When Bl. Pope Paul VI spoke beautifully of the two “meanings” of the marital act – the “unitive” and the “procreative” (see HV, 12) – he was teaching us, even before St. John Paul II’s remarkable Theology of the Body later developed the idea, that the human body speaks a special nuptial or spousal language designed by God. This is the language of conjugal love – that is, the language of the “mutual gift” of self, of the “union of two persons in which they perfect one another,” while “cooperating with God” in the procreation and education of new lives (see HV, 8; see also 9, 10-11; cf. 13).
Humanae Vitae’s doctrine on the immorality of contraception is based on the insight – derived from “the natural law and illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation” (see HV, 4) – that these “meanings” (or “significances”) are “inseparably connected” by God (see HV, 12). Man is not to intentionally separate them, for to do so is to either violate one or the other value – in truth, really both values – for both are “inherent to the marriage act” (see HV, 12).
In other words, the pope is saying that the marriage act can be described anthropologically as that intimate bodily act of the spouses essentially involving, by its very nature, a “person-uniting” aspect and a “life-giving” aspect. You harm one aspect, you harm the other; for both are “interdependent” realities, as John Finnis has argued, reflecting the covenantal nature of marriage.
But to directly act against either “meaning” or “good” is to violate not only that particular “meaning,” but also, Bl. Paul VI tells us, the “design” or “plan” of God, which is the very “norm” of marriage (see HV, 13), as the Magisterium has always taught.
Yet, at the same time, when our contemporary culture’s understanding of the human person is erroneously “dualistic,” separating “personal” life (the self) from “biological” life (the body); when its idea of “responsible parenthood” means “wear a condom” in order to have “safe sex”; and when so many of its followers say, “Why worry about a ‘settled’ issue such as contraception when so many other issues seem more pressing, such as: Should I buy the latest iPhone?” is it any wonder that HV’s understanding of sex and “responsible parenthood” (see HV, 10) is often ridiculed and scoffed at? Is it really surprising that the Church is viewed as the “bad guy” and Planned Parenthood as the “good guy”? “Why can’t we, after all, substitute techne for virtue?” in this area of human existence and others, the culture asks over and over again.
This last question, more so than the media’s often-portrayed conflict between the Magisterium’s teaching authority and personal conscience, goes to the heart of a proper understanding of HV. It also reveals, as the Catholic social theologian George Weigel has recently argued, where the Church is most “boldly countercultural”: to wit, “in teaching that the morally appropriate means to regulate fertility is through biology rather than technology.” That is, through self-control rather than condoms.
In an unserious culture, however, where comedians and rock stars are looked to as sources of wisdom, and Utilitarianism is considered an adequate ethical theory, entertainment and expediency often trumps virtue and morality! Therefore, like her founder Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church will continue to be a “sign of contradiction” (see HV, 18; cf. Lk 2:24). This is especially true in a celebrity culture of fun and fantasy, particularly concerning the matter of contraception. Because the Church, unlike any other institution, looks at human procreation under its natural as well as its supernatural aspects (see HV, 7).
Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
- The Five Phases of the Sexual and Cultural Revolution
- Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?
- Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod
- Speaking the Truth in Love
- Whose Agenda? Reflections on the Upcoming Synod