Part I: from history to humanae vitae
1. Birth control has become a sensitive issue not just for secular society but for the Church too. It requires a study using many fields…many expertise. Of course there is the medical side. There is the psychological side. Sociology and anthropology may have something to say. There is the judicial-legal and there is the political. Then of course, there is economics and there is demography (or the study of population growth). Let us not forget the moral side.
2. It is hard to see all aspects. Let us try exploring…. Of course we must stay within the region of moral theology and the social doctrine of the Church.
3. First, let us set the limits in terms of vocabulary. One word we hear is “contraception”. It is the will and intention to control birth using specific practices, artificial or natural. There is the use of the condom, the pill, vasectomy, the ceasing of the capacity to have babies, and the natural regulation of birth. Now for purposes of facilitating our discussion, we shall refer exclusively to the artificial when we say “contraceptive”.
4. The natural method implies adapting to the “best moment” of the wife in the course of her menstrual cycle. So there is prudence involved. This, we will not include in the word contraceptive or contraception.
5. Recall anthropology. In traditional societies there is no sophisticated (i.e., modern) science of birth and pregnancy. For example traditional societies did not yet have an idea of the role of the sperm and the egg…how they are genetically working. But, even traditional societies had ethical rules too…and they too had their ways of birth control. There was the method of interrupting coitus. There was pressure put on the woman’s womb. Herbs and other substances were used. In traditional societies but already within the modern world, the pill and other things have become part of people’s use. Let us not forget abortion. It is also practiced in many occasions.
6. What is the role of the man and the role of the woman? Traditionally the man “transmitted” and the woman was the receptacle. It was like “agricultural”. The woman was the earth and the man put in the seed. Ethically some traditional societies would say that throwing away the seed would be wrong. (In some societies—notably in Europe—it was believed that the woman had some psychic element that had to be part of her womb…it had to be secreted into the womb. For that to happen, she needed pleasure. That explained the pleasure that had to accompany coitus.)
7. In all cases, however, there was always the sense of transmitting life. There was the idea of procreation….and this was always understood to be part of conjugal life.
8. Traditionally marriage was always associated with having babies. No, it did not have to involve “having fun”. Simply to “have fun” without the aim of having babies was wrong! So it was also wrong to get rid of babies. (It is not our purpose here to explore history…but it may be interesting to note how St. Augustine had a big role here. Sexual pleasure for him was a “punishment” coming from original sin! So in marriage, that pleasure need not be central. St. Augustine was reacting to Pelagius who said that sin comes from imitation. If there is nothing to imitate, then there is not sin. St. Augustine did not like this because it would remove the role of Christ. Christ had to save us from something we could not remove ourselves—and so came the concept of “original sin”—the sin we inherited. Confusing eh? Indeed. But that is history. St. Augustine was trying his best to declare his faith. “Original sin” was more of a confession of faith in Christ.)
9. The consequence of St. Augustine’s position for marriage is this: get married to have babies…not for pleasure. So the sexual act was not for pleasure but for the responsibility of transmitting life.
10. Years later, this idea would continue to be part of Christian married life. Here is a text from St. Francis of Sales: “The marriage bed should be undefiled, as the Apostle tells us,i.e. pure, as it was when it was first instituted in the earthly Paradise, wherein no unruly desires or impure thought might enter. All that is merely earthly must be treated as means to fulfil the end God sets before His creatures. Thus we eat in order to preserve life, moderately, voluntarily, and without seeking an undue, unworthy satisfaction therefrom. "The time is short," says Saint Paul; "it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had not, and they that use this world, as not abusing it" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III/39).
11. In more modern times, we read encyclicals of Popes saying the same thing: marriage is for procreation. Pope Pius XII would say: “The marriage contract…established them in a state of life, the married state. Nature and Creator impose upon the married couple who use that state by carrying out its specific act, the duty of providing for the conservation of the human race. Herein we have the characteristic service which gives their state its peculiar value — the good of the offspring. Both the individual and society, the people and the State, and the Church herself, depend for their existence on the order which God has established on fruitful marriage. Hence, to embrace the married state… and deliberately to seek to evade its primary duty without serious reasons, would be to sin against the very meaning of married life” (VEGLIARE CON SOLLECITUDINE, The primary duty). Note the bold letters.
12. The growth of population, however, has become a major issue in modernity. Infant mortality has decreased…More and more babies started to be a reality. This pressure of population became a point to consider for marriage. For a time when using contraceptives was not yet common, the idea of getting married had to come later in age. So getting married older than teen age years became common. This late marriage became an important element in population control…for some time, in early 1900’s. It was not exactly happening everywhere, but it had a significant role.
13. In other words, it was possible to have mastery over fertility. Do not marry at once. Avoid the contact for a while. Abstain even for a while. It was possible to manage having babies and be careful of how many babies to have. It was possible to plan. This was possible even before the wide introduction of the contraceptives that we know today. “When examining demographic trends, the magisterium of the church reaffirms the sacred nature of human life, responsibility for the transmission of life, the inherent rights of fatherhood and motherhood, the values of marriage and family life, in the context of which children are the gift of God the Creator” (ETHICAL AND PASTORAL DIMENSIONS OF POPULATION TRENDS 1994). The Church has always affirmed that self-regulation was (and is) possible.
14. But then there was the influence of Malthus who said that population growth could go well beyond the capacity of resources to feed the population. So it might be necessary to “control” population. The remedy could be “destructive” or “preventive”…So the door even to abortion is opened. The door to contraception is opened too.
15. Many conferences have been organized to discuss this issue of population. The Church has been consistent with her stand: the human couple is capable of managing its relationship and managing resources. There is an assumed confidence in the humanity of married couples. Popes have addressed the issue. We can name some encyclicals: Humanae vitae, of Pope Paul VI, 1968; Familiaris consortio and Evangelium vitae,both of Pope John-Paul II.
16. Vatican II had no clear mention of the use of contraceptives. Well, Gaudium et spes had a bit on it: “The sexual characteristics of man and the human faculty of reproduction wonderfully exceed the dispositions of lower forms of life. Hence the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (GS 51). Note the word in bold. Notice how the Church takes seriously her confidence in the human couple to really self-regulate—“in the context of true love”. This context is primarily in terms of “mutual self-giving” and procreation. So if there is talk of “birth control”…well, the remedy is to self-regulate.
17. Of course there is still the question of expressing love through the sexual act. Surely couples will not simply think of self-regulation…not always. Is the Church prohibiting this? Is the Church going against the “natural” passions of couples?
18. Pope Paul VI tried to address this. He came out with an encyclical: Humanae vitae.
19. The encyclical stressed that it is not so ok to use artificial means. There is the “natural law” to respect and this natural law is inscribed in the biological constitution of man and woman. So do not separate sexual union with procreation. If there is need to “control birth”, do it with self-regulation. Let us focus on #11-14. We cite some parts.
Observing the Natural Law
11. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy.'' …. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (12)
Union and Procreation
12. This particular doctrine… is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.
Faithfulness to God's Design
13. Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.
Unlawful Birth Control Methods
14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. …. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
20. It will be helpful to read the whole encyclical. If possible, at least the whole of #11-14. Here we put in bold central aspects. Note them well. Marriage means the capacity to give oneself, integral and total. In marriage there is responsibility—of course. There is the role of the natural law. Natural law dictates that procreation is central in marriage. This is even in the biological condition of the human being. Union and procreation always stay together—this is in the plan of God. Artificial means are not allowed. But natural methods are ok. It is interesting to note the confidence given to the human being—the human self-regulate. The human can have mastery over oneself. If all these elements are not respected, there is a big chance of infidelity, loss of respect for the wife who becomes object of pleasure, the responsibility to the family breaks down.
21. What do you think? How would you receive this teaching? It takes guts to welcome it…given all the human fragility we have. His requires long work, a long discernment. Maybe there is even a call for conversion somewhere.
22. Many found the encyclical too harsh…too “old-fashion”. In modernity there is, more and more, “sexual liberation” and many say that the Pope is far from recognizing this. Let us look deep into the issue.
23. The issue is that many people really love each other. They express this love in many ways—including the sexual act. But the encyclical takes a hard position. How do we reconcile the “practical” and the ideal? Many couples want to be truly Christian. But must they live in constant guilt each time the do the sexual act for the sake of it and not for procreation?
24. Later came Pope John Paul II. He thought of what is called “the law of graduality”. He wrote an encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, dealing with this. Let us check it out a bit.
“What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man… patiently be led forward, arriving at a richer understanding and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives” (Familiaris consortio 9).
“But man, …is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth. Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly…. They … must consider it (the law) as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.
"And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God…. On the same lines, it is part of the Church's pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm” (Familiaris consortio 34).
25. Again, it is very helpful to read the whole encyclical or at least these two sections (9 and 34). We removed some parts. Notice what is said about the “law of graduality”. Moral life is not lived in one click. We grow in moral life. Slowly we learn to respond to the plan of God…”gradually”. It is not the law that is gradual, it is our growth in adjusting to it and complying with it. Note that at the end the Pope will exhort couples to obey the encyclical Humanae Vitae…slowly move to complying with it, gradually.
26. In moral theology we saw this. There are non-negotiable moral norms. Maybe we are not able to follow them strictly, so we move gradually. The norms stay—stable and solid.
27. Remember also what we said about the “perfection of the Father”, as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We must be perfect like the father (see Matt.5/48). But this perfection is not impossible for us to do. We grow in it gradually. We are called to be perfect like the Father. We are called to be “holy”, in other words. This is clear in Jesus, he calls us to this. But our response comes gradually. The teachings of the Church—like the Humanae vitae—are not designed to harm us. What we can do is do what we can. Firmly we move gradually closer to what the teachings affirm.
Part II: From humanae vitae
1. The encyclical Humanae Vitae has been widely questioned and criticized. The discussions continue. One Pope had taken the defense of the encyclical. This was Pope John-Paul II. Here is from what he said on the “Church's Position on Transmission of Life”:
“In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. The one is activated together with the other and in a certain sense the one by means of the other. This is what the Encyclical teaches (Humanae vitae 12). Therefore, in such a case the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love. It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, a real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion: communion of persons. This communion demands that the language of the body be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act (Church's Position on Transmission of Life 6-7).
2. Note what the Pope is emphasizing—and we put in bold letters. The conjugal act is also procreative act. Deprive the conjugal act of procreation is to deny the act of love. Pope John Paul II puts the husband and wife in a challenge: in the union of two bodies how can that union be truly a union of persons, integral and true? Humans and persons are capable of self-mastery and of reciprocity. The contraceptive act refuses to recognize this human capacity.
3. Priests have their manual for confessions. They are “handbooks” which serve as references when they need to think about what to say to those who go to confession. (We are probably not so aware of this…but priests always have this. So during the RH debate in the Philippines, when priests were reacting, they had a reference point.) Look at what the handbook for married people will say about marriage and procreation:
“The virtue of conjugal chastity ‘involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift’, and through it sexuality ‘becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman’. This virtue, in so far as it refers to the intimate relations of the spouses, requires that ‘the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love’ be maintained. Therefore, among the fundamental moral principles of conjugal life, it is necessary to keep in mind ‘the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life. (Vademecum for confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life Intro 2 and 2/4).
4. So it is in the tradition of the Church to refuse the sexual act the is oriented to infertile results—contraception. Contraception is intrinsically evil. Conjugal love is always related with procreation. So even married people stay chaste—this is conjugal chastity. Contraception is opposed to this chastity. It is opposed to the transmission of life—and transmission is in the will of God. It harms conjugal love. Note what the handbook says: contraception is irreformable. (So now we see why priests in the Philippines are so firm in their stand…this is what their handbook says!
5. If we think back to our Genesis reflection, this handbook seems to be saying that the human being is a “steward” of creation. The human being is not the owner of the world. Procreation is part of stewardship. God creates, the human pro-creates.
6. Take a look at this practice: “…it is always necessary to assist the spouses, also in the moment of the sacrament of Reconciliation, to examine themselves on the specific duties of conjugal life. Whenever the confessor considers it necessary to question the penitent, he should do so with discretion and respect.” (Vademecum for confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life 2/7). The priest is not obliged to investigate the person confessing—he is not to ask questions on topics that the person confessing does not talk about. The priest must always favor the good of the penitent—not castigate the penitent. Of course if there are strong indications that contraception is an issue, the priest may have to provoke questions. But this is just to clarify and not to look for details.
The Contraceptive Mentality
7. We say that when a man and a woman get married, they will share lives in full confidence to each other…each will say: “I give myself to you”. It is a “mutual self-giving”…for all life…”’til death do us part”. Contraception is a path of not sharing a part of oneself. What is this part? My fertility. I share all that I am to you—all except my fertility. Our mutual self-giving has limits. We will mutually self-give up to a certain point which is our fertility. We are willing to have full confidence with each other, except in terms of fertility. So a reservation is made.
8. This opens the door to many other reservations. If fertility can be reserved, the why not… We can imagine many things. We can reserve resources—“oh now I can keep some for myself and not share”. We can reserve certain information—“oh now I do not have to tell you what happened to me during the day”. We can reserve friends—“Oh I do not have to tell you I have friendship with that person…and I do not have to tell you what we do together”. Etc. Next thing we know, we ask for a separation and divorce.
9. We reserve more…we share less. The unconditional love professed during marriage slowly falls apart. When contraception fails—and the wife becomes pregnant—the door to abortion is next opened. See what contraceptive mentality is. It is a cultural behavior that opens many doors.
10. Of course there is, maybe, an exaggeration here. Surely there are married people who have successful married lives even while practicing contraception. But we try to appreciate the stand of the Church. Let us be aware of the risks involved in the contraceptive mentality.
11. Some reference questions may have to be raised when living in a culture of contraceptive mentality. (Note that you are going to be teachers and formators later on. You might need to discuss contraception with your students.)
Will there be respect for the body of the woman (…her integrity, her rhythm…he health….)?
Will the choice for using contraceptives be a fruit of dialogue and consultation not just with each other but with competent people—including people in the Church?
If a method is chosen to control birth, will it affect fertility?
What about our sexual relations—will it become simply a matter of “habit” and less of love? Will the method used lead to the destruction of a possible human life that will be conceived?
12. What about the “natural method”? There is the Ogino-Kanuss method. The Doctor Billings method. … There is the “pull out” method—the style of Onan in the Bible. There is the “knowing the right time” method…that is, regulating according to the menstrual period of the wife. These involve watching closely the ways of the wife’s body…So the intimate secretions of the wife must be closely observed by the couple. This implies a dialogue between the husband and the wife. His dialogue will tell both of them “when to do it”, that is, the conjugal act.
13. Can this be done in an adult way? This is what the Church would like to say. Self-regulation and matured treatment of the body and sexuality are part of the “culture” of marriage. Today we seem to be so “free” with “sex”… How about a serious, not hedonistic, approach to sex?
14. What about Onan? (See Gen 38/8-10). Well, it was about cheating…Onan was not true to his word. The Church would not go for this style. It is not just a lack of fidelity to what one says it is also about putting that to action. The “pulling out” is cheating. He promised descendance…he was not true to his word…and he pulled out. Many still doubt this is wrong…. So the debate continues.
15. So we come to the end of our discussion—a “very conservative” discussion, we admit. In the world today where “sex” is “more liberal”, the stand of the Church may, indeed, look so conservative. This is a course in theology—we look at the Church’s stand. Let us try to appreciate what she says. She talks about sex—and fertility. It is a “power” we have—something given to us in creation. It is a power of the “male-female” that becomes “man-woman”. This power puts a child in the world. It is not a power to be joked with.
16. The Church invites married couples to lead a married life. As we saw above in our discussion, there are ways of leading this life. “You may…but”, as Genesis would put it. Not all means of birth control are good, as the Church would say. Abortion destroys life. Contraception is a method that relies on lack of confidence and mutual self-giving of the married couple. It is a way of refusing to “master your mastery”, again as Genesis would say.
17. Yes, the Church would go for “natural regulation” of birth. This requires maturity and adulthood in marriage.
What do you think?
A few words about the way the Church handles the RH debate in the country of the Philippines
1. We have seen what the Church has done during the hot debate. We have seen Church people…including Bishops and Religious people…go to congress and be visible in their lobby against the RH Bill. After discussing the stand of the Church here in our class, we understand why the Church people behaved that way.
2. But there is also a limit to lobbying and to rally against…. “You may, but”…this rule applies even to Church people. Certain manifestations of Church people need to be questioned. When a big storm hit Mindanao and killed innocent people and destroyed so much properties, we cannot say that it was due God’s refusal of the RH Bill. When individuals wear pro-RH and go to mass, must they be castigated in front of the crowd…and must the communion be preferential against them?
3. What has the Church done to educate the parishioners regarding the debate? To simplify the issue and say that there are only two types of people—the “pro” and the “anti”—is to over simply the issue and to treat people naively. If the Church is the assembly of all members—not just of priests and religious—then the ordained ministry is duty bound to educate the faithful. The maintenance of faith is part of the ordained priest’s job anyway.
4. Finally, to make a political stand on the RH issue and tell people who to vote and not vote….Well, does this not make the Catholic Church a “political party”? Banners and tarpaulins are set up inside parish church compounds. Written are persons not to vote for and persons to vote for. This is a political campaign done by the parish! This is not the way of the Church. Already the Philippine Church said this a long time ago: "The Church's competence in passing moral judgments even in matters political has been traditionally interpreted as pertaining to the clergy. Negatively put, the clergy can teach moral doctrines covering politics but cannot actively involve themselves in partisan politics. Religious men and women are also included in this prohibition" (PCP-II, 340). But lay people have competence in active and direct partisan politics. (PCP-II, 341). The laity may do partisan politics…but cannot use the parishes for their advocacies.