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A Meditation on Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae

August 13, 2003

“Exceedingly precious” is how the great Jewish thinker, Abraham Heschel, describes the human person.1 Indeed, Jewish thought and spirituality go much further: the Mishnah reminds us that “he who saves one life saves the whole world,”2 a thought fittingly recalled when recognizing “Righteous Gentiles,” those persons who saved Jews from one of the twentieth century’s most heinous expressions of the culture of death, the Jewish Holocaust.

The centrality of the person also stands at the heart of Christianity. The center of Christianity is not, after all, a message, but a person, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, who “lived among us,”3 did not die for man; He died for me. It should be a consoling as well as challenging thought to remember that Jesus Christ came to save me. He came into this world, He was born, suffered, died, and rose for me.4

The dignity of the human person derives from whom He is. Made “in the image and likeness”5 of the Tri-Personal God, whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God whom St. John so audaciously defines simply as “Love,”6 man is made to love and for love. Now love is not simply a feeling or an attitude. Love has its own content, for as Jesus Himself reminds us, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments,”7 which are summarized in conjunction: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”8

The heart of Christianity being the heart of Christ, we are commanded to love persons. Human persons are beings to be loved, not used. To love a person is to seek that person’s genuine good.9

Love of persons becomes especially important in the area of human sexuality. The force and power of human sexuality and the allied emotions associated with it exercise a profound, direct and sometimes seemingly irresistible influence on people. Yet even in the realm of human sexuality—or, more precisely—especially in the realm of human sexuality, one can never forget the principle of personal dignity.

The truth is, of course, that this dignity is often the first victim of physical and/or emotional attraction. From the very first pages of the Bible, the disastrous impact that comes from forgetting about the dignity of human persons is evident: after Adam and Eve transgress God’s commandment, they feel shame in their nakedness, a shame that comes from their own sense of vulnerability in the face of potential exploitation. They were naked before their sin, they were naked after. What changed was not their vision but their way of looking at each other; with sin, the possibility of exploitation enters the picture, and from such vulnerability human beings naturally recoil. In their feeble attempt to preserve that personal dignity, even at the sexual level, they “sewed figleaves for themselves.”10

In the area of sexual intercourse, the dignity of three persons is at stake. Let us consider each of these in turn.

1. Sexual intercourse involves the dignity of the spouse with whom the conjugal act is performed. When spouses “make love,” they are speaking a language to each other with its own inherent logic, its own inherent “grammar.” That love seeks unity: lovers aspire to be together, to be one. Indeed, so deep is this drive towards unity that God Himself says, “the two of them shall become one body.”11 Love seeks totality: lovers want to be everything for each other. No spouse would be satisfied if his or her other announced, “I love you 75 percent!” Love aims to enfold the other, to give and receive without reserve. Love seeks exclusivity: this man and this woman are given to each other. There is no generic man or woman in a relationship. There is only John and Mary and, unlike baseball, true love admits no substitutes. Love seeks permanence and indissolubility: when a man and a woman first speak words of love to each other, they instinctively turn to words like “always.” It is indeed the miracle of love that almost automatically impels the dust of the earth which is man to speak in terms of eternity. Finally, love seeks fruitfulness because, in sexual intercourse, eternity can come true in the creation of a child, the fruit of that love.

In speaking the sexual language of love, the dignity of the spouse can never be forgotten. The spouse remains a person, to be loved and not used, even if the other consents to be used. No person can treat another person as a thing. Neither can one agree to be so treated because, even if a person is willing to devalue himself, God still deems him “exceedingly precious,” enough to die for him.12

To love a person is to love him wholly and completely, as he is. To love another human person sexually is to accept that he is a bodily being. His body is not some “thing,” but rather an essential dimension of who he is as a person. In truth, for the average couple, this means that either or both of these persons is a potential parent. A normal male, after all, usually remains fertile for most of his life after puberty. A normal female is fertile for at least part of every month from her adolescence through her menopause.

Each spouse’s fertility is part of who he is as a person. Fertility is not some thing, separate from and subordinate to the “person.” Nor is fertility something neutral, a mere biological “given.” It is a “good,” a natural aspect of being human, and a blessing from God.13 It is certainly not an evil. 14 To love a person, then, is to love that person totally, as he is, including his fertility.

2. To love a person is a want to say “forever” to him or her and, through sexual intercourse, this expression of permanence, so often repeated, can even assume its own independent existence in the person of a child.15 Because a child is a person, the fruit of the love of two other persons, the principle of personal dignity again comes into play.

Through sexual intercourse, a human person may come into existence. Conception may not occur, but it also may take place. Whether or not conception occurs, however, what is potentially at stake is the like of another human person, and human persons are always good. This needs to be emphasized, because human persons are not things. They are not commodities whose value can be traded off against a car or a television or some other thing—and to treat human life as something weighable and measurable is to depersonalize it. No, because we Catholics believe that human life is a personal good, we recognize that sexual intercourse must be true to that language it speaks. That is why the Church speaks about “openness to life,” because it recognizes that, in the end, a human life is not a thing to be measured, but a person to be loved.

3. Finally, because human beings are not just bodily creatures, and because only God can create a soul, sexual intercourse also must be true to the Personal God, our Creator. It is God who created this man and this woman. It is God, whose Providence, from all eternity, brought them together. And it is God who, through their sexual intercourse, may give them the gift of life.

The mystery of human participation in God’s Plans, in His creation, provokes meditation. Consider the miracles we encounter every day in every couple. Two people did not have to meet. Had she taken another bus, had he not gone out with his friend, “they” might never have met. But they did meet. Nothing “had” to develop between them. Yet, despite ups and downs, they did decide (for love in the end is a decision) to express their love in marriage. Nor was it necessary that they “made love” tonight. She might have had a business trip. He might have been stuck in traffic. He may have had the flu. She might have had a headache. But they did express their love sexually. He might have been infertile. She might not have ovulated. But they were fertile. In a single act of sexual intercourse, perhaps one million sperm are ejaculated. Many perish in the female reproductive tracts. Few survive to reach the Fallopian tubes. Of those survivors, half will be lost in the wrong tube. But “one in a million” may succeed, encounter an ovum, and fertilize it.

I did not have to be. The odds against my being, my existence, seem exceedingly high. But the fact is: I am. And that fact demands a decision, even an act of faith. Do I think my existence is happenstance, a fluke, chance, a lucky role of the dice? Or, in light of the above, do I believe that I exist because Someone greater, wiser and more powerful than myself wanted me here?

God wanted me here. God wanted me here from all eternity. When God created the universe He decided, from all eternity, that His world, His universe, would be better because I was in it in A.D. 2003. This is not idealism; this is what we are talking about every time a child is conceived.

This is what it means to say that sexual intercourse involved “co-creatorship” with the Personal God. This is what it means to profess, as we do each Sunday, that God is “Lord and Giver of life.” God did not create Adam and Eve and then go fishing on his Sabbath rest. The same God whose same act of creation brought forth the Big Bang is the same God whose creative finger may be found in our marital beds: God is closer than we sometimes think. That is why reverence for God means openness to His creative work.
Three personal beings—the spouse, the potential child, God—whom the lover is called to love! That is why the Church makes such a “big deal” out of sex. She understands what is at stake is nothing less than the dignity of persons. Thirty-five years ago, on July 25, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae vitae. That document is about love, love as we have described it above. While that document has been much maligned and often rejected by many who have never read it, much less truly understood it, I invite you to join me in common reflection. What have we said about love that could be rejected without at the same time rejecting the dignity of persons—of the spouse, of the potential child, of God? Let us be forthcoming: there is nothing that we could honestly abandon without simultaneously abandoning the true love of persons.

That is what Pope Paul VI sought to teach when, in the encyclical’s language, he said there is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”16

After more than a third of a century, let us look anew at that encyclical. Let us reflect on the nobility of the vision of personal love that it offers. Let us also ask ourselves, in the honesty and privacy of our own hearts, whether the consequences of abandoning that vision—with the countless children deprived of fathers, the impoverished female single parents, the empty homes and cribs, and the scourges of sometimes incurable, sometimes fatal venereal diseases—really is an “alternative” vision of “love” that the encyclical somehow just failed to understand?

No—what Humanae vitae sought was to remind people of their natural greatness, their inherent nobility. Noblesse oblige: to be noble means living up to what you are. Sometimes this is not easy. Sometimes we fail. But human greatness lies not in self-devaluation, but in keeping one’s eyes on the ultimate prize,17 because the prize is true Love, here and hereafter.

To abandon the effort is to fail ourselves, our beloved, our God. For “[m] an cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”18

Through our marital intercourse, this in many ways very “ordinary” experience, God wants to open our eyes to love, reaching all the way from our partner and our child to God Himself. God will open our eyes, if only we are willing to open our hearts.19

Given at my Chancery, July 25, 2003.

Most Rev. John J. Myers
Archbishop of Newark

Rev. James M. Sheehan

1 Abraham J. Heschel, Who Is Man? (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1965), p. 34.
2 Mishnah, Sanhedrin IU:5.
3 John 1:14
4 In his first encyclical, Redemptor hominus (§13), Pople John Paul II reminds us that “…the Son of God… united himself with each man.” See also Leo J. Treses Everyman’s Road to Heaven (Notre Dame: Fides, 1965), pp. 8-9.
5 Genesis 1:27
6 I John 4:8
7 John 14:15. Conversely, no one can truly love God without keeping His commandments: I John 2:4.
8 Mark 12:29-31
9 The author acknowledges his extended indebtedness to the thought of Pope John Paul II, in both its pre-papal and papal periods, with special attention to Karol Wojtyla’s book, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), and the Holy Father’s General Audience addresses, in the period 1980-84, on the “theology of the body.” For those familiar with his thoughts, my indebtedness to Pope John Paul II is evident.
10 Genesis 3:7.
11 Genesis 2:24.
12 See I Corinthians 7:19b-20.
13 Genesis 1:28.
14 Some persons may find their fertility perhaps momentarily inconvenient, but that does not take away its inherent goodness which comes, after all, from God and not our subjective dispositions.
15 It is Scott Hahn, I believe, who observed that this love can become so real that, in nine months, you even have to give it a name.
16 Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae, §12, in The Papal Encyclicals: 1958-1981, ed. Claudia Carlen, Consortium Books ([Wilmington, NC]: McGrath, 1981), p. 226. The official Latin text appears in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 60 (30 September 1968): 488.
17 Phillippians 3: 13-15. See also Timothy 4:7-8.
18 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor hominis, §10
19 See John 10:39; 3: 16-21