Reading Humanae Vitae

You may not have noticed, but we are in the middle of Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. Each year, the Catholic Church dedicates this week to educating its members about acceptable and unacceptable methods of birth control.

By its own admission, the Church hasn’t been doing this very well — particularly in America, where Catholics use the pill, condoms, and other unacceptable methods at the same rates everybody else does. Meanwhile, the acceptable method — so-called “natural family planning”, in which couples keep track of the woman’s fertility cycle and only have sex during the infertile periods — is more-or-less ignored. Huffington Post reports:

A 2011 survey shows that just two percent of American Catholic women at risk of unintended pregnancy rely on the method. And an overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics reject the church’s ban on artificial birth control.

HP then quotes the lamentations of Bishop Rhoades of Indiana:

Sadly, the majority of Catholics still do not know about Church teachings on married love nor understand why the Church considers artificial contraception immoral. This, tragically, is due to inconsistent education and formation since 1968.

There is, of course, another possibility: Maybe American Catholics know and understand the Church’s position perfectly, but the Church is just wrong.

And that is how Bishop Rhoades and I reach a point of agreement: We both think people should study this issue. That’s why I went back read the papal encyclical letter at the root of it all: Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), written by Pope Paul VI in 1968.

Like Supreme Court opinions, papal encyclicals make much better reading than you might expect. Like the Court, the Vatican knows that it’s far more effective to persuade than to give orders (even if you retain the right to give orders). So pontiffs typically write in a clear voice that does not go over the heads of ordinary people.

Papal encyclicals can also surprise those of us who know the Catholic Church mainly through it’s public image — a point I made seven years ago when I looked at the stunning (to me, at least) economic liberalism of John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.

So I came to Humanae Vitae willing to be surprised. But I also came with expectations/prior opinions/biases, which I might as well spell out:

  • I’m generally skeptical of anyone’s attempt to speak for God, no matter what institutional roles they play or how well-intentioned they are. To me, the highest marks of divine inspiration are clarity of thought and surprising simplicity. So if your opinion doesn’t make sense no matter how hard I try to understand it, claiming the authority of God isn’t going to impress me.
  • I’m also skeptical of claims that specific cultural practices are “natural”. I don’t reject the theoretical possibility of finding an authentic “human nature” and a culture that is most in tune with it. But people have an unfortunate tendency to believe that the way they grew up is natural, and that subsequent developments are artificial. (Extreme example: Old folks who think it’s natural to make a phone call but unnatural to text or use Facebook.)

Humanae Vitae considers contraception purely in the setting of a married couple, that being the only setting where the Church considers sex permissible.

It starts well, demonstrating that Pope Paul understood what was at issue. The pro-pill position he considers is not a licentious strawman, but something very similar to what I put forward in my defense of abortion. The Pope asks:

could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?

That is followed by a discussion of marriage in general. Unlike my wife and I (who decided to be childless), the Pope believes

[marital] love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.

It’s fine if married couples turn out to be infertile — they’re still married — but

each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. … Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life.

(It’s this metaphor of God as a “partner” in the conjugal act that Stephen Colbert irreverently lampooned as “a divine and ineffably beautiful three-way”.)

Now, you might think from that passage that any attempt to avoid pregnancy was illicit. But Pope Paul provides an out:

married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

So understanding the human body well enough to predict when a woman is infertile is “natural”, but understanding it well enough to know that metabolizing certain substances will interrupt the menstrual cycle is “unnatural”. And understanding a man’s role in the process well enough to design an effective condom is “unnatural” too.

You lost me.

The birth control pill — like everything science makes — doesn’t work by invoking demons; it depends on our understanding of natural processes. A process isn’t unnatural just because it wasn’t understood in the Middle Ages.

It may seem unnatural, but that seeming depends on the technology you grew up with. If you grew up hunter-gatherer, plowing and planting seems unnatural. (Shouldn’t a plant’s seeds fall where God drops them?)

Having established his point (to his own satisfaction), the Pope then adds secondary arguments like this: Birth control

could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.

Here, though, the problem is not that the Pill is unnatural, but that it works. If “natural” methods worked just as well, they’d cause the same problems.

The problem here is that the Church has strayed off its turf. I can easily imagine putting forward a moral vision of marriage, sex, and procreation that puts more stress on social, community, and spiritual interests and less on individual convenience. But Humanae Vitae doesn’t do that. Instead, it postulates a natural/unnatural distinction that is itself artificial.

Either nothing about civilization is natural — including our ability to count and chart cycles — or all of it is. There is no point in evolution where “natural” happened or stopped happening.

So yes, Catholics, use this week to educate yourself about the Church’s teaching on contraception. You will find it based on shoddy thinking. To attribute these ideas to God is blasphemous.

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  • By Fragile: Handle With Care « The Weekly Sift on July 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    […] Reading Humanae Vitae. It’s Natural Family Planning Awareness Week in the Catholic Church, when the bishops warn their flock about the dangers of birth control that actually works. I think it’s a good time to go back and read Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that the Church’s birth-control policy hangs on. […]

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