Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

47. A Prophetic Text under Challenge: The Message of Humanae Vitae

The Contestation

Rarely has any intervention of the apostolic magisterium of Peter and his successors been more challenged than that of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. By some, this encyclical was deplored as an "intellectual catastrophe," to some it was a cause for rejoicing. With the pontifical magisterium thus discredited, its claim to infallibility would obviously have been contradicted and the Christian conscience left to itself. In certain countries Humanae Vitae is blamed for the serious and massive disaffection for the authority of the Church. Nearly everywhere, indeed, many families thought that the Pope did not understand them. He keeps himself, they said, short of the "Council;" he is bringing us back to that detestable world of legalism and sexual guilt. In short, the encyclical was received with so many reservations that its teaching, some say, is outdated in itself and will be declared so before long in high places.

Nevertheless, without ever adding to its meaning, the apostolic authority of Rome and of the bishops has not disavowed that encyclical. Could this be the stubbornness of an institution that one should force to yield? Or is it not rather that, property understood, the encyclical can in no way be disavowed? For my part, I have suggested since 1968: "If the captain of the Titanic had been able to see the iceberg in time, would he not have cried out to the engine- room crew 'Full speed astern!' That might have frightened the crew but it would have saved his ship. The encyclical Humanae Vitae is such a cry."

It is what Rerum Novarum was in its time in another domain. Though of different eras and subjects, these two documents present a didactic aspect which might cause one to miss their true import. Both are indeed texts to alert, not to say alarm. Addressed to Christians, and through them to the world, they deal with subjects which are vital but as yet misunderstood by many of those for whom they are destined. The Church, like the prophets, does not have the habit or the mission before the world to heave arcane sighs. However, in her case, the reasons that she alleges may not have immediately the same depth as the intuitions which guide her, Paul VI said so in just so many words in Humanae Vitae, a point often overlooked.

Without listing here what made the way in which the Church expresses herself on sexual matters age two thousand years in a few decades, we may aver that certain foundations, particularly the philosophical ones, on which the ordinary teaching of the Church leans in this domain, risk henceforth to compromise its relevance and solidity. I am thinking especially of that only too famous "natural law" which one finds usually playing the role of sentinel in documents emanating from Rome. It stands guard at the frontiers of the sexual realm as it used to at the frontiers of the social order. Useful in its own way, it surely needs more explanations than it brings to light in the first place. People must constantly be reminded that nature or the natural law, of which the Roman magisterium willingly speaks, has nothing to do with a more or less stoic vision of the world, wherein all planes merge and where, especially, the will of God which must guide man could be read in nature as in the lines of the hand. No doubt, a direct and naked appeal such as the present Pope seems to want to make to the rights and duties of the human person would be more justified, better understood, more directly capable of integration into the Christian mystery than an obstinate referring to this bare nature, which most present-day minds interpret in a naturalistic and therefore infra-human manner. Undoubtedly they are wrong, but why not take into account this erroneous interpretation, since it is so widespread?

When one rereads the succession of papal texts on the social question, from Rerum Novarum in 1891 to the Letter of Paul V1 to Cardinal Roy in 1971, one discovers, along with a permanence of intuition, a development which is not merely a matter of how things are expressed. Why should the same thing not hold for questions of conjugal ethics? In fact, we have no guarantee that for such very delicate problems just the right language will be hit upon, nor even that the kind of thinking or so-called 'referents' employed by the Roman magisterium are the most adapted to the Christian intuitions which give worth to the intended message. In this domain, as in so many others, the Christian meaning outstrips the cultural expression through which it is disseminated. Thus, Humanae Vitae does not represent, in its category, the ne plus ultra of the Christian message on love; it only expresses, so to speak, its ne unquam contra, namely, the profound vocation with regard to which the Church cannot change course. But all this could be deepened, put in a better context, so that the same doctrine would emerge renewed, though not unrecognizable.

It would be a very serious error to reduce to mere questions of expression the resistance encountered by Humanae Vitae. The various forms of resistance deal with the underlying realities involved and with their resulting concrete practice. The underlying realities relate to anthropology. Are there or are there not "laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman" as claimed by Humanae Vitae, laws which rule the true identity or "nature" of the sexes, as the encyclical states? Or, in the language of the Council in Gaudium et Spes , similar on this point to that of the encyclical: are there or are there not objective criteria "drawn from the nature of the human person and human action, criteria which respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love?" The problem of the underlying reality is there, truly and uniquely there.

From a practical point of view in Christian circles, it seems that the Church, ordinarily patient even to excess with human weakness, would suddenly show itself inflexible with regard to a quite excusable frailty. What is to be done, people ask, if the only means deemed licit for avoiding a contraindicated pregnancy are not practicable, and the spouses feel that the full conjugal expression of their love is irreplaceable? The encyclical, it would seem, makes no provision for borderline cases. Everything seems to be regulated in advance by a law which conscience can only endorse completely or completely violate; conscience thus becomes gravely sinful because it cannot be heroically holy. In reality, borderline cases are legion, but since the law seems to leave them out of account they become the occasion for the conscience to declare itself objectively guilty, contrary to all internal evidence. Certainly, every conscience is at bottom sinful, but is it so in a mechanical fashion through a negative punching at the time-clock of the law? Is the conscience not judge of the circumstances in which it is involved and which could drastically change the judgment which conscience does - indeed must - bring to bear upon its morality? In the view of Christians whose complaint I am trying to relate, to accept the encyclical is to suppress completely the life of conscience, since this encyclical, they say, recognizes only the law and seems to neglect the role of conscience, except when it comes to repenting for having broken the law.

Having judged Church authority guilty of ignoring the rights and duties of conscience, they see no alternative to revolt. Open or underground, the revolt provokes or presupposes a disaffection, clamorous or suppressed, toward a Church whose inhumanity is considered scandalous. Since the disaffection appears to increase as conscience seems more honest, is this not a sign that there is a misapprehension of the meaning of the message supposedly understood?

I. An Erroneous Interpretation

It has been said that the encyclical intended to domineer over each conjugal act in the life of the spouses and to reduce this act to procreation. This is false. No doubt the encyclical does speak generally of the "conjugal act," whose meaning it wishes to make clear in its totality. But in doing this it cannot nor does it wish to supplant the spouses, who are in their soul and in their conscience the only ones responsible before God for the conduct of their love. It is, therefore, to consciences that the encyclical addresses itself, not to supplant or abolish them, but to enlighten and help them in their very freedom. In this light, the central affirmation of the Roman document can have all its meaning.

After noting that acts of conjugal union "do not cease to be legitimate if, for causes independent of the will of husband and wife, they are foreseen to be infertile," since they remain "ordained to expressing and strengthening their union" - and let us not forget this essential point - the encyclical recalls nevertheless the Church's "constant teaching" according to which "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life." Then the text continues: "This teaching, set forth by the Magisterium on numerous occasions, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God, and which man may not break on his own initiative, between the two-fold significance of the conjugal act: the unitive significance and the procreative significance. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while closely uniting husband and wife, makes them apt for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination to man's most high vocation to parenthood." And Paul VI adds to this: "We think that men of our day are particularly capable of confirming the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle."

The encyclical does not say: every use of marriage must be controlled by the transmission of life. That would plainly be an error, since the encyclical itself recognizes "as experience bears witness, not every act of marital intercourse is followed by a new life," and since the encyclical ascribes not to the randomness of nature but to the wisdom of God the existence of "natural laws and rhythms of fertility, which already of themselves bring about a separation in the succession of births." How could the encyclical then pretend that "each use of marriage" is or ought to be "of its very nature" bound up with human procreation, when the connection of the two is, periodically, impossible? But that is not what the document says. In declaring "that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life," it is not asking that "every marriage act" be under the command of procreation in a positive way, but it is asking that it remain open to it, that is to say, that the power to generate, which of itself is interior to the union, not be altered. It does not thereby identify union and procreation; it even declares them quite distinct at various moments; but it asks that their unity not be contradicted once it is given. This is the refusal to accept contraception, which alters the power of generating given in the union. 1

Creation and Generation

Such a refusal remains incomprehensible as long as it is not seen - and it is not ordinarily seen nowadays - that the power to generate which is at the disposal of the couple has not been left entirely to their discretion. For man and woman, this power, in effect, belongs to the mystery of God passing through their love to bring human beings into existence: the mystery of God who furthermore commands the truth of man. Human procreation does not involve merely the physiological processes of reproduction, as if man were only a natural product of the evolution of life and of the sexual functions proper to humans. If that were the case, the begetting of man could be treated, in the borderline case, as any natural phenomenon, subjected only to the demands of reproduction, since human conception would in the final analysis be merely biological. Everything rises up against such a view of human generation which a technological approach to genetics would perhaps not disavow. But there is far more to human generation than that. Indeed, it surpasses even the spousal love which is one of its essentials. It brings into play, in a way which is beyond explanation, the creative love of God, his fatherhood, which makes each human individual the beneficiary of a personal divine love to which he owes his own identity.

Although of such importance, this relationship of the couple to the creative mystery of God is not ordinarily conscious, nor does it have to be so. To wish that it would be so could sometimes remove its naturalness from the conjugal relationship. So it is not at first an idea which can express in this case the deference of the couple to the creative power of God. The same situation prevails. already in the use of the world: to respect God while using the world, it is not enough that one should have in mind that God created it; one must avoid misusing for oneself and others the things thus created. Recognition of God does not consist merely in bearing in mind that God has created; it consists in not opposing in our actions the meaning which God gave the world when he made it for us. That is why an unjust appropriation and a shameless squandering of the riches of the world which, obtaining the so-called happiness of some brings about the misery of others is not only an iniquity from the social point of view; it is also an insult to God. God did not create the world that such aberrations should be perpetrated, That is why the justice of our behavior in our free use of the world is our way of recognizing the creative mystery. The confessing of God takes shape in the quality of our action, not in the pronouncing of formulas; it is spoken in deeds, not in words; it is lived, rather than portrayed: it is found in our actual existence, rather than in our words. This is also why a man will be judged by his actions more than by what he professes. And this is so when it is a matter of recognizing that the injunction to procreate can only be understood within the creative paternity of God which it must serve and with which it must collaborate.

Just as God, in entrusting the world to our freedom, did not abdicate his own creative power, so also, in entrusting to the love of the spouses the task of procreating human life, he did not cancel his paternal role, without which no human can really be begotten. Just as we show our recognition of the creative power of God by forbidding ourselves the misuse of the world he gave us, so also the spouses show their recognition of the elusive but essential role of divine parenthood at the heart of their union, by not undertaking anything in conflict with their power to generate. It is through this power, enclosed in the expression of their love, that passes the creative paternity of God who has command over the basic identity of man. One sees immediately the reason why the encyclical speaks to us of meanings.

II. Duality of Meanings: Indissoluble, in What Sense?

The rejection of contraception, whose true and often hidden basis we are approaching here, does not imply a material respect for some kind of mechanics of procreation. It is directed essentially toward the mystery implied in this generation of man which God entrusts to the love of the spouses. Here again, the role of the spouses does not abolish the role of God. Since his role is truly sovereign and alone creative, in the most rigorous sense of the term, that is to say, capable of conferring on man his absolute value as an individual loved in himself by God, the couple should be able to recognize its creative dependence in the very act wherein it can be procreative. The couple expresses such dependence, not by words but by the respect it has for its own power to generate. God, who communicates to conjugal love such a power, does not do so by canceling his own power to create. He does not give himself over, then, to the arbitrariness of the couple, but to their freedom. But this freedom includes within it a deference toward Him who can give to men such a power. The spouses cannot, therefore, treat this power to generate which their love receives as if it depended only on them, when it depends, throughout their love, on the very gift of God. Not, once again, that they must have the intention or the certitude of being able to generate in order to be united: to be united is to be united! But to be united in the fullest sense, when one realizes the true grandeur of the sexuality which permits this to be done, means not to impose any violence, by oneself or through the other, on this more-than-human power of procreation that one has.

The inseparability of meanings in "every marriage act" does not, then, rest primarily on a biological structure which in fact separates them; on the contrary, it rests on a decision: that of maintaining in the conjugal act its "sense of mutual and true love," no less than its "ordination to the exalted vocation of man to parenthood." Thus, everything takes place in depth at the spiritual level of meanings, themselves found at the heart of a vocation which qualifies the love. Besides, the term inseparable connection, used here, carries the same import.

Actually, nothing is really inseparable in the world of nature, where everything changes and everything passes. Indissolubility is a matter of persons; it only really appears in Revelation, when there is a question of alliance. Without the word inseparable having to be spoken, what it represents is signified with the coming of man and woman. "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder." God is the first one to be faithful in love, and never reneges on his Covenant. What explains then the indissolubility of marriage, the case typical of all inseparability, is not just some structure of the flesh, since so many marriages break up after being consummated, but rather that the freedom of the partners commits itself in an irrevocable fashion, relying on the fidelity and grace of God, without which, as Scripture says, "the flesh profits nothing." Because they did not yet properly understand, the chosen people of God themselves tolerated a bill of divorce which Christ abolished. Christ did not return marriage to its primordial indissolubility in virtue of a power which might come from the flesh; he did so by fidelity to the design of God, revealing in his incarnate Son a manner of loving which renders possible and necessary the inseparable union of the spouses.

If, then, the encyclical, to characterize the connection of meanings in the conjugal act, calls them inseparable, it is not because they are so by reason of the flesh or by the biological facts; they are such because the spiritual truth of the conjugal act demands that love do no violence to fecundity in the performance of the act. The indissolubility of meanings does not then imply that the union is always tied to generation or that it ought to be; it simply means that one cannot dissociate them when they are united, by attacking directly the immanent procreative power in oneself or in the other. The dissociation of the two by the positive suppression of the second term is the disorder of contraception. How can one fall to see that this disorder, which thus attacks the deep truth of love, is sinful since it places the spouses in real disagreement with the God who has called them to be, through their love, his images and his servants? To be sure, it is not the gravest of sins. To dissociate in love the heart and the flesh, to dissociate oneself from one's own partner, is quite another thing from dissociating, often through weakness, union and generation. But it is true nevertheless that, considered in its profundity (much of which escapes people today), contraception, as the Church understands it, puts conjugal love in real opposition to the creative mystery of God, whence the procreative responsibilities of the spouses originate.

Revelation and the Spiritual Analysis of Love

The disorder of which we have been speaking shows up clearly only in the light of Revelation. Since the duality of meanings in the conjugal act depends on the mystery of God, in which love is never in opposition to life and by which life is never given without love, the inseparability of the two meanings is rooted in the same mystery. The full truth of the conjugal love directly excludes the possibility that one could voluntarily sacrifice either of the two meanings which together give the conjugal act its depth, at once divine and human. And it is just as certain that the indissolubility of meanings which the encyclical mentions is not primarily a natural given or a fact of nature, but a truly spiritual task wholly incumbent upon the freedom of the spouses, just as incumbent upon them as is the indissolubility of their love itself.

Doubtless there was a time when procreation seemed to sum up the entire meaning of marriage. At least, procreation was given as the primary element in marriage, and the unitive meaning was called secondary. This was underestimating the full truth of conjugal love, since God himself, who is the pre-eminent model for the spouses in this matter, is never the Creator except by being so through love. Assuredly, procreation is a fundamental value in the couple and for humanity; what would become of humanity if it no longer handed on existence, or if it no longer transmitted it by love? Still, essential though it be, the procreative meaning should not obscure the unparalleled value of the union.

Certainly, the spiritual analysis of the conjugal act requires that one keep in mind, as does the encyclical, that the expression of conjugal love depends on the organs of generation. Never, though, does the encyclical say that procreation, however linked with the union, must always produce its effect in the conjugal act for the latter to possess its full truth: the union of love is authentic even when it is incapable of generating. And yet, the full truth of the union implies, on the part of the spouses, that they do not destroy in themselves the astonishing power they have of conceiving a new human being. But such a respect for meanings is a value for the spouses only if they realize that this respect conditions and governs the total truth of the act in which their love is expressed. Truly, so difficult a realization is this, so disputed in our day, that Paul VI, in the name of the entire Church, perceived the duty and the right to reiterate its spiritual sources and its humanizing import for the spouses and for love.

Who can deny that such a spiritual vision has, and ought to have, direct repercussions for the conduct of marriage? But the encyclical can only have its envisioned spiritual effect through free agents, discovering the harmony of meanings implied in their act. Paul VI seemed persuaded that this discovery only stands to reason and that it is enough to express

"the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle" to be recognized by "men of our day." Sadly, the reaction of western opinion seems to have convinced him of the opposite, and there has been no sign of improvement with the passage of time.

III. Contraceptive Mentality and the Message of the Church

The knowledge we have accumulated concerning biological mechanisms has actually fortified the assurance that the conception of life ought to come under technical control. Why should procreative matters be exempted from human mastery, when this is scientifically possible? Furthermore, all aspirations are permitted; we have even walked on the moon! Even though there still seems to be worries about the results of genetic manipulation, even though there is a general refusal to be smothered under the leaden cloak of progressively invasive "techno nature," still contraception is constantly portrayed, even and especially by public authorities, as one of the greatest conquests of man and woman over the apparently inevitable character of fecundity.

How can one be surprised at such an opinion in a world where increasing secularism, based on a practical atheism, imposes itself everywhere, especially in the West? Contraception is looked upon as just another perfectly normal convenience. The problems which it still poses for certain consciences are to be classified as mental lags, meriting respect but lacking true significance, which a backward religious outlook imposes upon its victims, preventing their access to the benefits of modernity.

Thus there is developing, there has already developed, in western opinion at least, a mentality of which few are free. Should not one speak of a contraceptive world, in the same way that one could speak of a concentration-camp world? In any case the sway, which some call liberating, of the contraceptive mentality - and it is this, and this alone, which is here in question - is so great that it casts into the shadows its ever-increasing train of demonstrated abnormalities, These concern, in adults and in youth, "love," health, marriage and life. By an odd twist of values, for the contraceptive mentality the union, or rather (for divorce goes without saying) the pleasure of the union has become primary and self-sufficient, while generation, second if not altogether secondary, is to be carried out In a technical manner or even simply excluded. This is proven throughout the world by the already considerable number - eighty million according to the experts - of those throughout the world who have voluntarily mutilated their capacity to generate. In this contraceptive civilization, Christians are not absentees. Sometimes it seems that all they need - at least those among them whom the mass media make stars - is to be faced by the sexually novel or unusual to discover in it a misunderstood facet of humanity. Behavior or ideas which thoroughly destroy the Christian truth of love easily become in their eyes "values" to be preserved. With regard to children, the family, marriage, love, being in favor of divorce, abortion, contraception (above all), pre-marital and extra-marital relations, masturbation and every sort of homosexuality, under the pretext of open-mindedness, respect for the opinion of others, of indulgence to others, or simply through fear of being singled out as Christians, the weeds have been sown open-handedly in the consciences of Christians, by Christians themselves. A far cry from the optimism of Paul VI, who was so sure of finding a friendly echo among Christians to his teaching on contraception.

In the face of this situation, the Church's mission is not merely to insist on the existence of law. It is also and especially to open hearts to the total meaning of love. To bring to light again the fact that a given disorder is objectively such, as Humanae Vitae did and had to do, is not enough. No matter how difficult it may be for the Church to find proper language for such subjects, a clumsy word is in this instance better than a seemingly prudent silence, which is only interpreted as approbation anyhow. In the moral realm, the Church's prophetic pronouncements often amount to protest. Maybe she will convince no one who was not convinced already. There may be smiles at the efficacy of an intervention by the Church. Yet something is gained: breaking the silence prevents prescription, that is giving consent by remaining silent. In publicly breaking with dominant opinion it judges seriously erroneous, the Church's apostolic authority gives consciences an objective landmark by which they can reorient themselves. Such a pronouncement of the Church is the Polestar which shows true north, the lighthouse which signals the reef, the buoy which averts shipwreck. Anyone who underestimates this service would show that he loses sight of - or pretends to be unaware of - the disarray of freedoms in a night of foundering values. Such a serious misunderstanding in the very domain with which the encyclical deals should be overcome at all costs.

The indissolubility of meanings in the conjugal act is being contested as publicly as the indissolubility of marriage itself. That inseparability, in the profound sense understood by the Church, is a spiritual program now become difficult to grasp and even more difficult to honor. The dominant opinion justifies the contraceptive mentality by pointing to the dilemmas of life, while this mentality, in its turn, creates further dilemmas; it paralyzes disapprovals too timid to be really efficacious but still too deep to be kept quiet, especially in the woman. Denied to the point where they seem to have disappeared, many of the hesitancies about a contraceptive world are simply neutralized. Only love, in whose name the contraceptive mentality wants them annulled, can bring them to the surface again and give them new voice. That is why to content oneself with recalling a norm of conjugal love, without increasing that very love which alone can recognize in this norm its own true law, would be a terrible error. Besides seeming to disregard tragic situations, the Church would let Christian morality risk being nailed to the pillory of terrorisms and of scorn for freedom.

Everyone must know and be able to know that in this domain as in all others, but in this domain more than in any other, the Church - I speak here of her authorized magisterium - seeks no moral domination over the private lives of the spouses, something which would be not only unjustifiable but also chimerical. Their conscience is their guide and their light. The role of the Church is to help them see more clearly within themselves, but their personal responsibility remains total; it is that of a love the Church helps, a love whose existence the Church always supposes and whose rectitude the Church wishes to support. In a word, from start to finish, it is for her a matter of the reality of Christ at the service of man.

The Church's Message and the Human Condition

Sent to all nations to announce till Christ's return that there is no other Name but Jesus whereby humanity may be really saved, the Church has a mission to reach and serve man himself. In the problem of contraception, so foreign in appearance to the mystery of Christ and involving, one might easily be led to believe, only humanly liberating techniques, we find that the identity of man and woman, the total truth of their love, are as a matter of fact incriminated. That is why, baffling as this may appear at first, the Church's teaching on contraception is not a sectarian opinion: it is addressed through Christians "to the men of our time," as Paul VI put it. Despite this claim to human universality, the light which enables the Church to penetrate such depths of love is not merely human.

Hence the need of a truly fundamental evangelization which recreates in hearts a genuine sense of God. This task is all the more difficult, but also all the more urgent, since we are in a time of atheism where the destruction of the sense of the living God is an accomplished fact for many consciences. It brings about an unconscious but deep and grave denaturation of conjugal love and its true responsibilities. That is why we are unable to integrate, as we must, the spiritual ethics of conjugal love's inseparable meanings into the mystery of Christ without restoring the sense of the true God in his relationship to everything human. We lay ourselves open to presenting Christ in his true depth. He will be evoked to meet the needs of a "cause" which, being without any fundamental relationship to the mystery of God in man, cannot have a real relationship either with the Person of Christ, who binds us in our entirety to God. Not that Christ is to be substituted for the reality of one and all, but his presence in us, his light and his grace for the total humanization of love, are those of one born of our humanity, not an intruder. On this ground, he takes hold of us profoundly to lead us back to ourselves, revealing to us the true depths of God. In this, Christ is not separated or separable from his entire Church.

Given the incorporation of God to man and man to God in Christ, how could the Church fail to have, despite impressions to the contrary, a sixth sense for all that concerns the grandeur of love and its relationship to the body? It is no chimera today that the human body risks being treated as an object of production or reproduction, of consumption or pleasure, and that men will forget that, although it is part of the world of things, it possesses, because human, a value which begins it anew in the world of subjects. Hence the purely scientific knowledge of the human body cannot be the only key to understanding, and still less can its transformation into a technological object be the only conduct, befitting our dignity. Beyond the simplistic views which still did not know things which biology now has revealed to us, we must surely rediscover a spiritual ethic for man through an enlightened respect for his body.

The world of life has, in fact, followed an amazing path of ever increasing organization which made possible the spiritual awakening, more amazing still, of the human being himself. Man does not appear as something random or chaotic, but as a marvel of evolutionary accomplishment. His body constitutes, therefore, the culmination point of forms and functions, wherein integrated sets of structures are unified and regulated. Science discovers them, man benefits from them; he must respect them unless he destroy himself, but he must also appropriate them. The human ethic is situated therefore between two equally harmful extremes. The first would be that of an archaic prejudice which would only see abnormal meddling and destruction in a better mastery of human physiology, especially the sexual; the second, would see in the body, and even more in sex, only a "thing," over which it should have complete power. This is the extreme of unrestrained manipulation in the genetic and genital domain. Between these two reefs the Church should be able to give an open, balanced, and liberating interpretation of the total human being, body and sexuality included. The Church should recognize whatever is helpful, and give it full approbation, but it must remain sufficiently careful and lucid enough about the "natural" which it extols in its teaching and which modern man needs, so that the "natural" appears as a vivifying norm and not as a taboo.

What is more, how can we forget in the case of contraception the principle advanced by Saint Thomas himself, that a certain amount of well-being is necessary for the practice of virtue? There are thresholds beyond which human ethics become impracticable. This is not a reason for believing, as is believed today, that anything and everything is permitted to control the birthrate among the very poorest peoples. Certain powers, public and private, would eagerly recommend programs of contraception, sterilization, or abortion to which the Church is absolutely opposed; she does not agree that social misfortune should be accompanied by sexual or genital. mutilations. However, subhuman living conditions dissuade from presenting the Church's teaching on contraception as an absolute priority. The Gospel can certainly inspire and sustain a spiritual promotion of love even in the worst of conditions, but it does not ask that the Church forget, in this case, its most pressing duty. This does not consist primarily in preaching about some aspect of conjugal morality, it consists in struggling so that human beings in altogether inhuman conditions may be rescued from their present lot. Moreover, what is true in this regard for a great part of the Third World, is also important even in the Western world for more individuals and families than one might at first imagine.

Christian Existence and the Prophetic Role

In this context of the total education of the humane sense under the light of Revelation the Christian can discover, or rediscover if he has lost it, the sense of the Church's message on conjugal love. The Christian, since he is inherently God's image and God's service, attains his spiritual fullness in Christ without any stunting of his humanity. Notably, the Christian must fit the Church's teaching on contraception into the set of questions which deal with the authenticity of love. To be a Christian in these domains does not mean either being obsessed with the problem of contraception or refusing to see in it a real problem, without ever forgetting that conscience is equally concerned with quite different problems as well. Obsession on this point is as harmful as levity. But since it is love alone which constitutes the problem here, then love alone, if it is true, can find the path to the real answers.

In the conflict of meanings which conjugal love can rarely avoid, the union of the spouses remains, concretely speaking, the root meaning of the couple, since all truly human generating depends on this union alone. To de-dramatize the conflicts which arise from the duality of meanings is an imperious duty of Christian conscience. This does not mean that one should imprudently deny that the channels of love, which touch so closely the depths of God, can escape the infiltrations of sin.

The inseparability of meanings which remains the spiritual norm of the conjugal act casts light so deep into love that conscience might prefer to shy away. A legitimate fear or an actual impossibility could then become a refusal of principle, which would distort the conscience and put it at odds with God. But even the discovery that one has truly sinned in shunning the deepest demands of love should never darken the heart with suspicions and new fears about itself, about the other, about the Church, about Christ, or about God. All should be lived in the light of the Gospel for which the sanctity of the morals of the Kingdom is never separable from the superabundance of pardons granted and promised.

Such a type of existence in no way destroys the ideal, though our common weakness may fall short of it. It soon becomes an existence of witness which sheds for others light by which it has itself been penetrated. This light, enriched by pardons, does not cast any shadow on the true grandeur of the message; on the contrary, it authenticates it. It dissipates only pharisaical self-complacency and inhumane harshness toward others. It bestows, on the contrary, the transparency which lets the Spirit shine through. It thus creates the conditions for a propheticism of sanctity which the world, often unbeknown to Christians, needs in affairs of love as in all other domains, although the same world rebels against it, ridicules it, or even denies it. Christians must not allow themselves to be demolished by foreseeable opposition; they must continue to enlighten themselves in order, with dauntless humility, the better to serve others and to serve love itself.


1. It is the use of a contraceptive method, and not the use of the sterile period given by the organism, which defines, in the Church's eyes, real contraception. In both cases, it is certainly the refusal of generation which governs the conduct of the spouses. But in the second case periodic infertility is used; in the first case however there is definite intervention to destroy or inhibit this fertility. It is this practice that the Church forbids and that she calls contraception. The other practice enters into the behavior she calls responsible parenthood or birth control: this formula entering into the subtitle of the encyclical.

GUSTAVE MARTELET was born at Lyon in 1916, has taught theology at the scholasticate of the Jesuits of Fourviere for twenty years, and since 1972 has taught at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches de Sevres at Paris. He was theologian for the Bishops of French Equatorial Africa during the Council, and is a past member of the International Theological Commission. Among his theological works we note the following:

by G. Martelet, S.J.

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