On Human Life – Humanae Vitae. By Pope Paul VI. Foreword by Mary Eberstadt. Afterword by James Hitchcock. Postscript by Jennifer Fulwiler. Ignatius Press, 2014
In preparation for the October 2014 Vatican Synod on the Family, Ignatius Press has published four books that provide the traditional moral foundation for any discussion about marriage and family life.[i] One of these books, On Human Life – Humanae Vitae, concerns the Church’s controversial insistence that artificial birth control is harmful and morally wrong.
Humanae Vitae is, of course, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical letter, promulgated in 1968 to discuss the issue. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful document that explains the laws of conjugal relationships within a contemporary context.
The principles about which Humanae Vitae is most concerned are that people are not designed to isolate sexuality from their personhood; that the sexual act of intercourse is meant to be part of a larger act of self-giving that can only take place within an exclusive, committed relationship – in other words, within a marriage; and that marriage has two inseparable functions – the unitive creation of “one flesh” from two individuals that is inherently, necessarily, and unavoidably fruitful (procreative).
Humanae Vitae’s other accomplishment is a clear prediction of what happens to individuals and society when these principles are violated. What one does sexually is part and parcel of his overall physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health. The promiscuous person, for example, is physically at greater risk of disease, emotionally less able to experience a deeply loving spousal relationship, socially contributing to the erosion of the family, and living in grave spiritual danger. This is not an envious position in which to be – nor is it self-fulfilling or liberating. Quite the contrary, as the years following Humanae Vitae’s release have proved all too well.
What makes this particular volume of Humanae Vitae worth adding to one’s personal library, alongside its original, mustard-colored St. Paul edition, are a substantial forward, afterword, and postscript written, respectively, by Mary Eberstadt, James Hitchcock, and Jennifer Fulwiler.
Mary Eberstadt’s contribution, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” immediately throws down the gauntlet. The Church’s position against artificial birth control is “the most unfashionable, unwanted, and ubiquitously deplored moral teaching on earth.” It “is also the most thoroughly vindicated by the accumulation of secular, empirical, post-revolutionary fact.”
Eberstadt serves as a research fellow for the Hoover Institution, is consulting editor of its publication, Policy Review, and writes extensively. “Not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratiﬁed in empirical force,” the foreword continues, “but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.”
Then follows the evidence, much from secular sources.
Unfortunately, “contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, empiricism be damned.”
That seems to be the contemporary attitude about a lot of moral facts.
James Hitchcock, a professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University and also a prolific writer, provides “A Historical Afterword”. It is impossible not to draw parallels between the progressive Catholic’s misguided expectations for the 1963 Pontifical Commission on Birth Control and the forthcoming Synod on the Family. In both cases, there has been a frenzy to prepare people for doctrinal changes, impossible as that is. “Although Paul VI himself reaffirmed the traditional teaching several times in the period1965–1968, the fact that the question was under study by a commission naturally led to speculation that it would be changed, especially because of the popular impression that the primary purpose of Vatican II was to release Catholics from ‘out-dated’ rules and dogmas.”
Hitchcock goes on to describe Humanae Vitae’s release during “the peak year of a world-wide rebellion against authority that had been building up for half a decade and that manifested itself in politics, education, religion, and many other things. The rejection of all sexual restraints was at the heart of this ‘counter culture’, and Humanae Vitae was a direct challenge to that rebellion.”
There followed a sad and bitter story of dissent and defiance – with one bishop going so far as to say “that the encyclical had not been ‘received’ by the church and was thus ‘invalid’.” Subsequent popes, particularly John Paul II, were faced with the arduous task of evangelizing Catholic thought back into conformity with the Church …with limited success. Rebellion is a powerfully addictive drug. We can only pray that we aren’t in for another such ride.
Jennifer Fulwiler’s postscript, “We’re Finally Ready for Humanae Vitae” offers hope. Fulwiler, a convert, noted that after ten years of attending Catholic services, she heard her first sermon about contraception and realized that, after decades of thinking contraception is “akin to air or water: a categorically good and absolutely necessary resource,” things are changing. “Just as the tide is turning on the issue of abortion (a recent Gallup poll showing that fifty-three percent of Americans under age thirty-five believe that abortion is morally wrong), I believe it is turning with contraception too. More and more couples are realizing that contraception does not make marriage easier; Catholic couples who have struggled to use Natural Family Planning are seeing that contraception is not a solution, but in fact brings in a whole host of new challenges.”
The ray of sunshine? “As Father Jonathan returned to his chair at the side of the altar, the … pews erupted in spontaneous, thunderous applause.”
Can one imagine such a reaction even five years ago?
[i] A review of Gospel of the Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church can be read at: www.speroforum.com/site/print.asp?id=BTWPDCNUXU46
A review of The Hope of the Family: Dialogue with Gerhard Cardinal Muller can be read at:
The third volume is Remaining in the Truth of Christ.
All four books are available through Ignatius Press: www.ignatius.com