding of the human person in all his dimensions is either not achieved or abandoned, it is likely that one's sexuality will be compartmentalized, often to one's own detriment and that of loved ones.
Pope Paul goes on to teach that conjugal love finds its "true nature and nobility" in its origins, namely, "God, Who 'is Love'." Indeed, God established marriage with the intent of achieving "his own design of love" in and through spousal love. The Holy Father then says, "Therefore, through mutual self-giving, which is unique and exclusive to them, spouses seek a communion of persons. Through this communion, the spouses perfect each other so that they may share with God the task of procreating and educating new living beings" (HV, 6). In this passage we hear the clear resonance of Gaudium et Spes, No. 48, which describes marriage "as a reciprocal gift of persons, 'who . . . mutually give and receive each other.'" So too we find a clear echo of the more general statement of Gaudium et Spes, No. 24, where we read: "If man is the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true nature only in a sincere gift of himself." Both Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae (No. 21) teach that we must exercise dominion or self-discipline over ourselves in order to give ourselves in freedom to another. This is especially true in the sexual sphere. Contraception not only compromises the completeness of one's self-gift but indeed threatens that self-mastery necessary for self-donation to one's spouse. As Cardinal Wojtyla put it, "Man cannot exercise power over his own body by means of interventions and techniques that at the same time compromise his authentic personal dominion over himself and that even, in a certain way, annihilate this dominion." In demanding a total gift of self on the part of the spouses, marriage reflects the divine love which established it. Put another way, the characteristics of conjugal love flow from God's triune creative love. Pope Paul describes conjugal love as flowing from the free will of the spouses and as total, faithful, exclusive and fruitful (HV, 9). One could say that the Creator etched the characteristics of Trinitarian love onto conjugal love such that for the baptized it has been made a sacramental sign of Christ's love for his spouse, the church (HV, 6). And it is in the totality of the gift of self the spouses are to impart to one another that the church's constant teaching against contracepting new life is to be understood.
Indeed, "it is here," Cardinal Wojtyla comments, "that we encounter the bold analogy by means of which the pastoral constitution [Gaudium et Spes] seeks to respond to the whole tradition of theological anthropology that conceives man above all as made 'in the image and likeness of God.'" In the totality of our being, the core of which is a free and rational nature, we are made to reflect and participate in God's Trinitarian communion of life and love. We know from the opening pages of Scripture that we are made in God's likeness, but it was Christ, the Word made flesh, who revealed the Father's love in the power of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he shed light on the mystery of man (GS, 22), who is called to participate in the communion of the three divine persons, in the "real relations" of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This we do in relationship to God and to others. That is why Gaudium et Spes, No. 24, teaches that the Lord Jesus "implied a certain likeness between the union of divine persons, and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self." This passage from Gaudium et Spes highlights our capacity for communion, for relationship, as an essential part of human existence. We were created not merely as individuals but are constitutively related to God and to one another from the first moment of our existence. Indeed, the vocation to love is part of our very nature. It is in this light that we must understand the teaching of Humanae Vitae with regard to the gift of self that spouses are to make. In the totality of their fully human gift, a gift both "of the senses and the spirit" (HV, 9), they are called to become a communion of persons whose love, resembling and cooperating with God's creative love, overflows in bringing new human beings into the world.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II built on this insight. Over time, he reflected extensively on Genesis 1:27, which suggests that sexual difference our being made male and female has something to do with our being made in God's image. For example, in his 1988 letter "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" (Mulieris Dignitatem), he wrote:
The fact that man 'created as man and woman' is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a 'unity of the two' in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love and in this way mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the three divine persons love each other in the intimate mystery of one divine life. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God through the unity of the divinity, exist as persons through the inscrutable divine relationship. Only in this way can we understand the truth that God in himself is love (cf. Jn 4:16).
Finding its source and end in the Trinity, then, human love also proceeds according to the form of the Trinity. In Mulieris Dignitatem, just quoted, Pope John Paul II makes clear that the love of husband and wife is an image of the love of the divine persons. This can be seen in several ways. First, we may observe that the love of the divine persons is characterized by absolute self-gift and reception of the other. In other words, their love is not something they give, as if a product or commodity; rather, they give themselves, their very being. The love that they share is not something that can be traded or calculated and the gift of love is not payment for having received love. Rather, when love is truly a gift of self, there is no calculation, no measure just the full, free gift of all that one is. This love that the Father and the Son give and receive is the Holy Spirit, who can be called their gift, their bond, even their communion. The Holy Spirit is not being exchanged between the Father and the Son; he is not traded, calculated, measured. Like the Father and the Son, he is holy, eternal, infinite, immense, never-ending.
And so if human love is to imitate divine love, it too should not be calculated, measured or exchanged as a commodity but in a creaturely and therefore limited way should be holy, moving toward the eternal, the immense, the never-ending.
Furthermore, in the Father and Son's love for one another, there is perfect unity in difference, which is inherently and infinitely fruitful. Each of the Divine Persons is fully divine, but in a way the other is not. (Thus we speak of the Three Divine Persons as "real relations.") Similarly, as John Paul II points out, male and female are two distinct ways of being fully human. And God ordained their union in married love and mutual self-donation to welcome new life as a fruit and sign of their love for one another. The point which the anthropological vision of Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae lead to is simply that the "language of the body" and the life-giving power of the conjugal act are called to express the total, generous and fruitful communion of the Divine Persons.
Based on that anthropological vision, both Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae formulate the ethic at the heart of the church's teaching on contraception. The pastoral constitution taught that "when it is a question of harmonizing conjugal love and the responsible transmission of life, the moral character of the behavior does not depend only on sincere intentions and the evaluation of motives; but this must be determined by objective criteria that have their foundation in the very nature of the human person and his acts, and that preserve the full meaning of mutual giving and of human procreation in the context of true love" (GS, 51). Similarly, Humanae Vitae refers both to the subjective requirements of married love and also to its objective criteria in discussing the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal love: "Indeed, by its own intimate structure, the conjugal act, while it unites the spouses in a profoundly intimate way, makes them fit to generate new lives according to laws inscribed into the very being of man and woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and procreative, the conjugal act preserves integrally the meaning of mutual and true love and its orientation to the most high vocation of man to parenthood" (HV, 12). Cardinal Wojtyla held that both Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae steadfastly hold to the objective meaning of conjugal love (HV, 10) precisely so as not to deprive the spouses of the authentic subjective meaning of the total and mutual gift they are making to one another. Only then are man and woman fully the authors of their own marital embrace. The subjective dimension by which intimate love is expressed must correspond to its objective dimension whereby the couple, in their reciprocal love, has the potential to cooperate with God in bringing a new life into the world. As the future pope observed, "Thus man becomes capable of seeing in a more mature way the authenticity, the reasonableness and the beauty of the objective moral order when he conceives it with his own conscience as subject."
In this light we come to understand how couples are to form their consciences in accord with the design of God and the teaching of the church. This is not an externally imposed requirement but one that arises from the very nature of married love, that is to say, the interior truth of conjugal love itself and what it says about the spouses. Gaudium et Spes (see Nos. 16 and 51) and Humanae Vitae (see Nos. 10, 20, 21, 28) both teach that conscience does not create one's personal moral truth (relativism) but rather "perceives" and rightly interprets the objective moral order established by God. In appropriating this objective moral order and making it one's own, one becomes free through self-mastery to give oneself to another in a manner that reflects the dynamic self-giving of the persons of the Trinity as well as the love which the triune God has lavished upon the world.
IV. Two Anthropologies
Paragraph 16 of Humanae Vitae discusses the morality of couples making recourse to the infertile period in order to limit the size of their family for serious reasons. Over the last 40 years, enormous strides have been made in natural family planning. Yet some persist in seeing natural family planning as merely another form of contraception. In Familiaris Consortio (No. 32), Pope John Paul II taught that the difference between contraception and natural family planning is "much wider and deeper than is usually thought." In fact, they involve irreducibly different concepts of the human person. In the case of contraception, the couple becomes "the 'arbiters' of the divine plan and they 'manipulate' and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves and their married partner by altering its value of 'total' self-giving."
The Pope goes on to show how the innate, incarnate language of reciprocal self-giving on the part of spouses "is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, that of not giving oneself totally to the other." This harms not only the procreative aspect of married love but also its unitive aspect. On the other hand, those rightly employing Natural Family Planning act not as arbiters but rather as "ministers" of God's plan, remaining true to their calling to mutual and total self-giving. To practice NFP rightly involves a deep level of acceptance of the woman on the part of the man, requires that the couple enter into dialogue, and recognizes the spiritual and bodily character of conjugal love.
V. The Dignity of the Human Person and Social Justice
The church's teaching on marriage and family is not isolated but rather flows from all that the church believes and teaches about the dignity of the human person as a living reflection of God's inner life and love. Humanae Vitae's vision of the human person and its explicit teaching is not merely a question of a private morality for married couples but indeed has to do with building a just and humane world in which children are conceived and nurtured in stable, loving homes. In our various ministries of social justice within the church, we recognize the dignity of the human person as foundational to justice and peace. Indeed, the church does not teach two anthropologies one for married couples and another for the rest of us.
In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II stressed that human dignity lay in the supernatural vocation given every person, a vocation to love that is the basis for his making "the free gift of self" to others and to God. In the social teaching of the church we find the same integral vision of man that animated Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae. Furthermore, the family plays an integral and integrating role in society. Renewed fidelity to the teaching of Humanae Vitae at a time when the very institution of marriage is threatened in our country is essential for the common good of society.
In addition, an everyday common-sense question confronts us and it's this: If the church got it wrong in something so basic as the meaning of the love between a husband and wife, then is there a reason to listen to the church when she speaks about "sinful structures" in society or addresses specific questions like immigration, war and peace, abortion, education and other burning topics in our society? Widespread internal rejection of the teaching of Humanae Vitae, a very intimate truth with broad societal implications, has struck at the heart of the church's ability to teach convincingly on a host of other subjects.
If we are to be Spirit-led agents of the new evangelization, we must allow the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to the teaching of the church on the dignity and vocation of the human person and not to compartmentalize, compromise or reject any aspect of that total vision of man and his vocation to love. It is in speaking with many voices that we lose our voice not just in the privacy of the home but also in the public square.
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI offered us a beautiful meditation on God's love. It builds in many ways on what the council as well as Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II taught us about the human vocation to love, especially our calling to make "a sincere gift of self" to God and others. In a particularly beautiful passage, Pope Benedict directs our gaze to Christ's death on the cross, "in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him." The Holy Father describes this as "love in its most radical form." It is by "contemplating the pierced side of Christ," the pope went on to say, that we can understand what it means to say that "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). "It is there this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation, the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" (DCE, 11).
In short, Humanae Vitae teaches us that married couples are called to the measure of God's love an utterly generous, beautiful and sacrificial love "love to the very end." The church knows that in reflecting God's love, married couples are embracing a sacrificial vocation that is truly "worthy of man" and essential to building a civilization of love. Given its fidelity to an unbroken tradition, its profound analysis of contemporary culture, its integral Trinitarian anthropology, Humanae Vitae deserves not only another look but also our wholehearted acceptance. For the new evangelization really to take hold in today's world, we must take Humanae Vitae out of brackets and proclaim its teaching on life and love from rooftops.
Thank you for listening. May God bless you and keep you in His love.
This item 8414 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org