Almost getting Humane Vitae

humanaevitaeI am remiss in not writing about coverage of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that upheld the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition against artificial birth control and contraception.

Here’s my excuse: When I was old enough to read stories about this topic, coverage of the church’s position relied heavily on ad-hominem attacks and priests rarely explained this unpopular church teaching. I knew I would have to go back and re-read Humanae Vitae as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 2006 document against artificial birth control and contraception. (Bear with me. This preamble will be important later in the post.)

I am glad to report that coverage has improved. Gone is the implied criticism that because the Pope and Vatican officials are all single males, they have no right to tell married couples what to do in the intimacy of their bedrooms. In fact, several stories are serious and thoughtful. Yet I think that none truly get religion.

For Religion News Service, reporter Daniel Burke wrote about Humane Vitae and its legacy. His lede struck a fair and accurate note:

Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church.

Either way, 40 years after Paul VI released “Humanae Vitae” on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church.

Throughout his story, Burke treated the encyclical seriously, as a document that Catholics struggle with. For example, he presented what I regard as the best argument against Humanae Vitae:

Lisa Cahill said young Catholics in her ethics classes at Boston College don’t understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through what the church calls “natural family planning” but not by other means.

“The arguments don’t really fit together coherently,” she said. “As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate,why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?”

In addition, Burke also gave readers the historical and theological context in which Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical. While Burke could have dismissed the pope’s perspective and rationale, he sought to explain it:

In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially allow artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.

What Burke did not do, however, was present the encyclical’s main argument against artificial birth control and conctraception. As Peter Steinfels notes, Humanae Vitae was not at its heart a warning against the evils of the sexual revolution in general and artificial birth control specifically. Its essence was theological, not sociological:

The central point of “Humanae Vitae” was that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate effort to prevent conception.

It was here that Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of his own papal commission. After extended study and debate, the commission, though heavily weighted with conservative churchmen, concluded that the inseparability of the bonding and procreating aspects of human sexuality had to be respected over the course of a marriage but not necessarily in every instance of sexual intimacy.

Steinfels got that first part right at least. And while like John Allen, Jr., he strives to explain the theological basis of the encylical and church teaching, going so far as to quote from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger a decade ago, his summary too is incomplete.

Humanae Vitae forbids Catholic couples from using artificial birth control for one main reason: those who use artificial birth control attempt to assert mastery over their own fate rather than being open to God’s will. It casts the issue as one of control — Man’s vs. God’s. As the encyclical states,

[T]o experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source

It is probably too much to expect Burke to described this theological justification accurately. With its elliptical sentences and length, Humanae Vitae is no easy read. (The Bishops’ 2006 statement is clearer and better written.) But I do think that Allen and Steinfels, two prominent Catholic thinkers, should have described this admittedly thorny church teaching and encyclical more accurately.

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  • Dave

    A truly deep discussion of Humanitae Vitae could not stop there. Respect for the theological left would require a review of opinion that human mastery of human fate, to the extent possible, is, contra the Vatican, a positive good in some theological lights. And, specifically, that restricting fertility to the number of children one can afford to fully support, is a blessing to the children that one does have. Also, one would have to mention that, if it’s God’s will that one become pregnant, one will become pregnant.

    Failure to get religion isn’t limited to the failure to get conservative religion (as has been affirmed before by the managers of this board).

  • Jay

    those who use artificial birth control attempt to assert mastery over their own fate rather than being open to God’s will.

    I don’t get it. If I eat, am I frustrating God’s will that I starve? If I build a house, am I frustrating God’s will that I be subjected to the elements? If I use a condom, am I frustrating God’s will that I get diseases or cause a pregnancy?

    Or am I just using what a gracious God has provided to live responsibly?

    From a reporting standpoint, it does look like you have reworded the statement of Humanitae Vitae accurately. However, I think most readers would still be scratching their heads in confusion had your suggestion been included in the reporting.

  • Joe

    Jay,
    have you actually read Humanae Vitae? I understand that journalists are busy with full work schedules. Mark provided the link to the Papal encyclicals. As Mark described, Humanae Vitae is no easy read, but most journalists have a liberal arts BA or MA. Reading this encyclical is not that hard.

  • Daniel Burke

    Mark,

    I tried to explain the “God’s will” aspect of HV here:

    “Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs”.

    Maybe not as explicit as you would like, but it’s there.

    all best,
    Daniel

  • Chris Bolinger

    contra the Vatican

    In reviewing a papal encyclical, must a reporter review all opinions that oppose some aspect of the encyclical, out of “[r]espect for the theological left”? Find me a reporter willing to do so and an audience willing to read the resulting voluminous piece.

  • Jay

    Daniel’s wording does seem to cover the extract that is quoted by Mark. Reporting is inherently incomplete, but not necessarily insufficient.

    How important is it for a reporter to make detailed theological arguments in this context, when they can be discussed and dissected ad infinitum? I think the real test of good reporting on a theological document in the popular press is whether it conveys the essence of the significant arguments for and against it, and whether it will encourage further thought, reflection and investigation. For Mark, I think the missing detail is significant, and I respect such a position as one of religious thought. I don’t think it is very significant in the history of the document.

    We shouldn’t be surprised when a reporter glosses over a “God’s will” argument, looking for more substance elsewhere. Saying something is God’s will, without giving a cogent explanation of why it is God’s will, kind of ends rational discussion. Daniel’s statement that “(s)ex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life” provides some substance to the God’s will argument.

    Joe-I’ve read it, just think the argument that we have “no dominion” over our “sexual faculties” (direct from the encyclical) is, to be charitable, conclusory and not enlightening. I’ll agree we don’t have unlimited dominion over our bodies-we can’t prevent all disease or avoid all accidents-but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to avoid sickness and injury, or not exercise. We have the ability to choose how we have sex with our God given intelligence. Our intelligent nature is also part of God’s will. Indeed, I think we (and God, too, for that matter) want our children to realize they do have “dominion” (not unlimited) over their sexual functions and must treat them responsibly.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Adding to #5, it doesn’t even matter if there is an audience for such a piece. A reporter’s job is not to evaluate the correctness of a papal encyclical. Everyone already knows that non-Catholics of various stripes will disagree with some things that the Pope writes. The opinions of those people are essentially meaningless, because an encyclical is aimed not at them but at those who belong to a church for which the author of the encyclical is the highest authority.

  • Michael

    A reporter’s job is not to evaluate the correctness of a papal encyclical.

    But a reporter should report disagreement, from both Catholics and non-Catholics. Unless you are the house organ of the Vatican or some diocese, a reporter needs to point out that there is disagreement and non-compliance from Catholics, and that non-Catholics criticize the impact of an encyclical on social and foreign policy extending beyond the confines of the Vatican.

  • Dave

    Chris Bolinger asks (#5):

    In reviewing a papal encyclical, must a reporter review all opinions that oppose some aspect of the encyclical, out of “[r]espect for the theological left”?

    The explicit standard of the managers of this board is that every article about gay marriage is to include mention of the theological objections, or it’s “cheerleading.” This is just sauce for the gander.

    Find me a reporter willing to do so and an audience willing to read the resulting voluminous piece.

    By that standard, there’s nothing wrong with reporting only the secular aspects of Humanitae Vitae. The theological reflections that Mark wants to see would burden the reporter and add volume for the reader to wade through.

    Chris expands in #7:

    A reporter’s job is not to evaluate the correctness of a papal encyclical.

    Reporting both sides of theological differences over that encyclical is not evaluating its correctness. It’s reporting.

    Everyone already knows that non-Catholics of various stripes will disagree with some things that the Pope writes. The opinions of those people are essentially meaningless, because an encyclical is aimed not at them but at those who belong to a church for which the author of the encyclical is the highest authority.

    This is tantamount to saying that journalists should not expose Catholics among their readers to contrary theological opinions. The Inquisition would love that line of argument.

    It also ignores the role of the Pope as inspiring and setting an example for the entire world, not just members of the Catholic church. For example, the Vatican participated in an international population conference a few years ago and materially affected its outcome, based on Humanitae Vitae.

    There is no wall of separation between the Catholic and non-Catholic worlds. Communication goes both ways, and journalism should reflect that.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Amen, Michael. The accurate reporting of both sides of tense debates is precisely that the press is here for. At the very least, a call to “get religion” is the call to get the religious viewpoints right in the pope’s teaching and the views of those who oppose it.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Amen, Dave!

  • Chris Bolinger

    The accurate reporting of both sides of tense debates is precisely that the press is here for.

    We have established that most MSM reporters:
    * Don’t get religion
    * See religious issues through a political lens
    * Lean left in their political views

    To provide accurate reporting of both sides (or many sides) of a religious issue, a reporter must leave his or her own viewpoints on the sidelines and interview the right people on both sides (or all sides) of the debate. But this is next to impossible, because a reporter’s biases influence whom the reporter interviews, how those people are positioned, and how the article is framed.

    When reporting on an encyclical, a reporter must understand that Catholics view the encyclical very differently than non-Catholics do, because Catholics view the author very differently than non-Catholics do. The prudent approach would be to focus on views (and disagreements) within the Catholic community. To expand the article to encompass the views of non-Catholics of various stripes is to:
    * Explode the scope of the article to an untenable degree
    * Provide many more opportunities for the reporter to inject his or her biases

    I know that you folks in the press think that your coworkers can pull it off, but I remain unconvinced. As a non-Catholic, I would be very interested in reading an article that sets a reasonable goal, e.g. the impact of an encyclical on the Catholic community, and achieves that goal.

  • Chris Bolinger

    While Burke’s article does stay within the Catholic community, it’s one-sided. The only defender of the encyclical is Pope Benedict. Burke couldn’t find anyone else who shares the Pope’s viewpoint? Detractors include “an advocate with Washington-based Catholics for Choice”. Does it really add value to the article to interview her? Shall we start asking Browns fans what they think of Roethlisberger?

    Check out the positioning in this passage:

    In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially allow artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

    Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition…

    Few would interpret “dug in” and “defended tradition” as “did the right thing”…except the current Pope, apparently. In the battle between tradition and progress, progress always is the right choice.

    Burke writes that the always popular “others” blame the encyclical for the clergy sex abuse scandal. Later, he quotes “a Catholic scholar” as stating that the scandal was “fostered by a culture of dissent born with Humanae Vitae.” That’s weak.

    Mark hit a home run with his analysis.

  • Dave

    Chris Bolinger (#12) wrote:

    The prudent approach would be to focus on views (and disagreements) within the Catholic community.

    This is a more moderately-phrased repetition of your earlier statement that non-Catholic opinion should be categorically ignored, but it amounts to the same thing. And it is disposed of in the same way I disposed of the earlier version:

    Papal encyclicals affect the lives of more than Catholics. Remember that population conference I referenced earlier. The Vatican participated (because it’s technically a country), pressured the participants into watering down the final document, and then didn’t sign off on the result because it wasn’t 100% statisfied. That was Humanitae Vitae affecting, technically, the entire human race.

  • LiturgicalRobot

    Humanitae/Humane/Humanite Vitae ? which one is it?

    HUMANAE VITAE. It’s in genitive case.

    If understanding the content is too much, may I ask at least for reporters to respect the spelling of its title? please?

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I had thought Allen’s piece to be a fair representation. A lay movement that Burke (or others) could have consulted for a “pro-HV” viewpoint, would have been the Couple to Couple League. Natural Family Planning as a way to live out HV is precisely what they do. Couple to Couple could have answered the student Ms Cahill’s question, which is a good one. Even if a couple uses NFP, the Church teaches that we must always be open to life and not deliberately avoid life. The Church understands that the birth of children may need to be spaced for serious financial or health reasons, etc., but cautions against using NFP as contraception. To understand these finer points, one really has to research. Indeed, it might be rather detailed for a secular media article. In any case, the apostolate of Couple to Couple League should be made known.

  • Matt

    The exchange between Chris and Dave seems to presuppose that the non-Catholic response to HV is generally negative. Actually, many Protestants (myself included) view HV quite positively, even though we see the Pope as only a brother in Christ and not a binding authority.

    Dave is right that the non-Catholic response is relevant. I would add that both positive and negative aspects of it should be covered.

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  • Matt

    Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable.

    Burke is here repeating a common misconception that, whether intended or not, is derogatory in its effect. Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness are far more sophisticated and effective than the “calendar method” (more notoriously known as “the rhythm method”). Everyone knows that the latter does not work, and thus Burke’s subtext is that the Church does not allow women any real alternative to constant pregnancy.

    This persistent mischaracterization of modern natural methods gives the impression that those who use them (many, but not all, of whom are religious) are ignorant and/or foolish. As Peggy says, hearing from CCL would have helped.

  • Dave

    Liturgical Robot: Oops, mea culpa.

    Matt: Inclusion of positive non-Catholic responses would have to be balanced by negative non-Catholic responses, or the piece would fit anybody’s definition of cheerleading.

  • Matt

    No argument. But it’s just as true that negative response should be balanced by positive ones, no?

  • Richard

    Jay said: “I’ll agree we don’t have unlimited dominion over our bodies-we can’t prevent all disease or avoid all accidents-but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to avoid sickness and injury, or not exercise.”

    Pregnancy isn’t a sickness, though, is it? Nor is it an injury. Despite common usage, it really isn’t even an accident. It’s part of how we’re made.

  • Jeff in Ohio

    Chris #13;

    “Burke writes that the always popular ‘others’ blame the encyclical for the clergy sex abuse scandal. Later, he quotes ‘a Catholic scholar’ as stating that the scandal was ‘fostered by a culture of dissent born with Humanae Vitae.’ That’s weak.”

    It is especially weak as most count the sex abuse scandal to have started ten to fifteen years before the encyclical was issued. He needs a name or two attached to the “others” and “a Catholic scholar” as well as an authoritative voice to speak on the scandal itself. Without those the statements are unsupported hearsay.

    Jeff

  • Jeff in Ohio

    Having reread the article, I see a name was given for the scholar and his statements are much more nuanced than a mere statement that Humanae Vitae lead to the sex abuse scandal. They are, in fact, one of the most balanced portions of the article.

    Jeff

  • William

    I recommend Birth Control and Discipleship by John Kippley. It is published and sold by the Couple-To-Couple League. It has an unconvincing exegesis of some passages in the Epistles, but other than that it is an excellent summary of the whole controversy, and it answers very well the point raised by the students of Lisa Cahill.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jeff (#23), they may be nuanced, but they still are weak. I disagree that they are “balanced”. No one offers a countering view. Instead, the “scholar” simply says that the encyclical may not have caused but probably contributed by creating (or helping to create) a culture of dissent. That’s balance?

  • Jeff in Ohio

    The statement’s balance is relative. Everyone else blames the HV for the scandal. That doesn’t address the fact that cases from the 1950′s are part of the record. Weigel’s statement allows for that. It suggests that a culture of dissent already existed, as it must have for 600 U.S. scholars to issue an immediate rebuttal.

    Jeff

  • saint

    I’m sorry, I can’t comment intelligently on this article because baby in the photo (yours Mark?) is seriously cute. I could gaze at that face for hours (and probably get a good gist of HV just by doing so)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    No, the (cute) baby is not mine. I found her on Google images.

  • Dave

    Matt (#20) wrote:

    But it’s just as true that negative response should be balanced by positive ones, no?

    Absolutely, or there’s no balance.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    I am posting the information below, belatedly, for MatthewT

    Name: Matt
    Email: matthewt@astro.cornell.edu
    Web Page: http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3770

    Abstinence during a woman’Äôs fertile days to avoid pregnancy ’Äî known as ’Äúthe calendar method’Äù ’Äî is acceptable.

    Burke is here repeating a common misconception that, whether intended or not, is derogatory in its effect. Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness are far more sophisticated and effective than the “calendar method” (more notoriously known as “the rhythm method”). Everyone knows that the latter does not work, and thus Burke’s subtext is that the Church does not allow women any real alternative to constant pregnancy.

    This persistent mischaracterization of modern natural methods gives the impression that those who use them (many, but not all, of whom are religious) are ignorant and/or foolish. As Peggy says, hearing from CCL would have helped.

  • Jay

    Pregnancy isn’t a sickness, though, is it? Nor is it an injury. Despite common usage, it really isn’t even an accident. It’s part of how we’re made.

    Pregnancy is physical condition that can cause death. It is not itself a “sickness” per se, but it is certainly a health condition that can have serious affects on health. Surely you don’t question that pregnancy raises health issues…

  • Dave

    A P.S. to the biology discussion: Underinformative treatment of the biology of a story like this is not a failure to get religion. We don’t want to become GetBiology.

  • ERnest C. Raskauskas, Sr.

    No Doctirne or Encylical will trump human nature (created by God) and informed good conscience (likewise created by God) Humane Vitae is one of the reasons that started the mass exodus of priests in the late sixties and seventies, and also caused many Catholic couples to either quit the Church or become cafeteria Catholics and follow their own theology. Augustian thinking (that marriage is OK if one cannot control his irrasible and concupiscent faculties)
    has long dominated the theology of the Vatican. This is written by a father of eight who attended The Catholic University of Ameica for seven years.


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