August 22, 2018

Simcha Fisher: Help, help, Humanae Vitae isn’t a rigorous logical treatise!

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In honor of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Catholics have been indulging in a long, unrestrained, passionate orgy of whining about Humanae Vitae.

Well, far be it from me to tell you you can’t complain about Catholic sexual ethics. They are hard. They cause suffering. They tell us things we don’t want to hear. So please, go ahead and complain. Ask anyone: I do it myself. I’ve been doing it for years.

One complaint I’ve run out of patience for, though, is that Humanae Vitae doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining why the Church bans contraception and allows natural family planning. It’s not rigorous! It’s not comprehensive! It’s logically sloppy! It’s just too dang short!

Well, I says to myself, I don’t really disagree. The first time I read Humanae Vitae, I didn’t achieve any blindingly brilliant “aha” moment, either. No theological gears meshed. No contraceptive scales fell from my eyes (ew). No missing puzzle pieces slid into place, rendering Catholic sexual ethics as a gorgeously coherent tapestry of logical unity for the first time.

But I still love Humanae Vitae, because I never expected it to do any of those things for me.

When Humanae Vitae was written, most of the Church (in the United States, at least) was lining the streets to witness a revolution. Faithful Catholics were grieving in advance, preparing to mourn the loss of the Church’s constant teaching on the meaning of sexuality; and dissident or ignorant Catholics were celebrating in advance, expecting their pastors to start handing out condoms at the next parish picnic, just as soon as the ink on the encyclical was dry. Everyone was telling the Pope that times had changed and it was time for the Church to change, too. And everyone was simply waiting for him to agree.

Instead, he said, “No.”

He said, “No change is possible.” He said that the Church has always been right in treating human sexuality with reverence and in striking back against the world’s rapacious desire to turn our bodies into objects. He said that we are called to do more than the most practical, the most efficient, the most manageable thing possible. He said that we are called to greatness, and that we are called, like our savior, to suffer. And he said he knew it was hard, and that he didn’t want us to become discouraged when we failed. It is a tender, joyful exhortative work.

And it’s not a theological treatise. I don’t see it presenting any logical errors, but no, it’s not primarily a rigorous, systematic argument. I don’t know anything else about Paul VI, so I don’t know if this was on purpose, or whether it tried and failed to make a logical argument. But whether it was intended to be a logical treatise or not, it isn’t one; so let’s stop trying to present it as one, and let’s stop complaining when we discover that it isn’t one.

If you want rigorous theological and logical arguments that explain why the use of contraception is contrary to human dignity, and why natural family planning is different from contraception, you can easily find these elsewhere. (Try Patrick Coffin’s Sex Au Naturel, Janet Smith’s talk Contraception: Why Not? or, if you’re made of sterner stuff than I am, John Paul II’s series of talks that form The Theology of the Body) . It’s not as if we’re still breathlessly waiting for the Church to explain itself. You can even judge these arguments on their merits, if you are so inclined.

What you can’t do, thought, if you have an honest bone in your body, is say, “I think Humanae Vitae is sloppy as an argument, and therefore I don’t have to follow Church teaching on this topic.” That’s like going to a fabulous restaurant and complaining that they don’t sell the pots and pans you were hoping to buy. Okay, so you can’t buy pots and pans there. There’s a pot and pan store next door. It’s even owned by the same company, so go shop there.

But son, the person who cooks that fabulous food they’re offering to you? He does own pots and pans, and he knows how to use them, too. So why don’t you sit and eat?

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