Among the more controversial Roman Catholic documents is Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI on birth control. This encyclical famously instructs against the use of artificial contraception methods in the regulation of birth. This position is based on the theological warrant that the natural law of God’s reproductive design requires human sexuality, if it is to be moral, to be always nuptial, companionable, and open to new life. The encyclical anticipates a number of reasons why people will object to this teaching, including: population problems, family and personal limitations, economic concerns, and so on. It also anticipates that some will suggest procreative and unitive ends must be seen diachronically in the context of the fullness of nuptial sexuality, such that sexuality would be understood holistically rather than as a series of individual sexual acts. Despite its acknowledgement of these concerns as legitimate, the encyclical argues that grave harm flows from the distortion of natural law and leads inevitably to the degradation of sexual dignity and nuptial integrity (for example, in making free sex more available to young people outside of marriage or cheapening male regard for women on account of women’s sexual objectification). The encyclical thus opts for an approach that evaluates sexual morality in terms of individual sexual acts.
The perspective of the document has been critically unpacked for decades, and its instruction is in the very least unconvincing to many Catholic couples. I find in my teaching that Catholic college students today are unfamiliar with the document’s language and rationale, even though they may know the basic instruction that Catholics aren’t supposed to use birth control. Since this issue is both topical currently due to the healthcare legislation and since birth regulation is a requisite discussion in my course on sexual ethics, I have the students read the encyclical itself. Now, this is a hard task because I know by and large what the student reactions will be. Their most favorable reaction is generally that the document has no instructional or binding value for them. Their least favorable reaction is that the document makes poor sense of the human situation today, especially because human sexual expression reaches well beyond the Church’s vision of normative, heterosexual, marital union.
As a Catholic educator in my field, I am obliged to represent the Church teaching as accurately as I can, and I feel that part of being accurate lies in trying to understand Church teaching in its best possible light. At the very least, even where I myself might dissent from Church teaching, I feel my position stronger if it is held against the best, rather than the worst, renderings of magisterial instruction. Pedagogically, then, I have adopted the mode of asking students both to articulate why the Church teaching on this issue makes sense according to its overarching, creational framework for interpreting all human life. Then, on those same terms, I invite the students to evaluate critically the teaching in light of their own personal experiences, researched information, social science studies, and theological insights.
In so doing, and despite my deep reservations about the adequacy of the Church’s teaching on natural law as it pertains to human sexuality, I find myself curiously illuminated by a particular insight of Humanae Vitae ~ namely, that life is transmitted. So often, especially in the classroom, I hear the language of “having sex” and “having kids.” I can only recall one instance in twelve years of teaching when a student used the phrase “making love.” Now, our language reflects not only how we communicate about things but also how we value and, more importantly, how we are able to value. I am certain that my attitudes toward children and family are impacted by whether I view them as something that I have as opposed to someone(s) to whom I have transmitted life. What is more, Church teaching here expresses that life must be seen in the context of our total, even eternal, personal meaning. The refrain of the phrase “truly human” in the encyclical suggests an encompassing vision of culture and human being-ness, imbued with the deepest value. This insight is profoundly beautiful to me, even if it represents merely a goal yet to be understood by its very proponents.
Having celebrated Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and the first Sunday of Advent this past weekend, I was and am very aware that transmitting life is the highest human responsibility. I thought about it when I called my mom to ask her about my method for defrosting the turkey, and I thought about it again when I fried onions to make my grandmother’s Hungarian rice. I thought about it when I instructed my children on the lighting of candles, and I thought about it again when they stood beside me as I played piano for them to sing prayers. Then, I thought about it once more as I stood beside my mother while she played and I sang. I thought about what it means to raise human beings as my children entertained the children of our friends, who graced us as guests for the holiday dinner. I thought about it as we all exercised decorum and gentility in our mannerisms. I thought about it as I heard my father-in-law speak to his son (my husband) and my son’s godfather (my husband’s closest childhood friend) about his childhood and his working years.
We were all to one another, in our varying relationships, more sibling in our human-ness than anything else. And, at some point, it occurred to me, the specific relationships we share will fade into the fabric of time. In that far vision, what matters most is that we transmit life meaningfully and responsibly and deliberately to one another; that we actually make love; and that we try to see our meaning and the meaning of others in the context of our maximal, eternal value. I am inspired by the idea of transmitting life as the foundation for a bodily ethic. And, in this holiday season, I offer that we might mediate upon all the many wonderful directions such a foundation might lead us.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.