The Theology of the Body


A talk on Humanae Vitae

In today’s lecture I am not proposing to go into detail concerning the way Pope Paul VI’s notorious encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) came to be written - for example, concerning the degree of consultation there may or may not have been with members of the laity, or with married people specifically. The Pope did indeed consult widely and carefully before producing the document, but in the end he made his own decision - as it happens, this went against the majority verdict of the committee he had set up to advise him. But that was his privilege.

I will also not be dealing with the question of whether the encyclical falls into the category of ‘infallible’ doctrine that all Catholics are bound to accept as an expression of what is called the authoritative teaching or magisterium of the Church (which I believe it does). You will remember Newman’s saying that he would drink to the Pope, but to conscience first and the Pope afterwards. Well, without appealing to authority, I simply want to concentrate on what the encyclical actually says, and whether what it says is reasonable or not. I will argue that it is reasonable: in fact, I would still think so even if it was not a teaching of the Church.

I will not be looking at statistics of the numbers of Catholics who do or do not accept the teaching. The number of people is somewhat irrelevant. After all, if a thing is true it is true, whether or not people agree with it. We do not decide the truth by a majority vote. If the whole world, or the whole Catholic world, voted that black was white or murder was right, then I would have to disagree - and so, I hope, would the Pope, even if if his committees advised him to do otherwise.

So let us look at this encyclical about the transmission of human life, which was provoked by the invention and growing availability of the contraceptive pill. I know I am not going to convince you to change your minds about it, if you already have a view, in a few short minutes. But it seems worthwhile presenting it in some detail, if only for the reason that many people have not given the Pope’s teaching on this a fair hearing. It also happens to be an important element in Catholic social teaching, which is particularly concerned with marriage and the family as the basis for human society.

The Pope begins by referring to the widespread fear of a population explosion on the one hand, and the well-known economic difficulties of supporting a large family on the other. He refers to the ‘new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society’, and of love and sex in marriage. And he speaks of scientific progress that now enables us to exert greater rational control over the forces of nature. (All this in section 2.)

Then he poses the question (3): Granted the conditions of life today and taking into account the relevance of married love to the harmony and mutural fidelity of husband and wife, would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is felt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort? Using technical language (which I will paraphrase) he asks what is wrong with making individual sexual acts infertile, as long as the couple are still open to having children together at some time? Such people are not ‘anti-life’; they may actually want children. But there may be very good reasons for wanting to delay conception.

You see from this that right from the outset, the Pope was by no means ignorant of the issues at stake, or the strength of the arguments being made in favour of permitting contraception within marriage. (He is not talking, of course, about non-married couples.) He then goes on to speak about why he feels as Pope he is called upon to make a pronouncement in this area (4-6). That bit I will skip over: we can take it as read.

In Part II he begins by referring to the key document of Vatican II we mentioned last time: Gaudium et Spes. The reason he does this is that he is going to try to base himself on the ‘spiritual anthropology’ outlined in that document. He thinks it would be too limiting to base himself on biology, psychology or sociology - important though these are - without taking into account also the supernatural dimension of life (7). Marriage, as he defines it, is not just a result of ‘the blind evolution of natural forces’, but the design of God: husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves which is specific and exclusive to them alone, seek to develop that kind of personal union in which they complement one another in order to co-operate with God in the generation and education of new lives.

(Interestingly, the Pope does not talk much about marriage as a sacrament, perhaps because this is not intended to be a theological encyclical but more of a philosophical one. More has been written on the sacramental side of the question since 1968, and I will be saying something about later on. In section 8, however, he does say that in the case of baptized Christians the union called marriage becomes a sacrament, because then it represents or participates in the union of Christ and the Church. Then the Holy Spirit becomes the bond between the couple, just as he is also the bond uniting the Church. It is this, by the way, which makes the union indissoluble.)

The next section (9) spells out in more detail the nature of married love as a special form of friendship, with a vital spiritual dimension. This love overflows the couple into the creation of new life. But parenthood must always be responsible. The Pope goes on to explain the different senses of responsible parenthood.

  • The couple must be aware of the biological and psychological processes involved.
  • They must be intelligent, exerting their reason and will.
  • They must decide for themselves what size of family they should have.
  • But in all of this they must carry out their responsibilities with respect for the moral law that corresponds to the will of the Creator (10).

The Pope adds that sex is ‘honourable and good’ even when it is foreseen to be infertile. In other words, it is not good just because it may or will lead to children (11). The ‘marriage act’ (as the Pope delicately calls it) has a unitive quality; which means that it unites the couple ‘in the closest intimacy’, into a single organism, ‘one flesh’. That is a good and a holy thing, whether or not children happen to result from it.

Here you see an expression of a little-known fact about the Catholic Christian tradition: that it does not devalue the human body and human experience and human love. In fact, it puts more value and emphasis on those things than any other tradition, and more (I would argue) than those who would like us to manipulate those things with technology and indulge in free love. The early Church opposed the Gnostics who wanted to escape the body, and the medieval Church opposed the Manichaeans who thought the body was evil. (More recently it opposed the Calvinists and the Jansenists.) Now the modern Church opposes materialists who think God has nothing to do with the physical act of making love. This modern heresy is the direct result of the process of secularization I was speaking about in connection with Vatican II, namely the splitting of nature from grace or from the supernatural dimension. The Pope is trying to overcome this dualism in one of its most dangerous forms.

Let’s get back to the text. As we all know, in the plan of God, sexual intercourse is sometimes (though not always) fertile. In fact normally the woman is fertile for only two or three days per month. On those occasions, the Pope says, sex does not just have a unitive meaning; it has also a procreative meaning (12). The Pope argues against the separation of those two meanings. This is the core of his argument in the encyclical, so it is worth paying close attention. (Unfortunately it is very concentrated, and uses fairly abstract and non-poetic language, so it doesn’t communicate very well!)

I think we would all agree that one partner cannot force sex on the other (rape her, for example) without committing a sin against love. What happens then is that its capacity to nourish the spiritual unity of the couple is damaged or destroyed. In the Pope’s terms, in marital rape the ‘unitive’ dimension of sex is under attack. It no longer serves to unite the couple: in fact it may then start to divide them. In the same way, he says, one partner cannot deliberately impair or damage the capacity to conceive life without committing a sin against the procreative dimension of love (13). To do something (like take a pill) in order to sterilize the act would be to try to have the unitive aspect of sex while at the same time suppressing the procreative. These two dimensions God has bound together in a single sacred act, and he has not given man the authority to change them. In a famous phrase, the Pope says that man ‘is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator’ (13).

This is the really difficult bit of the argument, so I will add a comment or two of my own to try to make it clearer. Please notice, by the way, that whether a form of birth regulation is called ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ has nothing to do with the argument the Pope is making. The crucial thing is whether a person is attempting to sterilize a given act of intercourse. This does not happen when the couple is using NFP (Natural Family Planning), as the Pope emphasizes very clearly in section 16. NFP only involves becoming aware of exactly when sex would be fertile, and avoiding intercourse on those few days every month. He is not talking here about the old ‘Vatican roulette’. NFP can be extremely scientific, and as reliable as the pill in regulating the size of a family. The intention is still to avoid conceiving a child, but there a big difference in what is actually done. The nature of the act is not being deliberately changed on a given occasion from one that would create life to one that would not.

This is the point that most people do not grasp. They think that because the intention may be in both cases to avoid conceiving a child, the two things are morally the same. But there is an important distinction, even in the intention in these two cases. Let’s take a couple who are using contraceptives. There would obviously be no point in their using a contraceptive if they did not think a child might otherwise be conceived. Why take all those horrible chemicals into your body if you didn’t have to? Therefore the act of taking or using the contraceptive has to have a point. It is directed against the specific child who would otherwise be conceived. For whatever set of motives (whether good or bad) an act is being done directly against life. The couple may still be ‘open to life’ in a general sort of way - eventually, somewhere, sometime - but they are definitely not open to life on this particular occasion.

There would be nothing wrong with all this, in my view, if there was not a God, or if the act of conceiving a child were merely a biological process. But if there is a God, and if he is directly involved in the creation and conception of a child, then a rather disconcerting fact follows, which I will put rather crudely like this. The couple is not actually alone in the bed when they make love: God is in there with them. So the act of contraception - whatever form it takes - is a way of trying to have sex without God, to ‘push God out of the bed’. The couple are effectively saying, ‘God might be going to create a child: we have to prevent him doing so!’

You could say that it is therefore God, and not just the child he would otherwise create, who is the actual target of the contraceptive. The act of love may still be pleasurable, comforting, or psychologically beneficial in various ways. It may be relatively unselfish, in the sense that it may be done for the sake of the other, not for one’s own pleasure. But since it is only God’s presence in the marriage bad that unites the couple into one spiritual flesh, we can see that contraception must in some sense corrode the essence of the sacrament of marriage (attacking at its root even the ‘unitive’ function of sex). The physical love of the couple can no longer function as the channel of the grace characteristic of marriage.

Let’s get back to the encyclical. The Pope goes on at this point to explain that in Catholic moral philosophy it may sometimes be morally right to tolerate something bad in order to bring about something good - or to avoid something worse. But it can never be right to deliberately do wrong so that good may come of it (14). The end does not justify the means. In the short term it may seem like a good idea (for all sorts of reasons) to lie, or cheat on a test, or even to kill, but in the long run one has always damaged something very important, very deep. One has ‘gained the world and lost one’s soul’.

Humanae Vitae also suggests four specific ways in which the use of contraception - as part of what is called a movement of ‘sexual liberation’ - might damage not just the soul of the individual, but society at large (17).

  • It might lead to an increase in marital infidelity and a general lowering of morality, by making promiscuity much easier. That is in fact exactly what has happened.
  • It might damage the dignity of women, by making possible their sexual exploitation by men. That too has happened, as many feminists are beginning to admit.
  • It might lead to the use of forced contraception or sterilization as an instrument of government policy. In fact the Pope was quite right, and we find (not just in China) a new eugenics movement like that of the Nazis gathering strength around the world.
  • Fourthly, Paul VI speaks of the ‘reverence’ due to the whole human organism, especially in the generation of life, and the danger of exceeding the limits of our own authority over it.

In regard to the fourth point, we have seen since 1968 the spread of the idea that the human body is something that can not only be interfered with, but genetically altered and eventually redesigned at will. We have seen human fertility not merely treated with lack of respect, but actually treated like a disease, and this is often linked to the even worse idea that new life that may have been conceived in the womb - if for whatever reason it is not wanted by the mother - can be treated as an infection and killed. I won’t go on. I think it is pretty clear why many people regard Humanae Vitae as prophetic.

The encyclical ends with a section called ‘Pastoral Directives’. This includes one particularly important point, which should not be neglected. It is the point about the positive benefit to be obtained from trying to follow the Church’s teaching. It is easy to concentrate on the negative things being said about contraception, and to lose sight of the much more important thing about the alternative. NFP is not just an approved way of limiting reproduction. NFP, properly practised, is a spiritual path for families. It is a way to integrate sexuality into love: a way to humanize and civilize the energies of the body and soul. It requires us to grow in sensitivity and respect for our own bodies, for each other and for God’s presence in marriage. It enables us to cultivate what used to be called the virtue of chastity. The ‘self-mastery’ which makes possible periodic continence is essential for the development of full human freedom, and therefore for the growth in our ability to love. It is this message about NFP (as well as the one about its effectiveness) that Catholic educators have somehow failed to get across to large numbers of people. [Discuss some reasons for this: e.g. the prevailing ‘mood’ in society, Freudian ideology, the pornography industry, the lack of investment in resources, the fact that few people want to sit down and listen to talks about mucus…]

Let me summarize what I have been saying. The encyclical was a defence of the traditional teaching of the Church on the sacredness of the body, a defence of human reproduction as a co-creation with God, and an affirmation of the dignity of women. It argued that there may well be reasons - whether personal or ecological - for limiting the size of one’s family, and of having fewer children. But it said that this limitation should be brought about by the development of more reliable forms of NFP practised voluntarily by couples, rather than through the technological manipulation of fertility, particularly as an instrument of government policy.

To conclude, if I have time, I want to refer to one obvious set of objections to what I have been saying, and then to mention developments since Humanae Vitae in two areas (theology of the body; NFP).

The obvious objection is that Pope Paul VI is speaking about an ideal of marriage that only a handful will ever attain. The first answer to that is that the same objection also applies to Christianity itself (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.). Besides, some people do manage, by and large, to attain that ideal. But if you abolish the ideal no one will even try. The Church has to teach the truth about what God wants us to do. At the same time, though, the Church has to be understanding and forgiving when we fail and fall short. Here you may feel there is plenty of room for improvement – although if you read the official documents from Rome for confessors and priests about how to handle people who have problems in this area, you might be surprised how well the balance is maintained (of course, it is easier to do that in a document than in a real life confessional).

[Take the 1997 Vademecum for Confessors from the Pontifical Council for the Family. On the one hand, it says, ‘Christian couples are witnesses of God’s love in the world. They must therefore be convinced, with the assistance of faith and even in spite of their experience of human weakness, that it is possible to observe the will of the Lord in conjugal life with divine grace. Frequent and persevering recourse to prayer, to the Eucharist and to the sacrament of Reconciliation, are indispensable for gaining mastery of self.’ On the other hand, ‘The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance {my emphasis}, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin. Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.’ And the document goes on to consider those difficult cases where one spouse insists on using contraception even though the other would prefer not to, carefully explaining the conditions under which it would not be a sin for the other to cooperate.]

The teaching of Humanae Vitae is non-negotiable in a very basic sense. The question is firstly over how to understand and communicate it, and secondly how to apply it - both within marriage, where difficulties arise or where marital love is already under attack, and also outside Christian marriage altogether.

Progress has been made since 1968 in two main areas. Firstly, there have been enormous advances in the technology and technique of NFP, and in the development of training programmes suitable for Third World situations. (Of course more could have been done more quickly if the same money had been invested in it that had been put into the technology of contraception.) I believe it can truly be claimed now that if a population problem exists in any given part of the world, that problem can be solved by grass-roots education in NFP. [It has also become fairly widely admitted that the dangers of population explosion have been in any case greatly exaggerated. The earth’s population just topped 6 billion, but the rate of growth is slowing and is likely to level out at 8. With modern food technology, the earth easily has enough capacity to sustain that number: the main cause of poverty and starvation is going to be political rather than demographic or numerical. In Europe, the problem is not overpopulation but underpopulation.]

The ‘Theology of the Body’. Secondly, progress has been made under Pope John Paul II in understanding and explaining the doctrine of Humanae Vitae in moral and theological terms. This development has been described in detail (along with all valuable data from the social sciences) in a book by Mary Shivanandan called Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage (T&T Clark, 1998). I will spare you a detailed summary. I will only mention one new element in the argument that has been introduced by John Paul II, in his Wednesday audiences and elsewhere, namely the nuptial meaning of the body. In the Christian anthropology developed by John Paul II, biology as a dimension of personhood becomes a language for expressing love - a language rooted in the Trinity and in the divine likeness in man and woman. According to Gaudium et Spes (24), ‘man can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself’. (This gift echoes the loving exchange that goes on eternally between the Persons of the Trinity.) Contraception can then be understood in terms of the language of the body as the moral equivalent of a lie: for it falsifies the statement which the body makes every time the couple give themselves to each other in the act of love.

When Humanae Vitae was published, the arguments to support it remained largely undeveloped and implicit. That is no longer the case, although there is still some way to go. If anyone’s curiosity has been aroused by this talk, and they wish to explore the subject for themselves, I would be happy to help them do so.

[PS. I said that it is not a question of ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’, and that is true in one way. But nevertheless, it could be argued that NFP (even when it employs technological means, such as thermometers) will always be more in harmony with nature than contraception is, because it does not aim to hinder the normal functioning of human biology – just as a medical technique aimed at restoring health could be called more ‘natural’ than one that aimed at damaging or temporarily impairing it. It is in this sense of ‘natural’ that G.K. Chesterton writes that ‘birth control’ is ‘a name given to a succession of different expedients (the one that was used last is always described as having been dreadfully dangerous) by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself’ (‘Social Reform versus Birth Control’).]


Stratford Caldecott