Reflections on Humanae Vitae, Theology of the Body and Why a Lutheran Pastor became Catholic - by Paul S. Quist

Reflections on Humanae Vitae, Theology of the Body and Why a Lutheran Pastor became Catholic

Paul S. Quist, BS, Grad Diploma, MDiv, STL Candidate -  

2008 Winter-Spring - 2008  - A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fidelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

 Mr. Quist served as the director of the Marriage and Family Life Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Forty years ago this coming July 25th, Pope Paul VI, in the fifth year of his pontificate, promulgated what would prove to be his most important document. One could reasonably argue that Humanae Vitae was that Pope’s sine qua non. Indeed, one could wonder if, perhaps, Humanae Vitae was the reason that the Holy Spirit chose Paul VI to be pope. Though he would continue to reign for another ten years, Humanae Vitae proved to be the pontiff’s last encyclical.

The world was waiting for the Catholic Church’s guidance as the consensus about the intrinsic evil of contraception disintegrated throughout Christendom in the 20th century. Decades before Humanae Vitae, the cause of birth control had been championed by the likes of Margaret Sanger. With the rise of psychoanalysis sexual desire, libido, came to be seen as the most basic need of the human person, indeed the urge that drove and controlled human beings. Sexual libertines advocated throwing off the trammels of sexual restraint. And mounting hysteria about over-population caused many to doubt that the conception and birth of another child was always a good gift from God. Some Protestant communions acquiesced to the spirit of the age, reversing a previously unbroken tradition condemning contraceptive sexual acts.

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With the introduction of the contraceptive pill in1960 the pressure only increased. Vatican watchers anticipated that Paul VI would bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century by allowing Catholics the freedom to choose the Pill. In fact, the vast majority of the birth control commission established by Blessed John XXIII, and later plumped up with additional theologians by Paul VI, had made up it’s mind: they said Yeah to the pill. At least a year before the release of Humanae Vitae, the majority report was leaked to the press. Revisionists, reveling in the spirit of aggiornimento that remained after the Second Vatican Council, eagerly awaited the Holy Father’s assent to the Pill. When Paul VI reaffirmed that all forms of contraception were intrinsically evil, those same revisionists felt betrayed. Dissent against the Church’s teaching was considerable. And where there wasn’t outright dissent, a cone of silence descended over the Church in North America, so that Humanae Vitae was seldom preached from the pulpit. Indeed, one can speak to many Canadian Catholics who have never heard a homily on Humanae Vitae.

Now it isn’t in a single day that large numbers of Catholics will rise up against the Successor of Peter when he speaks ex cathedra. The groundwork for rejecting Humanae Vitae had been laid centuries prior. Before the Protestant Reformation Nominalist theologians and philosophers, like William of Ockham, taught that God rather capriciously said that thingswere right or wrong, according to his sovereign will. It’s the final answer of any frustrated parent who attempts to silence a challenging teenager – “because I said so.” According to Nominalism X is bad simply because God said so and He’s God.”

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In medieval scholasticism it had been held that there was a certain beauty, coherence and purpose to nature – that there was an inherent order to nature that determined good and bad, right and wrong. There was an internal logic – things had form and a natural end to which they rightly tended. In an attempt to guard the sovereignty of God, Nominalism, denied all this. God could not have his hands tied by laws of nature.

In the coming centuries, nature would be evacuated of its meaning, its design, its function, its form and its telos, the goal for which it was made. More and more nature, the world, was viewed mechanistically – that grace, providence, or even intelligent design has little or nothing to do with the physical universe.

By the end of 16th century Francis Bacon taught that man’s highest duty was to overcome nature, to master it, to control and dominate it by means of technology.4 Limits were to be overcome. Renè Descartes, who embraced Bacon’stechnological project, reincarnated an earlier dualistic Gnosticism. “I think, there for I am” rather than I am, therefore I think. Mind over matter eventually means the body doesn’t matter. Matter doesn’t matter. Only human subjectivity, the power of free will, is all that matters. Man is alone in a universe devoid of meaning and is free to create his own meaning, to manipulate matter to his own ends. Nothing is simply given – everything is up for grabs according to the Baconian/Cartesian technological project

4 See Waldstein’s introduction to John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Boston: Pauline Books and Media, pp. 36-44.

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This point is well illustrated by the Walt Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid. In this recasting of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, Ariel, a young mermaid – who is quite unhappy with the limits placed on her by nature – longs to become a human being. In desperation Ariel goes to the sea- witch who uses her occult powers to turn Ariel into a woman. Despite twists in the plot a happy ending ensues – it’s all love and rainbows. Disney decided that Hans Christian Anderson had it wrong. According to Anderson the story ends a tragedy. Anderson’s tale can be taken as a morality play about the hubris and folly of trying to transcend the limits of nature through the use of power or technology. The un-bowdlerized version ends with Ariel as foam on the beach.

Leaving aside the question of whether mass media marketers ought to rewrite classic children’s literature, the writing staff at Walt Disney could have made their requisite happy ending simply by having Ariel come to terms with the natural limitations of her species – she could have given up her fantasy and gratefully accepted the givenness of her situation (she is a mermaid, end of story). However, our modern, secular society (unconsciously steeped in the philosophy of Bacon and Descartes) will not countenance the notion that there exist limits that must simply be accepted. Our society does not know or refuses to acknowledge that there is design, purpose and proper ends to the human body, to sexuality and to marriage.

In the 1960’s those theologians who dissented from Humanae Vitae, having bought into the Baconian/Cartesian technological project, thought that human beings were within their God given right to use technology to master their own


bodies, to control their biological functions in order to regulate births. What Pope Paul VI insisted on was that there is a God given design to the marital act that man may not legitimately or safely override. The Magisterium of the Church had always taught that there is both a unitive and a procreative function to the sexual embrace that man may not separate.

Paul VI certainly had his finger on the pulse of society when he wrote Humanae Vitae. He warned that separating the unitive function of marriage from the procreative would “open wide the way for marital infidelity” and cause “a general lowering of moral standards” (HV 2). Further, he warned that the use of contraceptives would tend toward the objectification and instrumentalization of women. And he warned that some governments might impose contraception on their populace – as a supposed remedy to poverty or overpopulation.

History bears out that Pope Paul was right on all three counts. One need only turn on the television to see the general lowering of moral standards. The pornography industry bears witness to our modern tendency to objectify women and children, making them instruments of personal pleasure. And whether it’s Communist China imposing their one childpolicy, or the United States who insist that impoverished nations accept condoms and contraception before they will send food aid – Paul VI correctly read the writing on the wall.

Paul VI insisted that there are natural limits to Man’s Power. “Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreatinglife should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong

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to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions...” (HV 17).

Sadly, 40 years ago few people had the eyes to see what Paul VI so clearly saw. Today modern science seems bent on transgressing boundaries, only asking if something can be done, not ought it be done. Here in Canada we have redefined Marriage so that it really has nothing to do with children. Many within the Church still have to hear and embrace the good news of Humanae Vitae.

Enter John Paul II

I recently heard Dr. Michael Waldstein, the translator and compiler of the latest edition of Theology of the Body, share a comment made by Henri de Lubac in 1978 just after the election of Pope John Paul II – de Lubac’s comment: “ThankGod, a pope for Humanae Vitae!”

Karol Wojtyła had been prevented by Poland’s Communist government from attending the key debates of the papalcommission on birth control in the 1960’s. Had he been able to be there things may have turned out differently – perhaps he could have turned the majority opinion. Be that as it may, when he was elected pope in 1978 John Paul immediately began a project of catechesis. During 129 Wednesday audiences John Paul defended Humanae Vitae by providing an adequate anthropology.

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Waldstein points out that in the Theology of the Body John Paul II proposed a Carmelite Personalism that defends “the spousal meaning of the body against the alienation between person and body in the Cartesian vision of nature.”5 John Paul II explains and defends God’s design of the human body, and the nature of love and marriage, as signs pointing to and rooted in the eternal exchange of love of the Trinity.

Against the reigning 20th century dualism that disassociated the soul from the body, John Paul II averred that the body and soul are inseparable. Indeed the human person is not a spirit imprisoned in a body, but is in fact an embodied spirit. And far from being inconsequential the body reveals the very mystery of the person, in fact it is a theology, revealing something of the very mystery of God.

How is the human body a theology?

John Paul develops two key texts from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium Et Spes 22.“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” “Christ... fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

That calling is spelled out a few paragraphs later in Gaudium et Spes 24:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, "that all may be one. . . as we are one" (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God's sons in truth

5 Ibid, p.107

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and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Because we are created by God – in his image and likeness – we are ordered to love because God is love. God in the three persons of the blessed Trinity is an eternal exchange of love. And love is never about using or grasping, it is about a sincere gift of self. By design we are ordered to be gift one to another.

That God, in the person of his Son, would take a body reveals that the body matters. And what Jesus did with his bodyreveals what we are to do with our bodies. Jesus said “I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” And on the night in which he was betrayed he said, “This is my body given for you.” This is the cup of my blood poured out for you.”

This is spousal language. The deepest metaphor to describe the relationship between God and his people is Marriage. Throughout the Old Testament God described himself as Husband and Israel as Wife. Though she often strayed, God remained ever faithful. In the New Testament Jesus is described as a bridegroom and the Church as his bride. In the Apocalypse the consummation of all things is described as wedding banquet. The New Jerusalem, the Church is described as bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2). Human marriage, raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament, conveys something of the mystery of the eternal love of the Trinity and the spousal relationship between

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Christ and the Church. Thus St. Paul in Ephesians, when speaking of the one flesh union of husband and wife wrote:

This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

Through our bodies we reveal the mystery of God in selfless love. All, regardless of their vocation or state in life, are called to a love that is in essence spousal. If we are going to tell the truth with our bodies and speak the language that reveals the love of God, then we will make certain that our lives are about gift, about serving others, and certainly not using them. In the married state, if our love is to be fully nuptial, if it is to clearly be a sign of God’s love then it will be freely given, faithful, indissoluble, and fruitful – that is open to the gift of children.

George Weigel described the Theology of the Body as a “theological time bomb set to go off... sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”6 Certainly it proved to cause shockwaves in my own life. I had no idea of what I was getting into when in November of 2003 my wife and I attended a seminar on the Theology of the Body by Christopher West. At the time I was still a Lutheran pastor in Edmonton, and though we had been exploring Catholic theology, we didn’timagine that we would become Catholic in the foreseeable future. But by the end of the day and a half seminar our lives were rocked. On that Saturday night, when the conference was over, Carol and I lay in bed and wept. We wept because we had heard something so evidently true, good and beautiful. We wept because we knew we had to become Catholic and

6 Weigel, George. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: HarperCollins, 1999, p. 343.

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this was going to cause more than a little upset in our lives. And we wept tears of contrition because we had been duped by the culture into embracing the contraceptive lifestyle. Four months later I resigned from my pastoral position, three months after that we sold our house in Edmonton and a month later moved our family to Melbourne, Australia where we both studied at the John Paul Institute for Marriage and Family. Easter of 2005, while still in Melbourne, we were received into full communion with the Church and Bishop of Rome – a day for which I will be eternally grateful. Seven months later, in December, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in reparation for our sin of contraception, and to restore the God given design and function of my body, I underwent successful surgery to reverse a previous vasectomy. In August of 2006 we returned to Edmonton where I have been employed as the director for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese.

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I give thanks for Paul VI. And I thank God for John Paul II, a pope for Humanae Vitae.