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Evangelium Vitae and Humanae Vitae: A tale of two encyclicals

By John S. Grabowski

n In 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).

This 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.

This 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.

The Background: Humanae Vitae

To 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.

That the 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.

The 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

With 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

There 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 contraception.

A twofold response

Long 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."

However, 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.

What was 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.

This is 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).

In spite 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.

This 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.

But what 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.

John 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 teaching.

In his "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

Locating 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 Vitae.

But 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.

Thus to 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 it.

In this 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

A 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.

There 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.

But 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 whole person."

There is 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.

While 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.


1 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.

2 Pius XI, Encyclical Letter, Casti Connubii, no. 55. The citation is from Social Wellsprings, vol. 2 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1942) 143.

3 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.

4 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.

6 The 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).

7 The Polish original was Milo's'c I Odpowiedzialno's'c. Trans. H.T. Willets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc., 1981).

8 Cf. Love and Responsibility 234.

9 Cf. Love and Responsibility 57, 230.

10 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.

11 (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.

12 See John C. Ford, S.J. and Germain Grisez, "Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium," Theological Studies 39 (1978) 258-312.

13 The 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.

14 See The Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981).

15 John 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.

16 Thus 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.

17 The 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.

18 Thus 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.

19 See John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Veritatis Splendor (1993), nos. 47, 80.

20 Thus 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.

21 John 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, 1979) 16.

22 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).

23 See, for example, Familiaris Consortio, 31.

24 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.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved