and Humanae Vitae: A tale of two
this recent encyclical Pope John Paul II makes yet another authoritative
foray into the controverted moral and social problems of our day. The
pope's propensity to adopt a prophetic stance is here in evidence once
again. There is much in this sweeping document to cause the discomfiture
of numerous groups: pro-choice politicians whose promotion of abortion
is said to have helped to create a larger social "structure of sin" (no.
59); those moral theologians uncomfortable with the notion of moral
absolutes still reeling from the broadside directed at their position in
Veritatis Splendor who will find here condemnations of abortion
and euthanasia which are deliberately solemn and authoritative (cf. nos.
57, 65); some traditionalist Catholics who will be alarmed by the
seeming embrace of what has been called in the United States "seamless
garment" language in the prudential disavowal of the death penalty (no.
56); and Western pro-life leaders (including bishops) who will find
their pragmatic separation of abortion and contraception challenged by
the pope's insistence on linking them in common "culture of death" (cf.
nos. 13, 17).
last point is no accidental assertion on the pontiff's part. There is an
authoritative tone to this document which already has commentators
labeling it the most important of his pontificate and comparing it to
Paul VI's watershed teaching in Humanae Vitae. Such a comparison
is telling, even if potentially misleading. While Pope Paul saw
Humanae Vitae as an authoritative, but probably not definitive,
restatement of the Church's prohibition of contraception, John Paul II
offers here an authoritative and consciously evangelical defense of the
whole of the Church's life ethic, including, to some degree, the
teaching regarding contraception. What has not been recognized by many
commentators is the precise nature of this authority and the way it fits
into the whole thought of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II. This paper
will endeavor to show that in response to the crisis surrounding
Humanae Vitae the pope has offered not simply one but two distinct
arguments for the Church's prohibition regarding contraception-one based
on his personalist philosophy and the other based on an appeal to the
authority of biblical revelation.
essay will consider in turn the historical background to the present
pope's teaching, especially Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the twofold
argument against contraception which he has developed, the manner in
which this teaching is reprised and augmented in Evangelium Vitae,
and its significance when considered in light of the whole of John Paul
II's pontificate and the current state of Catholic life.
Background: Humanae Vitae
understand both the content and significance of Humanae Vitae one
must understand something of its background.1 It is well known that the
teaching of all Christian Churches up until our own century was that
contraception was a moral evil. In Catholic moral manuals this position
was often rather easily treated under the rubric of chastity. However,
numerous factors would converge in this century to cause a reexamination
of this position. Among those often singled out are: the increased
awareness of population growth and limited resources, the changing
social and political roles of women, the increased costs of raising and
educating children in an industrial society, and new psychological and
theological approaches to sexuality which emphasized its place in the
overall relationship of the couple rather than a focus on individual
genital acts. This changed context created an environment in which
defection from the traditional position was possible and increasingly
realized beginning with the Anglican decision at the Lambeth conference
of August 15, 1930. Other Christian Churches quickly followed suit.
Catholic Church viewed these developments with alarm is evident in the
tone of Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii (December 31, 1930)
which unequivocally condemned this departure. But what is most
interesting about this document is the way in which it moves away from
the virtue language of many of the manuals to a more thoroughly natural
law approach, describing contraception as "an act against nature . . .
which is shameful and intrinsically immoral."2 It seems that to stem the
rising tide of opposition to the traditional teaching the Church
hastened to employ what it saw as a stronger argument in the form of an
appeal to natural law. Thus the dam held in Catholic circles-until the
introduction of the progesterone pill.
revolutionary aspect of the pill from the perspective of many within the
Church was that it did not seem to be contrary to "nature" in the sense
that other modern means of birth control were. There was neither an
interruption of the act of intercourse itself nor, it was argued, of its
natural finality. The pill simply made available a drug produced within
a woman's own body to suppress ovulation in certain parts of her
menstrual cycle (i.e., progesterone). This led some to argue that the
pill was quite "natural"-it simply allowed human reason and freedom to
shape nature as it had been doing with other forms of technology or
medicine for centuries.3
this development the dam broke. The appeal to natural law could no
longer withstand such pressure, especially when the pivotal concept of
"nature" had been subjected to such equivocation. On this both sides of
the Pontifical Study Commission on Family Population and Birth Problems
could agree. However, while the majority of the commission ultimately
argued that the Church's teaching on this point could and should be
changed, a minority resisted on the grounds that the Church could not
reverse such a constant and authoritative teaching even if the arguments
for it were no longer wholly convincing. By the time Paul VI sided with
the minority and attempted to reassert the traditional position in
Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968) it was too late to recall the flood.
Many in the Church, responding to the cultural ethos of change and
protest which were the 1960s and the sense of religious change sweeping
the Church in the wake of Vatican II, had already been carried far
beyond the bounds of the traditional understanding in their family
planning decisions. And they found encouragement in a growing chorus of
theologians who were openly critical of the Church's position, arguing
for the right of individuals and couples to follow their own consciences
in such matters.4 Henceforth Catholic moral theology would betray a
growing polarization not only in the arena of family planning, but
across the whole spectrum of issues in sexual ethics.5
are thus two questions raised by the controversy surrounding Humanae
Vitae. First, is an argument based on the traditional understanding
of natural law sufficient to bear the weight of the Church's teaching in
this matter? Second, just how much authority does the teaching possess
and can one in good conscience disagree with it? Recognizing these as
two distinct questions is crucial to discerning the exact nature of Pope
John Paul II's intervention in this area. For the pope has attempted to
develop not one, but two distinct forms of argument concerning
before Humanae Vitae and the ensuing controversy broke, Karol
Wojtyla saw the pressing nature of the birth control issue. Even before
the advent of the pill had driven others to the same conclusion, he saw
that the natural law arguments being utilized in Catholic teaching over
the course of this century were inadequate to bear its weight. His
response was an ambitious one. He attempted to completely resituate the
concept of natural law locating it, not in an abstract concept of
nature, but in a dynamic account of personal action and experience
approached phenomenologically. This was the project of much of his
philosophical writings including his doctoral dissertation (The
Ethical System of Max Scheler as a Basis for a New Interpretation of
Christian Ethics, 1954) and his later opus The Acting Person
(1969).6 The resulting philosophical synthesis of a Thomistic philosophy
of the person and a phenomenological account of action and experience
has been dubbed "Lublin Thomism."
there was an activist side to these philosophical endeavors. As
Cardinal, much of his pastoral work in Krakow was aimed at the promotion
and implementation of the Church's teaching on birth regulation. Wojtyla
was in fact on the Pontifical Study Commission which preceded Humanae
Vitae and was personally consulted by Paul VI on a number of
occasions. He was not, however, able to attend the decisive final
meetings of the commission, prevented from making the trip to Rome by
the Communist authorities in Poland.
the substance of his interventions? An answer can be gleaned from his
philosophical foray into sexual ethics entitled Love and
Responsibility, published in Polish in 1960 and translated into
Italian and French by 1965 (and therefore available for the deliberation
of Paul VI).7 In this sweeping work Wojtyla offers a new personalist
rationale for the immorality of contraceptive intercourse. Sex, on this
account, has an inherent meaning of bodily self-donation. Spouses give
themselves to each other and receive each other totally and without
reservation in their sexual communion. Contraception overlays this
language of self-giving with another contradictory language-namely that
of a withholding of self or a refusal of the other.8 Further, the
fertility which is withheld or refused is not merely an external,
biological facet of the person which can be manipulated by human reason
and freedom, but like sexuality itself part of the person as a whole.9
The personal gift which is sex is thus falsified by the personal
withholding which is contraception.
Wojtyla's philosophical answer to the first question noted above. While
agreeing that the older natural law arguments prohibiting contraception
were insufficient, he has attempted to supply newer and more
philosophically compelling versions. Contraception is no longer treated
primarily as a frustration of natural processes, but as a refusal of the
complete self-donation which sex is meant to express. This personalist
argument has surfaced with varying degrees of authority throughout his
papal teaching: most definitively in Familiaris Consortio; in his
weekly general audiences given from 1979-1983 collectively referred to
as his "theology of the body"; and, most recently, in his Letter to
Families.10 A careful reading might also detect some echoes of it in
Evangelium Vitae (e.g., nos. 13, 42-43).
of the importance and controversial nature of this topic, it is striking
to note how little response this effort has evoked from many
theologians. Janet Smith noted in her 1991 book Humanae Vitae: A
Generation Later that few revisionist moralists had offered a
critical response to this argument, in spite of their obvious
disagreements with the pope's conclusions on these matters.11 Little
appears to have changed in the intervening years.
silence could be interpreted in any number of ways. First, one could
attribute it to the "chill factor" which these moralists say has been
created by Vatican disciplinary action to reign in dissident
theologians. Second, it could be that these thinkers genuinely believe
that the debate in sexual ethics has moved beyond this point, the
contraception issue being settled de facto by the widespread
nonreception of the Church's teaching in many countries and the need to
address more pressing issues (e.g., reproductive technologies,
homosexuality, sexual abuse). Third, it might be that this silence is a
strategic move, aimed at attempting to relativize the teaching by simply
ignoring it. There are grounds to think that there may be some
combination of all of these factors at work.
such an approach appears to overlook is John Paul's perception of the
second question raised by Humanae Vitae-that of its authority-and
the response which his teaching attempts to offer to this question. Some
moralists, anxious to defend the Church's position, have attempted to
argue that Paul VI's encyclical itself is an example of the infallible
exercise of the Church's ordinary magisterium.12 Such a move would
thereby eliminate the possibility of conscientious disagreement on the
part of theologians or Catholic couples, demanding from them a complete
assent of faith. The argument has failed to convince most of the
theological community and the hierarchy.13 For now at least, the
teaching remains authoritative, but not infallible, and as such subject
to the possibility of a judgment of conscience which would withhold
assent from it.
Paul II's understanding of the authority of the teaching has been more
subtle. He seems to share the current opinion that the teaching of
Humanae Vitae is authoritative but, as formulated, not infallible.
However, he has also taken steps to increase the authority of the
"theology of the body" one can discern the outlines of a second line of
argument concerning contraception, related to but nevertheless
independent of his personalist account. The springboard for the pope's
catechesis on the body is the second creation account (Genesis 2-3). In
it he claims to locate a theological account of "original human
experiences" of solitude, unity, and nakedness which underlie and
illuminate present day experience.14 It is on this grid that he situates
and amplifies his description of sexuality as embodied self-giving and
procreation as cooperation with God's own creative act. Motherhood and
fatherhood are not therefore mere biological functions, but personal and
experiential participations in the mystery of creation. This notion too
has echoes in Evangelium Vitae.15
this pattern and the normative conclusions which John Paul II draws from
it in scripture is a significant step. No longer is the teaching
regarding contraception simply to be viewed as a truth of human reason
(natural law), but now it is located within biblical revelation.16 The
motive for this innovation can probably be found in the text in Vatican
II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Lumen
Gentium, no. 25 which states that the Church's charism of authority
extends as far as the deposit of revelation.17 Thus if contraception can
be shown to be a revealed truth, not simply a truth of natural law, it
can presumably be taught with infallible authority.
It is a
vague awareness of this trajectory of the pope's teaching that has
created rumors for the past several years that an infallible
pronouncement concerning contraception would be offered in a forthcoming
encyclical. The same unease produced the muttering by some theologians
that the real point of Veritatis Splendor was contraception.18
Such a claim is badly overstated. The document broaches the issue only
twice.19 One could at best claim a loose historical connection in that
Veritatis Splendor was offered in part as an authoritative
response to questions raised in Catholic moral theology in the wake of
the debate which has followed Humanae Vitae. One could make a
better case for this issue being an important subtext for Evangelium
again one finds here no infallible pronouncement regarding the morality
of contraception. The pope is enough of a pastor and a realist to know
how deeply divided the Church is on this issue and the overwhelming
extent of the teaching's nonreception in many Catholic populations. At
most this encyclical slightly increases the authority of the teaching by
deliberately interweaving it with the very forceful and authoritative
condemnations of abortion and euthanasia.20 While the revealed basis of
the prohibition regarding contraception is not explicitly asserted,
there is here in the solemn form of an encyclical, at least an indirect
and second hand connection created between contraception and biblically
grounded condemnations of abortion and euthanasia. Hence the title of
the encyclical is doubly significant-it reveals its historical
connection to Paul VI's teaching in its focus on "life," yet the
teaching is not based purely on human reason but is situated within the
heart of the gospel message.
the two questions raised by Humanae Vitae and its aftermath, the
present pope has offered a twofold response. To the question of the
adequacy of the natural law arguments against contraception he has
attempted to offer a more compelling personalist alternative. To the
question of the authority of the teaching and the possibility of dissent
he has gradually been shifting the basis of the teaching from reason
alone to revelation. Slowly and methodically he is attempting to rebuild
the dike breached in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae in spite of
the seemingly never ending torrent of modern culture which flows over
effort he appears to see himself as both teacher and catalyst. His
weekly audiences were offered as catechesis in the hope of creating a
ground swell of theological and pastoral support. Thus far little has
been forthcoming. He has therefore broadened his appeal to the call in
Evangelium Vitae to a sweeping reeducation in human sexuality and
pastoral programming across the board with the aim of creating a new
"culture of life" in the Church and society (cf. nos. 95-98).
Significance and future prospects
pragmatic reading of John Paul II's teaching would see the shift which
he is undertaking from natural law to biblical revelation as a merely
strategic move, aimed at circumventing further disagreement on the issue
and reigning in theologians and individual Catholics who have dismissed
the Church's position on contraception. However, given the widespread
nonreception of the teaching within the Church and its potentially
damaging effects on ecumenical discussion with other Christian Churches,
it is doubtful that John Paul II will attempt to offer a more
authoritative pronouncement on this matter. He has opted instead for an
incremental elevation of its authority.
seem to be a number of possible reasons for such an approach. First, by
treating the issue extensively and authoritatively in his teaching he
seems intent on continuing to inject the issue (single-handedly if need
be) into contemporary theological discussion and Catholic consciousness.
Second, by endeavoring to put the teaching on firmer footing than it
previously enjoyed he aims to preclude the possibility of its reversal
by one of his successors (as some suggest that John Paul I was planning
before his death). Third, by locating the teaching within biblical
revelation, he has perhaps laid the groundwork for a more authoritative
pronouncement by one of his successors in the future.
there is more to this teaching than pragmatism and ecclesial discipline.
John Paul II's movement from natural law language to more biblical
categories has been a hallmark of his teaching across the board. Whether
using the dialogue between Jesus and the Rich Young Man of Matthew 19 as
a springboard for locating the heart of morality in Veritatis
Splendor or his effort to locate a theology of work in the opening
chapters of Genesis in Laborem Exercens, the pope's effort in
this regard has been generally consistent. The theological rationale for
this effort ultimately seems to be a Christological one. In his very
first encyclical Redemptor Hominis he made his own the insight of
the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes: "Christ, the new
Adam, in the very revelation of the Father and his love, fully
reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling."21
Thus the mystery of the human person is only fully disclosed in Christ.
The two strands of teaching concerning contraception which John Paul has
advanced throughout his papacy must therefore be considered as part of a
larger effort to make a Christological anthropology the cornerstone of
the Church's preaching and teaching in social, sexual, and medical
ethics. At least as he views it, this effort is not so much an embrace
of "the seamless garment" as it is of what the pope regards as "the
thus surprising development in the basis for the official Catholic
prohibition of contraception in this century moving from chastity to
natural law to personalism and appeals to biblical revelation.22 John
Paul II's contribution to this process of development deserves further
consideration, especially in light of the little recognized fact that he
has advanced not one but two distinct arguments. He himself has asked
for the collaboration of theologians in further refining and elaborating
this teaching.23 Such collaboration can take the form of questions to
clarify the teaching (e.g., do such arguments hold in every case?)24 as
well as attempts at positive elaboration which have been sparse and
little heard in Western culture. There is certainly reason to believe
that at least one reason for the overwhelming nonreception of this
teaching among so many Catholics is that many have never had the
opportunity to hear and consider the newer personalist or biblical
arguments for it.
is true that our culture confronts us with a host of pressing issues of
sexual ethics among which methods of family planning are only one, John
Paul II's ongoing effort to raise the level of authority of this
teaching and his insistence on linking it with the whole of the Church's
pro-life agenda in Evangelium Vitae make it clear that this issue
cannot be ignored.
Treatments of the historical and theological background to Humanae
Vitae may be found in William H. Shannon, The Lively Debate:
Response to Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1970); John T.
Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its
Treatment by the Catholic Canonists and Theologians,
revised ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1986) 438-554; and John
Mahoney, S.J., The Making of Moral
Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) 259-68.
XI, Encyclical Letter, Casti Connubii, no. 55. The citation is
from Social Wellsprings, vol. 2 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing,
A notable example was the work of John Rock, an American Catholic doctor
who helped to develop the pill. See his
The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposals to End the Battle over
Birth Control (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1963). Rock's arguments were soon echoed by a growing number of
theologians and, in some cases, even bishops. For an early theological
utilization see Louis Janssens, "Morale Conjugale et Progestogènes,"
Ephemerides Theologicae Louvanienses 39 (1963) 787-826.
For some examples see Louis Janssens, "Considerations on Humanae Vitae,"
Louvain Studies 2 (1968) 231-53; and Charles Curran, "Natural
Law," in Directions in Fundamental Moral
Theology (Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1985) 119-72.
5 On the
polarizing effect of Humanae Vitae on Catholic life and theology
see Mahoney 271-301; Norbert Rigali, "Artificial Birth Control: An
Impasse Revisited," Theological Studies 47 (1986) 681-90; and
Avery Dulles, S.J., "Humanae Vitae and the Crisis of Dissent,"
delivered to the 12th U.S. Catholic Bishops Workshop in Dallas, Texas,
February 4, 1993.
Polish original Osaba i czyn appeared in 1969. The English
translation appeared a decade later as The Acting Person, trans.
Andrzej Potocki, Analecta Husserliana X (Boston: D. Reidel, 1979).
Polish original was Milo's'c I Odpowiedzialno's'c. Trans. H.T.
Willets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc., 1981).
Love and Responsibility 234.
Love and Responsibility 57, 230.
See Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (1981), no. 32;
Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal
Morality and Spirituality (Boston:
Daughters of St. Paul, 1984) esp. 1-34, 77-96; Letter to Families,
Gratissimam Sane (1994), no. 12.
(Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1991) 258-9. Smith's
work mentions only the study by Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Catholic Sexual
Ethics and the Dignity of the Person: A Double Message," Theological
Studies 50 (1989) 120-50 (see esp. 144-6). However, there are other
critical responses. For a general critique of Wojtyla's personalism, see
Bruno Schüller, S.J., Die Personwürde des Menschen als Beweisgrund in
der normativen Ethik," Theologie und Glaube 53 (1978) 538-55. For
a critical analysis of this personalism applied to the issues of sexual
ethics and implicitly to contraception, see Gareth Moore, The Body in
Context: Sex and Catholicism (London: SCM Press, 1992) 92-116. For a
more direct critique see, Ronald Modras, "Pope John Paul II's Theology
of the Body," in The Vatican and Homosexuality, ed. Pat Furey and
Jeannine Gramick (New York: Crossroad, 1988) 119-25.
John C. Ford, S.J. and Germain Grisez, "Contraception and the
Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium," Theological Studies
39 (1978) 258-312.
non-infallible character of the encyclical was asserted explicitly by
Monsignor Lambruschini at the press conference in Rome accompanying its
promulgation. See Mahoney 270-1. This view also seems to be held by the
vast majority of current moralists.
The Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of
Genesis (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981).
Paul II invokes Genesis 4:1 in his theology of the body to argue for the
connection between the "knowledge" that spouses gain concerning one
another in sexual self-donation and procreation. See Original Unity
153-61. The same idea and the same biblical text can be found in
Evangelium Vitae, no. 43.
one of the conclusions which John Paul II derives from his theology of
the body is that "precisely against this full context, it becomes
evident that [this] moral norm [of Humanae Vitae] belongs not
only to the natural moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by
God." Reflections on Humanae Vitae 9-10.
relevant text reads: "This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer
willed his Church to be endowed in defining a doctrine of faith and
morals extends as far as extends the deposit of divine revelation, which
must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded." The citation is
from The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New
York: Herder and Herder, 1966) 48.
Bernard Häring, "A Distrust that Wounds," The Tablet, 247 (23
October, 1993) 1378. Cf. Richard McCormick, "Birth Regulation,
'Veritatis Splendor,' and Other Ways of Viewing Things," Église et
Théologie 26 (1995) 31-42.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Veritatis Splendor (1993), nos.
while distinguishing between the moral gravity of abortion and
contraception, the pope views them as "fruits of the same tree" and part
of a larger "culture of death" emerging in many technologically advanced
societies. See Evangelium Vitae, nos. 13, 17.
Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis (1979), no. 8
(citing Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). The citation is from the
translation by Vatican Polyglot Press (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul,
Aspects of this evolution are considered by John Gallagher, C.S.B.,
"Magisterial Teaching from 1918 to the Present," in Human Sexuality
and Personhood (St. Louis: Pope John XXIII Medical Moral Center,
1981) 191-210. For a broader historical perspective on these matters see
Alain Mattheeuws, Union et procréation: Développement de la doctrine
des fins du mariage (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1989).
for example, Familiaris Consortio, 31.
Even those open to the traditional teaching and John Paul II's attempts
at recasting it might wonder about the language "intrinsic evil"
sometimes applied to contraception in official Catholic teaching (cf.
Humanae Vitae, no. 14; The Catechism
of the Catholic Church, 2370). Such a
designation is curious given the fact that the Vatican has approved
contraceptive use for women religious in danger of rape and
contraceptive measures for the treatment of rape victims prior to
conception in Catholic health care facilities. A formulation which might
better accommodate the teaching and praxis of the Church in this regard
is that contracepting a conjugal act is intrinsically evil, since
cases of rape are obviously in no sense conjugal acts.