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The Steadying Wisdom of ‘Humanae Vitae’

Science and technology enhance our lives in innumerable ways. There’s no disputing that. But we have moved beyond fixing things and operating at maximum efficiency. If truth be told, we have arrived at something like Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) with the counter-developments in biotech.

Science and technology are powers, and thus they have to be harnessed or regulated if there is to be a morally licit way of making the best use of them. In the past, practitioners of various kinds, doctors especially, were reticent about stepping outside certain limits; they did not want to be seen or perceived as playing God. It would seem, however, that the boundary line has shifted, or the reticence has evaporated.

In the words of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Saint Paul VI, we should acknowledge that we are not the masters of the sources of life (13) – ours is a different role in the mysterious design of creation. There are rumors that a committee in Rome has been formed to “reform” Humanae Vitae. If so, we may be in danger of throwing away much-needed wisdom.

The pope’s encyclical displayed a curious modesty, which makes it seem so out of place in the turmoil of 1968. At the very moment of efforts to conquer age-old problems like civil rights and poverty and explore a new frontier like space, the document urges that “we must accept that there are certain limits beyond which it is wrong to go. . . . These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the [person].” (17)

Tough, intractable problems require thoroughgoing solutions and the word “conquer” may be apt for civil rights, poverty, and even space exploration. But it wouldn’t be right for nature, as in “conquering nature.” Yet, that is what the biotech revolution brought: an effort to conquer even human nature.

We now have a crisis of humanity. Actually, it has been underway for decades; the most sensational developments in the biotech revolution just make it appear that the crisis started recently.

Yet back in 1968, Pope Saint Paul VI saw this beginning to happen. He observed in Humanae Vitae:

the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life – over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life. (2)

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Progress is a fact of life and scientific and technological progress has brought great things into our lives. However, there must be an ethical and humane use of those things which make our lives easier and more comfortable. Autonomy is a true human good, but we cannot forget that we are stewards at the same time. Unfortunately, the autonomy project in modernity and post-modernity has made us amnesiacs as far as stewardship is concerned.

Science and technology have made us forget that we are stewards, that is, men and women who have been entrusted with something, and that we will have to give an accounting for that to God. This is exactly the point of those parables involving a master and servants who are required to show the master what has been done with the gift bestowed by divine predilection.

Humanae Vitae contains much wisdom about how to think of human nature. The key to unlocking that wisdom is found in our stewardship. How, though, are we to be stewards living in harmony with human nature and not seeking to control it? Are there qualities we need to carry out our stewardship?

The pontiff writes that great endurance is needed. We cannot give up on valuable goals when there is hardship and suffering. But endurance is also a character trait that teaches and forms us.

It’s not enough to be exposed to the latest scientific and technological products for the sake of our careers and earning a living. There also has to be education and genuine cultivation of virtue, without which a truly good life is unattainable. This takes time and effort, not the latest time- and labor-saving fixes. Education of the will and the other interior faculties, paradoxically, rests on a lavish expenditure of both time and effort.

The Holy Father mentioned self-discipline as an indispensable aid in practicing faithful stewardship in harmony with our nature. Self-mastery, like endurance, is a deeply personal matter. It cannot be conferred from the outside. It must be taken up wholly on the inside, engaging will, mind, and heart simultaneously.

Yet despite its personal nature, mastery of self also has a real social impact. It can be seen – and imitated – as it is passed along generationally through the family and across society, in friendship, and in various kinds of associations.

Endurance and self-discipline are not distrust of human nature. On the contrary, they accept and affirm it. They also happen to be qualities integral to Christian discipleship. The disciples of the Lord are not called to dominate or control but to exercise in all things responsible stewardship, including generous acceptance and affirmation of the gift of life in its transmission.

We practice responsible stewardship according to the norms of human nature. Respecting the conjugal norm is how we avoid diminishing our humanity in the face of dizzying challenges which come from biotechnology.

We need to go back then to the beginning and relearn the wisdom of the marital act as nature teaches it. Prologue is, indeed, often epilogue.

 

*Image: The Wedding at Cana (Jesus Blesses the Water) by Jan Cossiers, c. 1650 [Saint Waltrude Collegiate Church, Mons, Belgium]

Msgr. Robert J. Batule is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. He is currently the Pastor of Saint Margaret Parish in Selden, New York. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Catholic Social Science Review and has been a contributor of articles, essays, and book reviews to various journals, magazines, and newspapers during the course of his priestly ministry.