Blog Template Theology of the Body: Recalling Ourselves and Restoring Each Other: Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body

Monday, September 08, 2008

Recalling Ourselves and Restoring Each Other: Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body

For the Catholic Church of St. Mary the Virgin

“John Paul II reminds us of (these) truths: that the power of the human spirit can ignite world–historical change; that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self–consciously radical rupture with the past; that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world… and that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves.” - George Weigel, “Papacy and Power.”

During this season in which we commemorate the anniversary of Humane Vitae, we do so against the stream of a culture which has gradually forgotten what it means to be really human. The widespread acceptance and use of contraception particularly reflects this debilitating amnesia. In fact, when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized the use of contraception by married couples a mere forty-three years ago, the court reasoned that the ancient and integrated understanding of the person, marriage, children, and the family should be set aside and deliberately forgotten in preference for “personal privacy rights.” On this laudable criterion alone, our disabled culture has patently failed. As we consider the salutary proposals of Paul VI from our current context, we might recognize that our world has indeed become one in which manifold impersonal technologies have been made readily available for discretionary private use; and yet our world remains a context wherein personal rights are increasingly compromised in the name of this very “privatization.”

In particular, Humanae Vitae warns against the following widespread offenses against the person which are linked to the proliferation of contraception and the severance of sexuality from procreation. First, women become deprived of the right to be cherished as integrated sexual/spiritual beings with a maternal vocation, and instead are marginalized and offered to men as safe, sterilized, and available instruments for copulation. Secondly, the children who are the progeny of casual sexual encounters- the weakest members of our society- are often deprived of the right to be born to committed parents and to be raised within the safety of the family, if they are allowed to live at all. Furthermore, children gradually begin to be viewed as products or entitlements to be engineered, rather than as precious and unmerited gifts bestowed by God upon the family. And lastly, married couples are deprived of the right to flourish in the wholesome chastity of marriage by a misinformed society which blithely prescribes techniques for denying the truth about themselves and their union. On this evidence, even the secular culture would do well to recognize these effects as real affronts against social justice and the common good; for her part, the Church has warned all along that these effects are the inroads of slow death.

In this way, the Church’s warning about the culture of death simply describes the perception that humans are ceasing to live a human life. While Humana Vitae stands as a prophetic watchword against such loss, John Paul’s Theology of the Body sings of the antidote in general. John Paul’s work in celebration of the robust completeness and beauty of human life- as it was intended to be- can be summarized by the idea that within each and every human person there resides an intrinsic meaning, to which human actions and policies must conform if human life is to flourish. We might express this idea in the following way: every human being has intrinsic and inalienable dignity that begins at conception and extends to natural death. This dignity, the most precious endowment of the human person, is the inviolable gift of God; and thus it must be cherished in personal custom and protected by law. Thus with regard to the marital act, John Paul urges couples to celebrate the norms arising from both the natural law and the revealed order, because the proper ordering of the marital act is determined by the nature of the act and of the subjects.

This summary of intrinsic ordering within the human person corresponds with the basic tenets of Humanae Vitae, which holds first that marriage is “the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love… by means of the reciprocal personal gift of self.” Secondly, the Church teaches that the vocation of married persons, viewed as integral beings with inherent vocations, is to act as free and responsible collaborators with God the Creator “in the most serious duty of transmitting human life.” Thus the encyclical calls for sexual love within marriage to be “fully human,” being at once of the senses, the will, and the spirit, such that the integral persons of husband and wife may become totally united, in a unique friendship so extensive that everything is shared; and, according to the nature of this mutual reception and gift for the enrichment of the other, nuptial love is properly not exhausted by the conjugal communion, but also overflows into new life. It is from this beautiful vision of the nuptial relationship that the Church holds that the intrinsic dignity of man and woman does not countenance the technological manipulation of the natural laws which are inscribed in their bodies for the very purpose of their full communion. Rather, they are to honor the intrinsic laws inscribed in each others’ bodies with care and self-restraint; and any other sort of disposition, which would subordinate the essential dignity of a man and a woman to purely material expedients and mechanisms, does violence to who they are in themselves, and to all that they can become for God and for others.

In this vein of calling on persons to be as fully human as they were made to be, Paul VI and John Paul II draw on a very human source from the earliest history of human thought. On a side of the world geographically distant from the Biblical statements to the same effect, Aristotle’s school insisted that fundamental truths about right and wrong are inscribed in the human nature itself. This account, which was appropriated by St. Thomas Aquinas, holds that created things have a certain and determinate value or good in themselves. The world contains multiple goods of different kinds, which are intrinsic to different things; and with regard to human morality, the Aristotelian ontology of morals states that humanity is naturally ordered and inclined towards its own flourishing. This flourishing is the exercise of the most perfect abilities and virtues in accordance with reason, over the course of a lifetime. Thus the end of human life is the happiness experienced through the balanced unfolding of intrinsic human potentialities, in accord with objective excellence. In other words, there is a natural goal in all things; and the human relationship to human goods is never an open-ended proposition. Both the person and the goods which he pursues have natural completions which are inherent within them, and it is these ends which ought to be pursued. In other words, the proto-humanist Aquinas held that ethics have a real basis in fact and in human nature. Accordingly, Aristotle and Aquinas do not ground morality merely in authority, but rather locate human good in the actualization of the human nature itself. As Paul VI puts it, “for man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the most high God has engraved in his very nature; … human activity proceeds from man; and it is also ordered to him. When he works, not only does he transform matter and society, but he fulfills himself.”

In contrast, modernity emphasizes an extrinsic sense of morality, which holds that things and actions may only be said to be “good” or “bad” in relation to an observer or to certain goals within a particular community. On this account, there is no inherent constituency of a personal nature, no law inscribed on the inward parts or upon the heart; rather, modern extrinsicism assumes that things might be “good” merely in relation to an observer’s valuation of them. The presumption is that all goods may ultimately be equal in light of the consequences which they produce, which can be evaluated on criteria other than the human good. The practical implication of these ideas is that ethics, human rights, and moral standards are not grounded in reality; accordingly, as an isolated and abstracted concept, morality is prone to evolution, variable intuitions, innovation, and negotiated alteration- and women, children, and the marginalized become expendable.

The critique of such proposals holds that if an intrinsic law is not recognized within the very bodies of human persons, then priority will be placed on power structures and retribution for enforcing order; morality becomes a merely extrinsic and potentially arbitrary constraint on human action. The social thought of John Paul II particularly urges that the domain of moral reasoning should not be discarded as something merely subjective; otherwise the ordering of human lives would come to be based not on well-grounded moral reasoning and reasonable justifications, but on exploitive power. One Catholic defender of the natural law summarizes for the modern audience as follows:

If I am thoroughly convinced that nothing on the order of the beneficial or the worthwhile has any ontological status of any kind and simply does not exist at all, then I cannot either in honesty or in strict logic ever presume to give reasons for any of my actions. … And what could thus commend itself to reason, unless it is recognizable as something that really and in fact ought to be done? That is to say, it’s very worth or excellence or obligatory character must be something that itself actually exists in nature. …Otherwise, how could they ever come to be discovered or recognized by reason? Reason could not possibly commend or prescribe something as being binding upon us unless it were recognized as being really so in fact and in nature.

Both Paul VI and John Paul II recognized that to live a fully human life in our current context - based on the intrinsic dignity of the human person- will for many persons constitute an act of sheer heroism, particularly with regard to the temptation to contracept; and again, the popes draw on the truth about the human person to call upon us to live to our full potential as integrated human beings. In this regard, we recall that Aquinas enlarges Aristotle’s vision with his emphasis on the supernatural blessedness for which humanity is ultimately destined. Aquinas explains that in the end, the supernatural beatitude for which humanity is destined is found in eternal relationship with God, the One to whom we are ultimately ordered intrinsically. This supernatural happiness goes well beyond our natural goals and desires, and requires perfections that are not part of our natural powers- and these are given by God.

Humanae Vitae urges that, as with all of God’s gifts that assist us towards our natural and supernatural destiny, human sexuality is not only for personal edification, but must overflow to the service of many others in God’s proper order. By extension, modern conformity to the grace of chastity and openness to life in married love is not merely for the edification of the Christian and the Church, but is now urgently needed for the rectification of a crumbling culture. Christians who joyfully assent to the Church’s teachings are not prudish people who reject contraception; these days, such people are ipso facto courageous cultural transformers who boldly do their part to restore the world to its proper flourishing. If we conclude by drawing on the magisterial mandate for an urgently needed, total cultural transformation for the good of all humanity, of which Humanae Vitae and The Theology of the Body constitute a part, we must begin with the truth of the human person in our most basic constituency and vocation, as graced recipients of the gift of life. Here John Paul II calls urgently on the responsibility of the individual in Centesimus Annus 51-52:

For an adequate formation of a culture, the involvement of the whole man is required, whereby he exercises his creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of the world and of people. Furthermore, he displays his capacity for self-control, personal sacrifice, solidarity, and readiness to promote the common good. Thus the first and most important task is accomplished within man's heart. The way in which he is involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his own destiny.”

In conclusion, we might recall John Paul’s description of another fundamental anthropological error which the Church stands to correct in our day; this is the old and basic error which proposes that humanity can rely upon his own capacity to transform and “create” his world on his own agenda- when in reality, such dominion is only possible through the prior gift of God. But humanity tends mistakenly to presume that he can make an arbitrary use of himself and of all creatures, subjecting the creation without restraint to his own will, as though the creation did not have its own requisites, and a prior God-given purpose for the edification of all humanity. In this way, “instead of carrying out his role as co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus provokes rebellion on the part of nature (when) it is more tyrannized than governed by him.” The Pope suggests that such tyranny is motivated by a sense of poverty in the human outlook, which emerges when he is driven by a desire to possess himself and his world rather than to live in right relationship to the truth, and to enjoy the creature with a sense of the disinterested unselfishness and even renunciation “which is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created.”

John Paul’s mandate immediately resonates with the concerns of the wider secular conversation about the stewardship of the failing natural environment in our modern world; and indeed, the Pope addresses this portion of his social encyclical to the needs of the environment. However, in the midst of his careful attention to the intrinsic purpose of the creation and the intrinsic duties and obligations of humanity, the Pope turns his attention to the family as the most basic bolster which can save the failing human environment. John Paul thus calls for persons to support the family’s true vocation through an authentic “human ecology,” in which man lives as God’s gift to his fellow man by respecting the nature and structures with which he has been endowed. The entire message is clear: in an age threatened by death, decay, and dishonesty, human life can prevail only if human persons and families assent to be what they really are.