Thursday, July 24, 2008

Karol Wojtyla and Humanae Vitae

The year 1968 was a year of great upheaval in a decade of great upheaval. The sexual revolution was barreling down the tracks, and resistance to authority was everywhere. This was the atmosphere in which Humanae Vitae was presented by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968. Not surprisingly, then, it was rejected almost everywhere, including being openly and publicly being rejected by some priests. Of course, practically nobody actually read the document before rejecting it. And in addition to those priests who rejected it were those priests who did not defend it or even attempt to present it to their parishioners. Again, because almost nobody had actually read it.

To be fair, even if someone wanted to read Humanae Vitae, a supporter or opponent, it would have been difficult to find a copy to read. This was 1968, and we did not have the Internet with the near instantaneous ability to obtain a copy on-line or to buy a copy from an on-line bookstore. We also did not have the large-scale bookstores that we have today. Moreover, translation of Vatican documents into English was not as much a priority. Even 22 years later, in 1990, when I first read Humanae Vitae, it was took some effort to find a copy of it to read.

Accordingly, very few people in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or even today, could tell you what Humanae Vitae actually teaches. Those who loudly, very loudly, dissented against it did so out of ignorance. Ignorance of the content of the teaching, that is, not ignorance of the fact that they were causing grievous harm and scandal by their public dissent against the Magisterium.

Now, added to this was the fact that Humanae Vitae was not written as strongly or persuasively as it could have been. Before Humanae Vitae, there were several magisterial documents presenting essentially the same teaching. Also before Humanae Vitae, there was Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Kraków, Poland. And some elements of the thought of Love and Responsibility found their way into Humanae Vitae.

In his excellent biography, Witness to Hope, author George Weigel explains the history of Karol Wojtyla's influence and imput on Humanae Vitae --

Pope Paul's Papal Commission [for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate] was divided between a majority that argued for a change in the classic Catholic position that contraception was immoral, and a minority that wanted to affirm that teaching. A memorandum sent to the Pope in June 1966 —- and journalistically dubbed the "Majority Report" —- argued that conjugal morality should be measured by "the totality of married life," rather than by the openness of each act of intercourse to conception. In this view, it was morally licit to use chemical or mechanical means to prevent conception as long as this was in the overall moral context of a couple's openness to children. Another memorandum, dubbed the "Minority Report," reiterated the classic Catholic position, that the rise of contraceptives violated the natural moral law by sundering the procreative and unitive dimensions of sexuality. . . .

Pope Paul VI spent two years wrestling with these opposed positions and with the pressures that were being brought to bear on him to take a side. Proponents of the "Majority Report" (which was leaked to the press in 1967 to bring more pressure on the Pope) argued that the Church would lose all credibility with married couples and with the modern world if it did not change the teaching set forth by Pius XII. Some opponents argued that adopting the "Majority Report" position would destroy the Church's teaching authority, as it would involve a tacit admission of error on a question of serious moral consequence. Paul VI eventually rejected the conclusion and moral reasoning of the "Majority Report," and on July 25, 1968, issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. . . . A maelstrom of criticism followed, as did the most widespread public Catholic dissent from papal teaching in centuries.

Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, well-known to the Pope as the author of Love and Responsibility, had been appointed by Paul VI to the Papal Commission, but had been unable to attend the June 1966 meeting at which the majority of the commission took the position later summarized in its memorandum. The Polish government had denied him a passport, on the excuse that he had waited too late to apply. Wojtyla played an important role in the controversy over contraception and in the development of Humanae Vitae, nonetheless. The encyclical, however, was not crafted precisely as Wojtyla proposed.

In 1966, the archbishop of Kraków created his own diocesan commission to study the issues being debated by the Papal Commission. The archbishop, soon to be cardinal, was an active participant in the Kraków commission's deliberations, which also drew on the expertise he had begun to gather in the nascent archdiocesan Institute for Family Studies. The Kraków commission completed its work in February 1968, and a memorandum of conclusions —- "The Foundations of the Church's Doctrine on the Principles of Conjugal Life" —- was drawn up in French and sent to Paul VI by Cardinal Wojtyla. . . .

The Kraków commission memorandum, which reflected the thinking of Cardinal Wojtyla and the moral analysis of Love and Responsibility, tried to develop a new framework for the Church's classic position on conjugal morality and fertility regulation: a fully articulated, philosophically well-developed Christian humanism that believers and non-believers alike could engage.

The starting point for moral argument, they proposed, was the human person, for human beings were the only creatures capable of "morality." This human person, male or female, was not a disembodied self but a unity of body and spirit. My "self" is not here, and "my body" there. As a free moral actor, I am a unity of body and spirit. Thinking about the moral life has to be thinking within that unity, taking account of both dimensions of the human person.

The Kraków theologians went on to argue that nature had inscribed what might be called a moral language and grammar in the sexual structure of the human body. That moral language and grammar could be discerned by human intelligence and respected by the human will. Morally appropriate acts respected that language and grammar in all its complexity, which included both the unitive and procreative dimensions of human sexuality: sexual intercourse as both an expression of love and the means for transmitting the gift of life. Any act that denied one of these dimensions violated the grammar of the act and necessarily, if unwittingly, reduced one's spouse to an object of one's pleasure. Marital chastity was a matter of mutual self-giving that transcended itself and achieved its truly human character by its openness to the possibility of new life. . . .

Fertility regulation, in fulfillment of the "duty" to plan one's family, must therefore be done through a method that conformed to human dignity, recognized the "parity between men and women," and involved the "cooperation" of the spouses. By placing the entire burden on the woman, chemical and mechanical means of fertility regulation like the contraceptive pill and the intra-uterine device violated these criteria. Contrary to the claims of the sexual revolution, such artificial means of contraception freed men for hedonistic behavior while violating the biological integrity of women with invasive and potentially harmful tools. Family planning by observing nature's biological rhythms was the only method of fertility regulation that respected the dignity and equality of the spouses as persons. . . .

Elements of the Kraków commission's memorandum may be found in Humanae Vitae . . . but the encyclical did not adopt in full the rich personalist context suggested by the Kraków commission. Absent this context, with its emphasis on human dignity and on the equality of spouses in leading sexually responsible lives, Humanae Vitae's sharp focus on sexual acts opened it to the charge of legalism, "biologism," and pastoral insensitivity, and left the Church vulnerable to the accusation that it had still not freed itself of the shadow of Manichaeism and its deprecation of sexuality.

Although the charge would likely have been made in any case, the encyclical's failure to adopt the full Kraków context made this indictment more difficult to counter. The Kraków proposal came to the same conclusion as the encyclical on the specific question of the legitimate means of fertility regulation. Kraków, however, offered a more compelling explanation of why this position was better fitted to the dignity of the human person, and particularly to the dignity of women.

The timing of Humanae Vitae could not have been worse; 1968, a year of revolutionary enthusiasms, was not the moment for calm, measured reflection on anything. It is doubtful whether any reiteration of the classic Catholic position on marital chastity, no matter how persuasively argued, could have been heard in such circumstances. On the other hand, one has to ask why a position that defended "natural" means of fertility regulation was deemed impossibly antiquarian at precisely the moment when "natural" was becoming one of the sacred words in the developed world, especially with regard to ecological consciousness. The answer is obviously complex, but it surely has something to do with whether Humanae Vitae provided an adequately personalistic framework in which to engage its teaching.

The Kraków memorandum also demonstrated that the marital ethic it proposed was not a matter of Catholic special pleading . . . its moral claims could be debated by reasonable people, irrespective of their religious convictions. Humanae Vitae did not demonstrate this adequately. . . . The result was that the principles were dismissed as pre-modern, or just irrational.

The failure to explicate a personalist context for the Catholic sexual ethic, compounded by the politicization of the post-Humanae Vitae debate in the Church, had serious ramifications for the Church's effort to articulate a compelling Christian humanism in the modern world. In its first major post-Vatican II confrontation with the sexual revolution—the most potent manifestation of the notion of freedom as personal autonomy—the Church had been put squarely on the defensive. Had the Kraków commission's memorandum shaped the argumentation of Humanae Vitae more decisively, a more intelligent and sensitive debate might have ensued.
--Witness to Hope, George Weigel, copyright 1999. Published by Cliff Street Books/Harper Collins

Some 11 years after Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II took up the issue again. Beginning on September 5, 1979, the Holy Father devoted 130 general audience addresses, spread out over four years, presenting his monumental Theology of the Body. And in considering Humanae Vitae, perhaps we should not look at it in isolation, but instead as part of the Church's overall teaching on human sexuality, the magisterial impetus for Theology of the Body.

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