“On Human Life” – An Anniversary

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, was issued forty years ago. It behooves us to say something about this document that tells us more about our time than almost any other available source. At the time, while I was teaching in Rome, I published two articles in the now-defunct English Jesuit journal, The Month. I disclaim any responsibility for the demise of said journal that actually published two Schall essays on why this much-castigated document was right. The first essay was called “What Is at Stake? The Long-Range Significance of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae” in November 1968, the second, “The Papacy and Humor,” in September 1969.

The general thesis of both essays (later elaborated in Human Dignity & Human Numbers, 1971) was how amusing it was that a somber old pope would be the designated hitter to defend the essence of marriage before a skeptical world that thought his views were, well, loony. Paul VI, however, is looking better every day as legislatures, executives, and courts throughout the world put into ever more coercive laws exactly what he thought would come about if the central point of this encyclical was rejected.

A couple of days ago a lady lawyer from San Diego told me that in the public schools in California, five “genders” now exist. The terms “mother” and “father” are not used, lest they confuse the kiddies, which, of course, they do. A gay, lesbian, and transvestite high school is opening in, yes, Chicago. And Thomas Sowell tells us that one presidential candidate is for sex education in kindergarten. The spirit of “I will not serve,” first manifested by a famous character in Genesis, has been behind this logic all along. One “I will not serve” quickly leads to another, even if they seem to appear haphazardly.

Certainly, the “long-range significance” of this document is already upon us, not as future but as present reality. We have already taken the steps. Most of them are now law, or soon will be. But still, what I have always found fascinating about the general subject matter of this encyclical is its “logic.” Everything is connected.

Aristotle and Aquinas talked of those connections that are only apparent to the wise. Aside from the fact that the supposedly “wise” have been the chief promoters of the logic of dissent, the point was well made. We are not dealing with a group of separate issues—marriage, fornication, adultery, contraception, abortion, in vitro conceptions, surrogate mothers, frozen fetuses, divorce, artificial insemination, stem cells, gay activities, sperm and ova providers, population control, infanticide, euthanasia, human experimentation, polygamy, gene-enhanced babies, parental selection of child features, selective elimination of retarded children, and on and on. These are not really different issues. One follows from another once the initial step is taken.

Everything has been done to make these issues appear as separate categories of reality, whereas one follows from the other by a logic that is almost frighteningly consistent. What is at work here is the order that is in fact within our nature. Everything relates to everything else. Things cohere. And we are to “obey” the commandments. We thought that this “obedience” was a kind of irrationalism.

But now we see what happens to societies that do not have babies of their own. They find themselves being replaced by other peoples’ babies. We hear talk of manufacturing a kind of human-animal slave who could be mass-produced to provide cheap labor. People who do have their own children find them taken over by an eagerly expanding school system that seeks to control everything that crosses its threshold.

Humanae Vitae was published on July 25, 1968. Some six months earlier, on January 14, at the pulpit in the High Kirk of St Giles, at the University of Edinburgh, Malcolm Muggeridge gave a famous sermon on the occasion of his resignation from the office of rector. His words are prophetic, even yet: “How infinitely sad; how, in a macabre sort of way, funny, that the form their (students’) insubordination takes should be a demand for pot and pills; for the most tenth-rate sort of escapism and self-indulgence ever known!” Notice the word “funny” again. It is this iron “logic” of decline that a pope and a former editor of Punch both saw as it unfolded.

We are now “after” it happened, and we still refuse to see it. David Walsh, in his remarkable new book, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, cites Kierkegaard as saying that the primary way that true love manifests itself is in monogamous marriage, within a life-time of fidelity, itself bathed in the divine love for creation. This is the first logic from which all else is a deviation that strictly follows our own “I will not serve.”


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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