"Humanae Vitae" Heroic, Deficient - or Both?
Janet Smith Comments

Janet E. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

John Galvin argues that if Humanae Vitae were a better document (not "fatally flawed" and more like Casti Connubii) so many Catholics would not be contracepting. Galvin thinks virtually no one has been or could be persuaded by the arguments of Humanae Vitae or its advocates. I contest both claims.

Humanae Vitae certainly is not perfect (though I think it quite excellent in many respects) and Galvin ably establishes that Casti Connubii has strengths that Humanae Vitae does not. But I hardly find persuasive the contention that the inadequacies in Humanae Vitae are responsible for the fact that Catholics contracept at the same rate as the rest of society. Indeed, according to Galvin's principles (excellent arguments persuade), if Casti Connubii were so excellent Humanae Vitae (or a better document) shouldn't have been necessary; Catholics should already have been persuaded. Moreover, Casti Connubii is still in print; if it is so persuasive why isn't it succeeding even now? From Galvin's principles, it seems the proper conclusion is that both documents are terribly flawed for neither has succeeded.

Another conclusion could be drawn: neither encyclical has succeeded, because neither has been taught nor are people prepared to receive their teachings. Since the Church's teaching on contraception remains largely untaught it is impossible to determine if it is how it is being taught that is the problem. Until Catholics are taught the Church's teaching we won't know what kind of approach is persuasive. (I will speak about my own experiences below.)

Perhaps Mr. Galvin and I have different expectations of an encyclical: he wants it to be persuasive and finds it flawed if it does not persuade. I think good arguments often fail to persuade because of confusion and recalcitrance on the part of the audience. Moreover, I have relatively low standards (maybe too low) for a magisterial document: I am quite content with a reaffirmation of the Truth. Church teaching surely deserves at least three things: 1) good philosophical and theological support and 2) persuasive presentation and 3) a respectful hearing. It would be splendid if magisterial documents could provide both 1 and 2 and could receive 3, but sometimes they don't and sometimes perhaps because of various cultural and ecclesiastical realities. When such is the case, it is up to the theologians and presenters of the teaching to supply what is missing. Galvin's piece is helpful for highlighting elements not so well-treated in Humanae Vitae; those who would defend the Church's teaching might do well to incorporate some of those elements into their teaching.

And, there are, in fact, different kinds of philosophical and theological arguments that can be advanced for the same position. It is not up to an encyclical to try to present all the various philosophical and theological arguments that are available nor to find arguments that would be persuasive to every reader. The most challenging argument that Galvin makes is that Humanae Vitae does not rely sufficiently upon natural law arguments, tradition, or scripture and that its defenders have relied too much on reciting the terrible consequences of a contraceptive life-style and on the personalist arguments of the present Holy Father. (I note that Galvin himself could not resist using a remarkable number of consequentialist arguments in his own piece - both against contraception and Humanae Vitae!). I, too, have bemoaned the Church's abandonment of natural law in many of its documents but I have also found Pope John Paul II's arguments illuminating and persuasive and references to consequences open the eyes of many. My approaches to defending the Church's teaching on contraception have been manifold; most of my articles are available on my website for those interested in seeing various kinds of defense that can be made (http://www.shmsonline.org). This does not mean that there might not be better arguments to be made!

We do need to think about the difference between a good philosophical/theological argument and a good rhetorical argument. To explain the distinction to my students in bioethics I have them consider the difference between trying to persuade a young woman outside of an abortion clinic that she should not have an abortion, writing an editorial for a newspaper, and writing a scholarly analysis of abortion. Reference to substance and accident, actuality and potentiality, Church authority, and Scripture are unlikely to be the most persuasive approaches in front of a clinic or in an editorial though they may be the very best ways of proving philosophically and theologically that abortion is killing. But what may convince a young women contemplating an abortion is an offer of baby clothes, or a reference to the possibility that she will compromise her own future fertility or mental health. What works in an editorial may be very time and context sensitive. Reference to God and sin will be Page 1 of 2Humanae Vitae" Heroic, Deficient - or Both persuasive to some and a complete turn-off to others. Arguments noting the terrible consequences generally resulting from an evil work with some and fail with others. Finding effective rhetoric is a demanding enterprise.

It is a truly daunting task to attempt to persuade Catholics who have no knowledge of natural law, little knowledge of scripture, no knowledge of the tradition and a negative attitude towards Church authority, of any Church teaching. Even more so when these Catholics live in a culture that has a view of sexuality radically opposed to the Catholic understanding. The arguments that are philosophically and theologically the strongest often fail persuasively since the audience frequently seriously misinterprets what is being said. Humanae Vitae was trying to meet the needs of the time. From his arguments, it is possible to think that Galvin believes Pope Paul VI would have done better to have reissued Casti Connubii. I suspect it would not have met a better fate.

Galvin's assessment conflicts with the feedback that I get from my work which is a blend of the old and the new, of natural law arguments, of reference to scripture, of references to the terrible consequences of contraception, of personalism and reference to John Paul II's theology of the body. I have reason to believe my tape has changed the minds of thousands -- perhaps more -- and has even been instrumental in conversions and vocations. Really, I don't take a lot of credit for that; I honestly don't think the reasons against contraception are that hard to understand. Christ West gives a markedly different defense from mine - his draws entirely on Pope John Paul II's theology of the body; I have heard young men say that he has completely changed their thinking about sexuality and, thus, their lives. Any clear and fair presentation of the Truth can be powerful for those who are open to it.

Much of the opposition to the Church's teaching on contraception comes from those who have a problem with an authoritative Church, those who have been educated by dissenters, or those who are morally corrupt. Yet, again, I think a major problem is that few Catholics or others have ever heard ANY explanation of the Church's condemnation against contraception, whether one based on Humanae Vitae or Casti Connubii.

Perhaps we should perform an experiment. We could put together 5 groups of Catholics; let each group do one of the following; read Casti Connubii; read Humanae Vitae; read Chaput's pastoral letter; listen to my tape; listen to Chris West's tapes. We could then see which approach wins the most advocates for the Church's teaching on contraception. Nonetheless, even if one method proves considerably more successful than the others, say, for instance, that Casti Connubii proves more successful than the theology of the body or the theology of the body more successful than Casti Connubii, it would not be wise to insist that only one approach be used, since different approaches work with different individuals. I am all for having an army of defenders of the Church's teaching on contraception out there in the schools and parishes and media; let them choose whatever true, valid, and persuasive approach they can find.