“Reconsidering” Humanae Vitae

A friend tells stories of an elderly Catholic priest with whom he used to share an office. The man frequently spoke as though it was still 1969 and nothing had happened in the Church since then.

It is said that some people are planning a meeting in Rome to “reconsider” Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. This is interesting, but also a little odd. Consider how odd it would appear if someone suggested a meeting in Rome to “reconsider” Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The first thing we might say is that there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, including Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens, and John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercensand and 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus on the hundredth year anniversary.

You couldn’t very well “reconsider” Rerum Novarum as Church doctrine without considering all the later official papal developments on that teaching.

The second thing you would be inclined to ask, especially after so much commentary, is how anyone could “reconsider” the teaching of Rerum Novarum. Wouldn’t this be a little like “reconsidering” the Council of Nicea? That ship has sailed.

I am not claiming the teaching of Humanae Vitae holds the same formality as Nicea. But perhaps it would be a better comparison to ask how liberal Catholics would view it if a group in Rome announced there was to be a “reconsideration” of the teaching about the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions in Nostra Aetate with the implication that there might be an effective reversal.

I imagine they would say what I just did. First, that ship has sailed; it is firm teaching. And second, there has been a lot of papal commentary on it since the publication of that document. I imagine they might even point to the numerous places where Pope John Paul II mentions it as definitive Church teaching.

New cardinal Karol Wojtyla and Paul VI

How could anyone consider Humanae Vitae without considering John Paul II’s development of that teaching in his long series of Wednesday addresses that make up his “Theology of the Body”?  How about the many other places he mentions it?  Allow me to quote just a few from his 1994 “Letter to Families”:

In particular, responsible fatherhood and motherhood directly concern the moment in which a man and a woman, uniting themselves “in one flesh”, can become parents. This is a moment of special value both for their interpersonal relationship and for their service to life: they can become parents – father and mother – by communicating life to a new human being. The two dimensions of conjugal union, the unitive and the procreative, cannot be artificially separated without damaging the deepest truth of the conjugal act itself. This is the constant teaching of the Church, and the “signs of the times” which we see today are providing new reasons for forcefully reaffirming that teaching.

This subject has been extensively treated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the “Propositiones” of the 1980 Synod of Bishops, the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, and in other statements, up to the Instruction Donum Vitae of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Church both teaches the moral truth about responsible fatherhood and motherhood and protects it from the erroneous views and tendencies which are widespread today. Why does the Church continue to do this? Is she unaware of the problems raised by those who counsel her to make concessions in this area and who even attempt to persuade her by undue pressures if not even threats?

The Church’s Magisterium is often chided for being behind the times and closed to the promptings of the spirit of modern times, and for promoting a course of action which is harmful to humanity, and indeed to the Church herself. By obstinately holding to her own positions, it is said, the Church will end up losing popularity, and more and more believers will turn away from her.  But how can it be maintained that the Church, especially the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope, is insensitive to such grave and pressing questions? It was precisely these extremely important questions which led Pope Paul VI to publish the Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Later in this same letter, John Paul II praises those struggling to defend this teaching, saying: “I am thinking in particular about pastors and the many scholars, theologians, philosophers, writers and journalists who have resisted the powerful trend to cultural conformity and are courageously ready to ‘swim against the tide.’”

Such words, expressed in definitive terms, repeated again and again, not only here, but in other documents, suggest an irreformable teaching. You can “reconsider” it only in the way any official teaching can be reconsidered: to reiterate and re-emphasize it. You could no more reverse it than you could reverse the teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. My question is simply whether those reconsidering Humanae Vitae will give strength to the swimmers, or seek to drown them in the tide?

But by all means, talk about Humanae Vitae.  It is a document worth reading and re-reading.  In my view, the addenda Pope John Paul II made are sometimes even better than the original.  But you will probably need more than a few days to talk it over.  Let me suggest constant meetings over two or three years. Otherwise, you look like those students who take a weekend to read the Iliad and then say, “Yeah, I read that.”  Somehow, I doubt it.

And if you discuss it as though nothing had been written about it since 1968, you will sound like the elderly priest with whom my friend shared an office: trite, tired, dull, and dated, popular with a certain Boomer Catholic who thought the Second Vatican Council “didn’t go far enough,” but of absolutely no relevance at all to the skeptical young agnostics and baptized non-believers I teach every day.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

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