Contraception: Intrinsically Evil

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Photo: Paul VI elevates the future John Paul II, 1967

By Michael Pakaluk, The Catholic Thing, Jan. 9, 2018

Michael PakalukIn 2018, over twenty conferences worldwide (so Janet Smith tells me) will celebrate Humanae Vitae (HV) on its 50th anniversary, but will also conduct a concerted attack on its teaching, which will not have been discouraged by various actions of the Vatican.

The mode of the attack is not difficult to guess. It will not take the form of direct contradiction but rather subversion – changes that would empty HV of its content through a putative “deepening” of its meaning.

The leaders, we can surmise, will be certain bishops, mainly from wealthy countries, and theologians from academic establishments. It will be claimed that because 80 percent of Catholics in certain countries (never mind how well they know or practice the faith) reject HV, the teaching was never “received” and therefore was never valid – at least in those countries, and therefore pluralism will be urged.

The consensus among enlightened people of goodwill in favor of contraception will be cited as a “sign of the times” and evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. We will be told that the Church must “listen” to these people in dialogue. Indeed, the Paul Erhlichs of the world have already told the Vatican that, in light of Laudato Si’, couples should have no more than two children. But how “feasible” is that policy without artificial contraception?

Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach (British philosophers married to each other) are said to have toasted Paul VI when HV was promulgated. They were convinced it was the teaching of the Church, but clearly “it could have gone either way.” You need only read the history of a contentious general council – Nicaea or Ephesus, for example – to see that the orthodox party never took things for granted. The Church prevails because followers of Christ act heroically.

That is why Catholics who practice traditional chastity, and love HV for defending it, need to recognize the attack and take steps to counter it. These steps ought to be mainly spiritual – more frequent and more intense prayer, fasting, Mass attendance, and recourse to Joseph and Mary, those twin guardians of chastity in the Holy Family. Perhaps too, a greater refinement in living holy purity is called for. “As for impurity of every kind . . . there must be no whisper of it among you; it would ill become saints.” (Eph 5:3, Knox) But for readers of this column, there will be work of leadership and persuasion as well.

The contours of the attack may be discerned from the writings of prominent “dissenters” from HV back when the previous milestone anniversary was celebrated, 25 years ago, such as a telling piece in America magazine by Fr. Richard A. McCormick, S.J.

To understand the attack, we must think ourselves into an alien and abhorrent worldview. I have in mind mainly those humble Catholic parents of the “JP II” generation, who have been going about their business of bearing children and rearing them, making many sacrifices to that end. They treasure the “theology of the body,” which they rightly view as a full, satisfactory, personalist development of the doctrine of HV. Perhaps they even made a pilgrimage to Rome for the funeral, beatification, or canonization of this obviously “Great” pontiff. Such persons will likely be shocked to learn that these dissenters from HV have thought something entirely different.

For these dissenters, HV was obviously a mistake. It was (allegedly) affirmed merely to protect papal authority, on the poor grounds (dissenters think) that for a pope to reverse an earlier pope is to undermine his own authority. In that perspective, it was similarly enforced, in a small-minded way, by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger only by arbitrary exercises of that authority, by “rigging” synods and Church appointments. That’s how things are done in the Church, after all. So in a similar shrewd and political way, the “impasse” that the Church has been brought to through these misguided efforts must be reversed.

            Humane Vitae, in general, can stand, they think. It’s true, of course, that there’s a general connection between the procreative and the unitive meanings of marriage and the marital act. One may admit, too, that these are inseparable, in the sense that it would be evil to be married and not wish in general to be fruitful, and that it would be evil to view children as other than fruits of married love. These are the core teachings of HV. The doctrine of “responsible parenthood,” too, in HV is capable of a much fuller development, in light of “integral ecology.”

But what should not stand, say dissenters, is the claim that to vitiate an otherwise fruitful act is “intrinsically evil.” That is the sticking point; that is what needs to be gently put to the side. “The single issue that provoked the hailstorm of reactions,” writes McCormick, “was the teaching that every contraceptive act is intrinsically disordered (intrinsece inhonestum, No. 14). . . . Absent that teaching, Humanae Vitae would be bannered as a beautiful contemporary statement on conjugal love and responsible parenthood.”

Some of these dissenters, therefore, reject entirely the concept of intrinsically evil acts. Or, what amounts to the same, they say that what counts as intrinsically evil can change over time. They haul out misconstructions of Church teaching on usury and religious liberty as examples of something “intrinsically evil” becoming permissible. Slavery, on the other hand, was permissible but now is “intrinsically evil.” Capital punishment works perfectly for them, too, as shown to be per se contrary to the gospel”through the Spirit, but previously permitted.

            St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor seems a difficult problem for them, however. After all, it teaches that intrinsically evil acts are so, semper et pro semper. (n. 82) It attributes this teaching to both the constant tradition of the Church and Sacred Scripture. Worst of all, it cites acts of artificial contraception as a clear example. (n. 80) How could it be put aside?

This year, we will doubtless see clever efforts to do just that.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.