The Wisdom of Humanae vitae and the Pastoral Care of the Family | Stephan Kampowski and David S. Crawford | CWR
What the Church, the Body of Christ, has called true and good yesterday cannot possibly become false and burdensome today
As they are gathered in Rome to discuss the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World,” the Synod Fathers ask themselves how to find new impetus for the pastoral care of the family. For this purpose it is important precisely to individuate the challenges that confront the family in today’s societies. At least according to some sociologists, the biggest challenge is the sexual revolution (cf. M. Eberstadt, “The New Intolerance”, First Things, March 2015), whose principal characteristic is the separation between sexuality and procreation. Living in a post-revolutionary world, we often find it difficult to appreciate the radicalness of this revolution and its heavy impact on how people today live their sexuality, their marriages and their family life.
The magisterial pronouncement that most strongly proposes an alternative to the sexual revolution is Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae. In the working document for this year’s Synod, one can find two opposite attitudes toward this document. Paragraph 137 expresses a pragmatic approach that takes its orientation from the contemporary world. While it praises the wisdom of Humanae vitae, it fails to summarize its main content, and with a pre-Conciliar casuistry it empties the encyclical of its normative value (cf. D. Crawford – S. Kampowski, “An Appeal”, First Things, September 9, 2015). In the preceding paragraph 49, on the other hand, we read that “Paul VI, in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae, displayed the intimate bond between conjugal love and the generation of life.” One could say that this is indeed the document’s principal argument which it is well worthwhile expanding upon, as we will do here in what follows.
Marital Love: The Basis of the Norm
In paragraph 14 Humanae vitae expresses a norm against sexual acts that are deliberately rendered sterile (this is what it means by “contraception”), calling them intrinsically dishonest. In support of this norm it proposes a fundamental thesis whose foundations we will examine in a moment. The thesis is the following: a contraceptive sexual act can never qualify as an act of conjugal love. This is the essential meaning of the so-called “inseparability principle” proposed by the encyclical, according to which there is an inseparable connection between the unitive and the procreative significance of the marital act (HC 12). If this is the case, then it will be clear how contraceptive intercourse violates the sixth commandment, the main point of which is precisely that sexual intercourse is for marital love alone. In other words, the contention is that in contraceptive intercourse a man has sex with his wife without treating her as his wife; a woman has sex with her husband without relating to him as her husband, so that, whatever it is they are doing, they are not performing an act of spousal love.
Now what is the basis of this claim? To see this, we need to ask what it takes for a sexual act to be an act of spousal love. A number of requirements need to be fulfilled. First, quite obviously, it needs to be a sexual act performed by spouses, that is, by a man and a woman who have joined their lives through a public promise of mutual fidelity, sexual exclusivity and openness to the generation and education of children. By making this pledge, the two unite in marriage, which is the institution of marital love, which, in turn, is a love with a mission: “the most serious role [munus=an office with its related duties] of parenthood” (cf. HV 1). This mission of generating and educating children is what distinguishes a marital friendship from other kinds of friendship. As the Second Vatican Council says, “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory” (GS 48). The love proper to husband and wife is thus one that has a particular mission and with that a peculiar comprehensiveness. As there is no greater union two people can achieve on earth than being the father and the mother of each other’s children, so there can hardly be a greater expression of love than saying to the other, “I want you to be the mother/the father of my children.” In this sense, what it means to be a woman’s husband is to be the potential father of her children. What it means to be a man’s wife is to be the potential mother of his children. The fact that the man and the woman look at each other in this manner in no way implies that they are instrumentalizing each other in view of procuring offspring. It only means that marital love is ordered to forming a family, which is the aspect under which a marital friendship is specifically different from all other kinds of friendships.
A second condition a sexual act needs to fulfill in order to be an act of marital love is that it is in itself apt for procreation.