Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae 25 years ago this week to a world unwilling to listen. Peter Hebblethwaite clears up some myths that have dogged the Vatican's stance on sexual behaviour
HUMANAE VITAE WAS published 25 years ago this month. It was like the death of John F Kennedy in the sense that most people can remember how they heard the news. I had spent the weekend with Patrick O'Donovan, then in his prime at The Observer (and as Charterhouse Chronicler).
The whole Catholic world was awash with rumours of an imminent encyclical on contraception. As the last person to have been in Rome, I declared these fears groundless. There would be no encyclical. And that was official: the Vatican Press Office said so. We arrived at Waterloo Station and The Evening Standard headline screamed: "Pope bans Pill!"
The best service we can render to Humanae Vitae is to reread it not through the prism of polemics but historically. Four myths, or what in other contexts one might call misconceptions, need to be dispelled.
The first myth is that Paul VI abusively "removed the question of artificial contraception from the competence of the Council." But it had already been removed by Pope John X.X111, at the instigation of Cardinal Leo-Joseph Suenens, It was the "liberals" who did not want the Council to deal with the topic.
Certainly, the commission was better equipped to deal, with it than the 2,200 Bishops of the Council, all of them brought up on Casn Connubii which in the pre-pill days said "no" to artificial contraception. Paul VI greatly enlarged the Commission and told its members he wanted to hear "the truth," whatever it was.
So the Council did not have to make up its collective mind. But it set the framework for any serious moral consideration of the question. It said clearly that marriage was a "community of love," and not merely a contractual arrangement with legal consequences. It advocated "responsible parenthood."
On the crucial question of the "ends of marriage," the Council declared firmly that the unitive end (love) and the procreative end (having children) were on a par. They were both equally valid.
All this teaching is reflected in Humanae Vitae, which cannot be accused of being "unconciliar" or lacking "Christian personalism." It is human persons who make love, not disembodied "sexual faculties."
The second myth to be dispelled is that Paul VI "ignored the conclusions of his own expert Commission." He did not follow the conclusions of the majority report, but that is not to say that he paid them no attention. He studied them, but was not persuaded. After June 1966 the Commission had finished its work. It had given its advice, and was dissolved. Henceforward Paul VI was alone in his study with his thoughts.
But not quite alone. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had changed its name from "Holy Office" but not its function or personnel. Still headed by the aged and almost blind Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, it was glad to see the back of the Pontifical Commission.
Ottaviani and his men did not think that delicate moral questions could be safely entrusted to laymen and women who, they believed, placed too much reliance on capricious experience as opposed to tradition. There was a clash of theological methods.
If Paul VI came to accept the Ottaviani line, it was not ultimately because an authority that contradicted itself would be undermined. His difficulty was philosophical.
Sexual intercourse in marriage is a human act, an claw humanus as the mediaevals called it. It has an intrinsic or built in meaning. This meaning could be be reinvented, subverted or arbitrarily changed. It was God given and therefore non-negotiable. This built-in meaning is twofold: sexuality worthy of human beings should first strengthen the bonding between the married couple, continually express and re-express their love for each other; but it could only do this if it was open to the transmission of life, if accepted the risk of a child. This is the most basic argument of Humanae Vitae. If one did not accept this twofold built-in meaning of human sexual intercourse, then the way was open to any of and every kind of abuse. There would be no argument against buggery or bestiality. Humanae Vitae, as Paul saw it, was the defence of the personal and fulfilling nature of human sexuality as God had intended it.
The third myth is that Humanae Vitae is a heartless document. True, Cardinal Ottaviani and his team
produced an horrendous draft. But Paul VI modified it significantly. He cut out any mention of "mortal sin" and refused to declare it "infallible." He inserted two significant passages not in the Ottaviani draft. The first was about compassion: "Husbands and wives, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their lives, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness and voice of the love of our Redeemer".
This was traditional teaching. The Council of Trent taught that the priest in the confessional must be potius nedicis quam judox — more like a physician than a judge. This principle was not always observed by bullying priests waving the big stick of excommunication.
Even more astonishing was the next sentence of Humanae Vitae: 'We hold it as certain that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the Magisterium in propounding sound doctrine, he also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent."
"Invites their assent:" that is not the tone of the insensitive tyrant who is sometimes said to have been the author of Humanae Vitae. Certainly, Paul VI was disappointed by the reactions to his encyclical. But he was open to advice about its presentation.
Archbishop Derek Warlock of Liverpool met him in September 1968, less than two months after Humanae Vitae. Bishop (as he then was) Worlock said that there was no point in berating faithful Catholics for questioning Humanae Vitae since the fact that they were worried by it meant that they cared about the Church. After that, Paul VI abandoned the rhetoric of lamentation. Archbishop Warlock tells another story that helps dispel the fourth myth: that Paul VI was "obsessed by Humanae Vitae." The first meeting of the newly elected Synod Council was held in spring 1972. Its main, indeed only task was to choose the topic for the forthcoming Synod of 1974. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow proposed "Christian Marriage".
By the autumn of 1972 it was taken for granted that "Christian Marriage" would be the theme of the next Synod. At the meeting of Laity Council that September, Bishop Worlock pointed out how disastrous this would be: the wounds of Humanae Vitae had not healed and to hold a Synod on this topic would be to re-open them. Far better to choose an outward-looking theme. This is what happened. The 1974 Synod was on Evangelisation. Paul's pontificate as defined not by Humanae Vitae but by the implementation of the Council.
If history helps to dispel the myths about Humanae Vitae, does the passage of time cause judgements to be modified? Was Humanae Vitae in any sense prophetic? Hindsight suggests four grounds for regarding it as such.
Paul VI was generally poohpoohed when he said that the widespread availability of the pill "could open the way to marital infidelity and a general lowering of standards" (No 19). Though perhaps not a very profound remark, it rings true. Other things being equal, there will be more sexual intercourse generally if the "risk" of a child is excluded. For some this will mean greater promiscuity. Yet Catholic critics always insisted that they were talking only about the responsible use of contraceptives within a stable marriage where children already existed. Twenty-five years later this talks seems naive.
Second, few notice that Humanae Vitae was a defence of the human and family right to procreation against the incursions of the omnipotent state. India has offered bribes for sterilisation. China forbids more than one child per family. Any village mother unfortunate enough to become pregnant with a second child is carted off in a blanket and forcibly aborted.
Thirdly, there has been developing in recent years an alliance between feminists and ecologists. Some women are asking: Why should I stuff my body with pills that have possibly harmful consequences, especially when there is another way to space births which uses greater self-knowledge? We can see in this feminist statement some kind of grudging recognition of what used to be called "the natural law."
Fourthly, natural law thinking is making another kind of come-back. The threat of AIDS has ruined the cheerfully casual sexual exchanges of the permissive 1960s and 1970s. Natural sanctions follow if you use nature in a way that it is not intended. There are other ways of picking up AIDS, of course, but anal intercourse has been an important mode of its transmission. This is central to the consideration of Humanae Vitae. Grace builds on nature, so what the Church has to say about sexuality must respect the natural order of things. You cannot, with impunity, do anything you like with human sexuality. It is not true that "anything goes." It is a high-risk area. There is the constant danger of abuse, exploitation, cruelty, sadism, masochism in sexual transactions. Humanae Vitae poses the central question for modern civilisation: does sexual intercourse have meaning in itself? It replies that its natural meaning is to declare "you, you alone and you always." That is why the right and "natural" setting for it is marriage. And that is why prostitution is wrong, onenight-stands are wrong, and pornography is wrong. They destroy the link between sexual intercourse and commitment, making is as trivial as inviting someone up for a cup of coffee.
This is the solid foundation on which Humanae Vitae is built: human sexual intercourse is an act of love expressing the truth of a relationship that is permanent,
enduring and exclusive. It is, in the strict sense, "love making." This is the "unitive" meaning of marriage.
But human sexual intercourse also has another meaning "in itself." The initiative meaning unfolds into the procreative meaning. It is natural to want a child as a concrete expression of mutual love. Humanae Vitae does not teach the absurd notion that every act of intercourse should issue in pregnancy and offspring. But it does say that if systematically and deliberately the possibility of ever having children is always excluded, then there is something wrong.
It seems to me that most Christian married couples, or indeed most married couples understand these points. People regret a childless marriage almost as much as they regret a loveless marriage... and go to great lengths to remedy infertility. They are paying their tribute to the natural law.
Of course there are diffi culties. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Paul VI's successor in Milan, alluded to them recently in an interview with John Cornwell in The Sunday Times: "There is a contrast in attitude between northern countries and Latin countries on moral questions.
"In Italy we believe the ideal is set high so as to attain something. In other countries they think they must actually achieve the ideal, and are anxious if they fail."
This could be the misuriu derstanding that has bedevilled the Church for the last 25 years. It is time to have it out on the open. Casuistry, which allows for the application to particular cases and the role of conscience, can begin only when the ideal has been clearly stated and appreciated.
Understood in this way, instead of being an embarrassment or a mill-stone, Humanae Vitae could appear as a witness to the ideal of human sexuality in the late 20th century. It does not have much competition.