Page 6, 25th October 1968

25th October 1968
Page 6
Page 6, 25th October 1968 — Humanae Vitae: Five writers look back in sorrow at Encyclical

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.



Related articles

Watershed In Our History Of Faith

Page 5 from 23rd July 1993

In This Time Of Crisis I Feel Deep Gratitude To Newman...

Page 13 from 25th June 2010

An Author Hits Back At Critic

Page 5 from 8th November 1968

Many Authorities Can Be Presented To Fr K Casey (letters,

Page 4 from 12th December 1997

The Encyclical That Said A Great Yes To Married Love

Page 11 from 18th July 2008

Humanae Vitae: Five writers look back in sorrow at Encyclical


n Human Life, An Examination of Humanae Vitae by Peter Harris, Adrian Hastings, John Horgan, Lionel Keane and Robert Nowell (Burns and Oates 10s. 6d.) HE sub-title defines the literary form of the book: An Examination of T-Iumanae Vitae. The examination is uniformly critical and in places downright hostile, but the general tone is "more in sorrow than in anger." The five contributors wive at great speed within a few weeks of the encyclical. Only a flood at the printers lelayed publication. John Horgan gives a rapid account of the history of the discussion from the colloquium at Louvain in 1962 to the eve of the encyclical. It is competent, welMsalanced and eschews anecdote. He might have found room for the story of the Mexican married lady who eettled one debate in the conciliar commission with the Words:

"Your excellencies. do you owe your own existence to concupiscence or to love?" The later Stages, particularly the immediate pre-history of the encyclical, remain shrouded in mystery.

Two things strike the reader. First, there were three papal pronouncements on the question, one a year from 1964 to 1966. All of them said, in substance, that the norms taught Up till then should be maintained. As Horgan comments: "The weight on the Pope's shoulders grew heavier. It was . . . a weight that he neither could nor wanted to pass on to anyone else."

There were no complaints about this procedure. Not, that is, until after the encyclical.

Secondly, what precisely was the brief of the Pontifical Cornmission? At the start it was limited: "to provide some sort of guidance for the Holy See in a situation in which the threat of the population explosion had assumed a much more concrete form." Though its scope was widened, it remained a consultative body and regarded itself as such.

"Consultation" does not necessarily. involve acceptance of what the consulted propose. Still, Horgan's precisions on the titles of the various reports are valuable. What is mistakenly called the "majority report" was the Commission's "theological report" and the so-called "minority report" never came before the Commission, To move from John Horgan to Fr. Lionel Keane is to move from the relatively controllable world of the experienced reporter into a bizarre theological desert where signposts are few. Fortunately, Fr. Keane's history is unintentionally refuted by Robert Nowell in the next chapter.

First, Fr. Keane makes a disjunction between "revelation" which the Churdi has the right to interpret and expound, and "natural laws which have been discovered by man observing his own nature." The encyclical, he asserts, illegitimately extends the area of revelation to include the latter.

Robert Nowell correctly locates the problem —and echoes the encyclical—when he points out that "the traditional teaching on birth control is not a matter strictly of the Gospel but of the Christian response to certain aspects of the human situation in the light of the Gospel." That is a very different matter from simply "observing one's own nature."

The facts about human nature are most certainly relevant to moral judgements, but they are not in themselves normative. If they were, The Kinsey Report would have to be read as a moral handbook.

Secondly, for Fr. Keane, Saint Thomas is the bogeyman, because he introduced the distinction between "revelation" and "natural law" and then failed to respect it. Now "nature" is a notoriously fuzzy word. it complicates every discussion into which it is introduced. But the distinction does not start with Saint Thomas.

Professor C. H. Dodd was able, without strain or axegrinding, to write an article called Natural Law in the New Testament. He showed that the rabbis had faced the problem of whether those outside the Jewish Law were simply abandoned to their own moral devices. The rabbis replied that they were not, since they came under the Covenant with Noah. And they tried to work out the first principles of the Covenant with Noah. This thinking lies behind Romans 1, 19-21 and 2, 14-15 where there is a distinction between what is revealed and "the law written in their hearts."

When Fr. Keane moves from history to discussion, his touch remains unhappy. His central argument is this: "The marriage act has been so constructed by God that its unitive function (intercourse) takes place in one part of a woman's body, and its procreative function (conception) takes place in another part of her body in a manner and at a time determined by the biological process which is separate from the mutual act of marital union" (p. 40).

In other words, the vagina is not the fallopian tube. But, goes on Fr. Keane, what is separable in' time and place can be separated. Contraception, therefore, is justified since it takes account of a separation unknown to Saint Thomas.

On this, the only fair comment is that of Robert Nowell (who is speaking of the encyclical): "This is biological determinism with a vengeance." The "incredulous laughter" with which Nowell greets another passage of the encyclical would be in place here.

I know what Fr. Keane's reply would be. He is here using an argument ad hominem (where the "man" is Pope Paul). He has, he would say, only descended to this level of biology because the encyclical led him there. But he can't have it both ways.

If the "new" theology he invokes stresses human values rather than biology, then that is the level on which the encyclical must be discussed. Nor is it self-evident that the encyclical is written on the level of biology: rather it sets out to integrate biology into a view of the whole man.

I have already praised Robert Nowell for his grasp of history. I commend him now for his grasp of the psychology of married life. I take his word for much since I would not like to be dismissed as "a celibate of limited imagination"—though there are celibates who suffer rather from an excess of imagination.

He writes towards the end of his chapter a further contribution to The Experience of Marriage and it has the ring of truth. It must be difficult

blog comments powered by Disqus