|Philosophical knowledge of the truth of Humanae Vitae
28 October 2017
Prof. Josef Seifert
Fifty years ago the Catholic Church reaffirmed in Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae one of its most controversial moral teachings, against which not only critics of the Church but many Catholic theologians raised objections and continue to do so: namely that any form of contraception that separates the conjugal act from conception is intrinsically and gravely morally wrong, a mortal sin. The Church, moreover, insisted that we are able to know the truth of this central teaching of Humanae Vitae not solely by faith but also by reason, because it is part of the natural law and founded on the deep and inseparable bond between the unitive and procreative meaning of the conjugal act.
Precisely for this reason, however, the teachings contained in Humanae Vitae have been strongly attacked and are seldom followed, even by Roman Catholic Christians, because many couples have no understanding of why a moral difference should exist between natural regulation of conception, based on periodic abstinence, which the Church allows, and contraception, which it forbids, such that the one would be intrinsically gravely morally wrong while the other would not per se be morally objectionable, could even be morally right, and conceivably, in some cases, obligatory.
- SOME COMMENTS ON THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE AND SEXUALITY
Marriage as the most foundational human community and fountain of the family arises in virtue of a mutual vow, a consensus of a man and a woman, who commit themselves to a life-long community as husband and wife, and bestow mutually on each other the right and the duty to acts which by their nature are capable to generate new human life. While Luther considered marriage a “wordly thing”, the Catholic Church teaches that Christ has raised marriage, as a true living image of the immense love between God and man, and God and the Church, to the dignity of a sacrament that creates an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman and is one of the seven sacraments and main sources of supernatural graces for them.
Even from a purely natural standpoint, the most notable end of human sexuality is the procreation of a new human life. Yet it is clearly not the merely biological finality of nature that we find also in animals, which imposes the moral obligations upon us of which Humanae Vitae speaks, but the fact that the fruitful marital act issues the life of a new human being, endowed with the dignity of a person. It is then this specifically human end which the Church has called the primary end of marriage. And this is also the reason for the great moral relevance of human sexuality and procreation.
Now, based on many deep reflections on marriage, and in order to under avoid any understanding of marriage and the conjugal act as an instrumental mere means for procreation or a mere contract that mutually bestows rights over one’s body, Humanae Vitae has introduced a new language when it speaks of the ends of marriage and of the conjugal act, saying that this act has a twofold meaning, a unitive and a procreative one. The encyclical Humanae Vitae teaches precisely that the bond between the loving union of husband and wife and procreation must not be broken by any form of contraception.
The deepest natural meaning of the consensus, as well as the unitive meaning of the conjugal act and human procreation, can be understood only in the light of the interpersonal relation of the spouses, and, specifically of that love between man and woman which, among all the forms of love between human beings, realizes the fundamental essential traits of love in a uniquely explicit fashion, which has been called spousal love and has been analyzed deeply by John Paul II.
In all true love we affirm the other person as a whole for her own sake, but in spousal love we do so in a more complete way than in other forms of love. While an element of self-donation belongs also to all forms of true love, in spousal love we give ourselves in an entirely new and more real, spiritual and bodily sense, as a gift to the beloved person. We give ourselves from the depth of our heart and desire to belong exclusively and irrevocably, body and soul, to the beloved human person of the other sex. The mutual love and self-donation in spousal love is also the natural motive and soul of the mutual “Yes” of marital consent. Insofar as the sexual self-donation springs from such a love, it acquires a new inner meaning and becomes a source of the most intimate happiness, instead of just seeking mutual pleasure. The mere irrevocable self-donation through our will in the act of a dry legal marriage contract, perhaps for mere economic or political reasons, is an impoverished substitute in the absence of the genuine love which should motivate the consent.
In a similar fashion, the desire of every kind of love to make the beloved happy and to see her achieve her highest good finds a singular expression and achieves a unique summit in spousal love. We long for the other person’s happiness in those most intimate spiritual and bodily dimensions into which no other form of human love can reach. And above all, we long to make ourselves and our love an irreplaceable gift for the other in many areas where one person can become a gift for another and which remain closed for other forms of love.
Here we can also discern the basis for the fact that spousal love is possible only between a man and a woman. For this complete spiritual and bodily self-donation presupposes the difference between the sexes and their mutual psychological and physical ordination for each other. This trait of spousal love finds its unique expression and fulfillment in the marital act. In its specific uniqueness, human sexuality is destined to be an expression of this love between man and woman, many aspects of which are essentially unrealizable in homosexual or lesbian relationships.
Understood in its deepest dimensions, then, marriage is much more than a marriage contract by means of which two individuals grant each other mutual rights to their bodies and to acts which naturally aim at procreation.
- THE REASONS FOR THE IMMORALITY OF CONTRACEPTION
Against this background, we can now turn to the grounds for the immorality of contraception.
- THE INSEPARABLE BOND BETWEEN THE UNITIVE AND PROCREATIVE MEANING OF THE MARITAL ACT: A FIRST REASON FOR THE TEACHING OF HUMANAE VITAE ON CONTRACEPTION AND ON THE RESPONSIBLE TRANSMISSION OF HUMAN LIFE
Between the spousal act in its unitive aspect and procreation there obtains a profoundly meaningful bond which Humanae Vitae identifies as “inseparable.”
The philosopher has to ask: “What is meant by ‘inseparable’ in this context?” This expression certainly does not mean that the connection is inseparable in the sense that it always obtains in actuality. The whole sense of discussing a moral obligation not to separate these two meanings presupposes that we can separate them. Nor is the marital union justified only by the intention to endow a child with life. For in this case “natural birth control” through temporary abstinence would be just as immoral as “artificial birth control” and any couple that could not have any children at all would be bound to observe complete abstinence. What, then, is meant by the term “inseparable?” On the side of the couple, there has always to exist, in each spousal encounter, an “openness” toward conception. Man is absolutely forbidden to break, intentionally, the bond between the spousal act and procreation, or even for that matter, the bond between the initial stages of the process of fertilization which leads to conception and the conception itself.
Why is contraception not allowed?
- The moral relevance of the bond in question is grounded, above all, in the high value and dignity of the new human person. The very possibility of the parents to endow a child with life as well as their vocation to live their marriage already lays upon them the fundamental obligation of being ready and willing in principle to stand in the service of the coming into existence of a child.
- Even when we do not consider marital intercourse as the expression of spousal love (which may very well be absent in an unhappy marriage), it remains, nevertheless, the exercise and accomplishment of an unbreakable personal and even – as Catholics believe – a sacramental union between the spouses. This bond possesses a high value and sacred character which absolutely forbid any manipulation which would actively separate and isolate the unitive meaning of the marital union from procreation – be it in contraception, in which the marital act is performed excluding procreation, or be it in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, in which the procreative aspect of human sexuality is preserved, but severed from the sexual union of the spouses.
- THE VIOLATION OF THE SUPERABUNDANT FINALITY BETWEEN SPOUSAL LOVE AND PROCREATION – A SECOND SPECIFIC REASON FOR THE IMMORALITY OF CONTRACEPTION (DIETRICH VON HILDEBRAND’S ARGUMENT)
A second specific reason for the immorality of contraception stands in the center of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s pamphlet, The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction, namely, the superabundant finality between spousal love and procreation. What is an expression of the most intimate spiritual love is, or at least should be, bound in a deeply meaningful way to procreation. The spousal union bears a high value that deserves to be taken seriously on its own acccount. But above and beyond this, God has made it fruitful for the purpose of procreation. This type of finality will be designated in this context as a “superabundant finality,” in contradistinction to a merely instrumental finality. Spousal love, an image of the eternal Love that is the fount of all creation, is destined to be the source of human life over and above the meaning that it possesses as properly its own. The immorality of contraception lies in the separation of what is or should be the expression of spousal love from its fruitfulness.
One ought not to violate the integrity of the act of love by betraying the mystery that belongs to it, that out of a tender love a new child should come to be.
- THE INTEGRITY OF THE GIFT OF SPOUSAL LOVE INCLUDES THE INTEGRAL GIFT OF FEMINITY AND MASCULINITY WHICH INCLUDES POTENTIAL PATERNITY AND MATERNITY: KAROL WOJTYLA’S POPE JOHN PAUL II’S PERSONALISTIC ARGUMENT AGAINST CONTRACEPTION
If one separates, in contraception, the unitive meaning of the conjugal act from procreation, one does not leave intact the unitive aspect. Rather, the connection of the two gifts is so close that also the spousal gift is wounded if the “gift from the gift” is actively prevented. One might say also that only as long as the spouses leave their act open to procreation, they possess the moral purity of heart and integrity to give themselves in love. Moreover, an important and wonderful aspect of femininity and masculinity, of the integrity of the body and of the gift is lost, fatherhood and motherhood, if the potential bond to procreation is closed.
The gift of spousal love loses its integral wholeness and dignity if the gift of love is severed from the gift of new life.
The teaching of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio contains a profound affirmation of the dignity of human sexuality in marriage. They affirm “the Gift of Love and the Gift of New Life” and the immense value and moral relevance that is contained in their being joined and connected in the mystery of marriage and in the infinite mystery of God who is Himself the supreme Gift of Love and of Life.
- THE INVIOLABLE BOND BETWEEN HUMAN AND DIVINE ACT IN PROCREATION AS A FOURTH SPECIFIC REASON FOR THE IMMORALITY OF CONTRACEPTION
There is still another, entirely different vertical “bond” that discloses itself on the basis of a metaphysical intuition. As soon as we recognize that man is composed of body and soul, and that his soul is a spiritual substance distinct from his body, unique, free and immortal, we also grasp that the soul of the child does not come from the parents but, rather, must come from God in an act of immediate creation. Neither the parents’ body, nor their soul, nor any angel or seraphim, could possibly create the human soul of the child.
Hence, in procreation a unique cooperation occurs between God and man in the fruitful marital community. God alone has the power to call an individual soul into existence, to create it “out of nothing.” He alone can “breathe” a soul into a body.
Therefore husband and wife should consider themselves as humble servants of procreation in which God-Creator is the main agent to whose creation the child owes its existence.
It is therefore absolutely immoral for the spouses to break, actively and freely, the bond between their union and procreation. When they do this, they seek, in an objectively or also subjectively sinful manner, to exclude God from an act which, in effect, He Himself ordained to be bound with His own act of creating a person. It is hubris, a rebellion against God, when one initiates an act in connection with which God would create a spiritual and immortal soul, and then intervenes to exclude God from this act by quite consciously and actively destroying the intimate bond which unites it with the infinite depth of the divine creative love.
Man is allowed to approach this bond between man and God in procreation only with a profound reverence before its mystery. Man’s use of contraception constitutes an overweening rebellion against his own creatureliness. In a Promethean gesture he claims all rights for himself and wills to be Lord over everything, even over those things and situations which are subject only to God’s divine authority.
- A DEFENSE OF THE ANTI-LIFE ARGUMENT
Many of the previous considerations already imply a philosophical explanation of another reason for the moral wrongness of contraception, which an old version of the Canon iuris canonici, quoted in 1988 by Mons. (later Cardinal) Carlo Caffarra, proclaimed. It went so far as to say that contraception is not only, like abortion, an attack directed against human life, but a worse attack against it than abortion, because it deprives the child not merely of temporal life on earth but of existence in all eternity.
Certainly one might object that the reality of human life makes a huge difference and an attack against the life of an already living person is very different from an attack against one that does not exist yet. Nonetheless, while there is a partial truth in this objection, I think it is quite true that contraception, by excluding the very being of a human person destined for all eternity, constitutes in a sense the most radical attack, a nihilistic attack, against human life that deprives the child of a more metaphysical, eternal gift of life than just of his short terrestrial life.
Even if someone does not agree, as I do, with this negative hierarchy of evil attacks against life, the anti-life argument against contraception carries great weight. Let us understand it better.
In potentially fruitful sexual acts, which are the sole reason for using contraception, the child is “about” to enter into life. The marital act will in fact give him life if one does not actively prevent it. Therefore, contraception includes a “No” to life and to the very existence of a human person. The first step in the direction of the existence of the child has already been taken. We are no longer simply invited to give a child the gift of life, we are obliged not to hinder actively the existence of the child that is about to receive life.
- ARGUMENT FROM CONSEQUENCES FOR LOVE, MARRIAGE AND RESPECT OF PARTNER
It is certainly remarkable that already in 1970 the Neo-Marxist Max Horkheimer, father of the new Left, defended Humanae Vitae against many German moral theologians. He argued that the pill is the death of love because a modern Julia would tell her Romeo that he should wait because she first had to take the pill before coming to him. This, says Horkheimer, is the loss of the yearning, and in the end, the death of love and the transformation of sex into some kind of consumer-good always under our control. It invites the loss of reverence for the marriage partner and drives the spouse to just use him or her to satisfy our lust.
- HUMANAE VITAE AND THE ONLY “WORTHY” ORIGIN OF HUMAN LIFE
The Encyclical Humanae Vitae also formulates the principle that became basic for the document Donum Vitae about the only worthy origin of human life being love, not only ultimately divine love but also human love.
III. WHY IS THEN “NATURAL” REGULATION OF CONCEPTION LEGITIMATE?
Since contraception is immoral, one could ask why is this not also the case with “natural” measures? Why is the marital act not equally sinful in those cases in which the couple either knows that conception is excluded (eg., for reasons of age) or even intends sexual intercourse quite explicitly on those days when conception is impossible?
If procreation were the “primary end” of marriage in the sense that one always had to intend procreation to justify the conjugal act, then every marital union without the explicit intention of procreation would indeed be immoral, as some maintain.
But if the generation of a child is only a “primary end” of marriage in the sense that it is morally wrong to avoid it for shallow reasons, such as having a more comfortable life, and above all forbidden to actively hinder or oppose the end of procreation, we are not obliged to realize spousal union exclusively when we intend its primary end. It is evident that the marital act can bear high value even when conception is not possible, or when, for very serious reasons, children are not desired. Instances of the things that render the unfruitful marital act noble are spousal love and fidelity, the accomplishment of the sacramental bond in the becoming “two in one flesh”. Thus, when the spousal act is performed at a time that conception is precluded, or when the spouses justifiably intend to avoid the conception of a new child, the marital acts remain legitimate and noble and are in no way immoral. Indeed, one may even raise the question whether there exist circumstances serious enough to make natural family planning morally obligatory, such as the danger to the physical or mental well‑being of the mother.
Even if avoiding a pregnancy by periodic abstinence is not per se morally wrong, one can discern, however, an intrusion of a contraceptive attitude even among the defenders of “natural methods.” A self‑centered refusal to cooperate with the coming to be of a new human life can also make use of the natural means of birth control evil.
One might object to the moral difference between contraception and the “natural methods,” that nature or God frequently bring about a separation of the marital act from procreation. Hence how can the bond be inseparable? May not man do freely and rationally what occurs in nature irrationally, and thus be allowed to actively separate the marital act from generation?
In this objection lies a disastrous fundamental error about the nature of moral action. It is not morally permissible for man to do whatever occurs often in nature without human intervention. If this were true, we could cause others every conceivable injury that is often brought about by natural causes, such as sickness and death. The absurdity of such a consequence clearly brings to light the erroneous nature of the underlying principle.
This principle is not wrong only with respect to evil. It would be just as wrong to apply to many goods that often accrue to men without any human intervention but which must not be procured by us intentionally. For example, we are not morally permitted to take someone’s life in order to free him from the evils of a pain which he cannot bear patiently or from the temptation to despair, ‑ not even when that person begs it from us and when death means relief from suffering, for which we could legitimately pray and hope.
Others object: Why should we not manipulate a merely biological fact such as the time of fertility? As a first answer, it is obvious that we are allowed to intervene in many neutral or negative biological processes but that others impose moral obligations upon us even if, considered in themselves, they are neutral. If these facts are connected with very important and morally relevant goods, such as health, they deserve to be morally respected, not because of their own morally relevant nature as natural facts but on account of the factual connection with morally relevant realities.
The neutral, merely biological fact that, for example, some specific food harms a baby, while other food is healthy for it, imposes a moral obligation not to give the harmful food to the baby simply because the biological fact in question is connected with the baby’s sickness.
Contraception betrays a specific Manichean pride that refuses to recognize the dignity that certain facts, in themselves neutral, draw from their factual connection with important goods.
CONCLUDING REMARKS ON MORAL THEOLOGICAL CONSEQUENTIALISM AND VERITATIS SPLENDOR
The teaching of the Church on the transmission of human life is often presented as an inhuman moralizing in which one forgets the real circumstances and the sufferings and existential situations which many couples cannot possibly overcome in the way demanded by Humanae Vitae, and which in effect force them to practice contraception.
Now, one should certainly have compassion with married couples who suffer tragic consequences from their compliance with moral demands.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to identify the fatal error in this objection. The question of moral good and evil aims at the very heart of reality and the drama of human existence. Every moral evil, no matter how small, outweighs in an incomparable way any extra‑moral evil. It does not profit a man even when he gains the whole world but suffers harm in his soul. Because of the specific absoluteness of the moral sphere, there can be no grounds whatever for permitting an act that is morally evil in itself. Indeed, if we could save the whole world through one single immoral act, we would still not be allowed to perform such an act. Situation ethics, utilitarianism and consequentialism, as well as the principle that “the end justifies the means” obscure this fundamental truth which was already recognized by Socrates, namely: “It is better for man to suffer injustice than to commit it.”
This essential tenet of any genuine ethics, the existence of moral absolutes, was taught forcefully by the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which did not defend some isolated Catholic position but the truth of natural ethics that there are moral absolutes. From an assumption to the contrary it would follow that adultery, sacrilege, pornography, lying, yes, every infraction and crime could be allowed in view of the possible consequences of avoiding suffering or other evils. On the basis of such a principle every call to martyrdom could also be rejected or simply explained away.
Contraception occurs not only in secret but it easily escapes notice and the voice of conscience. What is already a presupposition for any perception of moral value is of special importance in this context, i.e., the need to attend reverently to the voice of being and truth if one is to understand the difference at hand. Pope John Paul II says correctly of this difference that it is not something superficial but that in the final analysis it presupposes two radically different philosophical anthropologies. We must open our souls in order to grasp the profound meaning and value of marriage. We must „descend into our own depths“ if we are even to begin to understand the mystery of the cooperation between God and man as it unfolds in procreation.
 Cf. Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, No. 8 and 9 for a brief but beautiful presentation of the nature of spousal love. For a more extensive and enlightening philosophical analysis of the nature of love, see Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, Man and Woman He Created Them. A Theology of the Body, transl., introduction, and index by Michael Waldstein, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006). See also Dietrich von Hildebrand, Das Wesen der Liebe (Stuttgart, 1971); Marriage. The Mystery of Faithful Love. Foreword: John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1984).
 See Josef Seifert, True Love. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2015).
 In spousal love we long to make the response to the other in his or her preciousness a central theme of our life.
 See Josef Seifert, „Kirche und Homosexualität“, Forum Katholische Theologie, Ed. v. Leo Scheffczyk, Kurt Krenn und Anton Ziegenaus, 8 (1992) H 4, 278-289; „Familie, Homosexualität und Staat“, in: Mut zu Ethik II. Schutz der Familie und der heranwachsenden Jugend, Ed. v. VPM (Zürich: Verlag Menschenkenntnis, 1994), pp. 209-233.
 And it is this significance which presupposes a difference, indeed, an opposition between true spousal love and isolated sexual desire. This decisive distinction was made by von Hildebrand, The Encyclical, p. 13f.; Cf. also his In Defense of Purity, Part I, Ch. 3. And it is precisely from this perspective that a decisive clarification is cast upon the meaning of procreation. Children can be called the superabundant end of marriage because marriage should not be a mere means for this end but should already possess in itself the profound meaning of a community of love.
 Already Pius XI had stated in Casti Connubii that in a certain way the loving community of the spouses could be regarded as the primary end of marriage, even if not with respect to marital intercourse but only with respect to marriage as a community.
By emphasizing – as two most basic aspects of marriage – the loving union/communion of the spouses and procreation, recent Church documents avoided more legalistic earlier definitions of marriage such as the designation of marriage as a contract by which the spouses bestow on each other the right to acts which are by their nature capable of procreation. Not the mere legal or physical side and the causal role of the conjugal act for procreation are mentioned, but the personal love and union of the spouses. Thus the new emphasis in Church documents – since the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes – on the link between spousal union and procreation is a strong move towards a more personalistic vision of marriage and towards a more personalistic ethical foundation of the intrinsic wrongness of contraception.
Humanae Vitae does not even use any more another earlier ecclesiastic terminology with reference to marriage, according to which procreation is the « first end » of marriage and all other ends are subordinated to it. Rather, Humanae Vitae stresses, almost as if to say that both are on the same level, the union of persons – and thereby also love and the « gift of love-aspect » of marriage – on the one hand, and procreation, on the other.
This personalistic vision, which marks many earlier writings on marriage in our century, most notably those of Dietrich von Hildebrand and Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, and which is a distinguishing mark of recent Church documents since Pius XI and Pius XII, is continued and in some respects deepened in Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. The Pope – both as a philosopher and as the author of Familiaris Consortio, addressing himself to « all men and women, » – adds to Humanae Vitae and to the philosophical and theological background of Church teaching a profound theology and philosophy of the human body, of the personal gift of love, and of marriage as a personal communion of love. Thereby, he has laid the foundations for any proper and timely interpretation of the specific teaching of the Church on contraception.
See D. von Hildebrand, Marriage. The Mystery of Faithful Love, with a Foreword by John J. Archbishop O’Connor (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 21984). The first German edition appeared 1928. See by the same author, In Defense of Purity (originally published in 1926), and other works, including Die Enzyklika « Humanae Vitae » – Ein Zeichen des Widerspruchs (Regensburg: Habbel, 1968).
See also Karol Cardinal Woytyla, Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1981). See also Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them. A Theology of the Body, transl., introduction, and index by Michael Waldstein, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
 This bond exists « actually » only during a limited number of days each month for a limited number of years during a lifetime, a number often shortened by natural obstacles, operations, etc. Sometimes – as in the case of sterility – this bond never exists « actually. »
 In this context I abstract from the question whether this point refers exclusively to marriage and whether contraception ceases to be immoral in the case of a crime such as rape or of a sin such as adultery or premarital intercourse. This problem deals with the difficult and disputed ethical question whether an act that is immoral in itself (such as adultery) becomes more immoral in every instance where it is accompanied by another immoral act (such as contraception). This question involves the further problem concerning the procedures that may be legitimately undertaken by the innocent victim of a rape after the process which leads to conception has already been initiated. It seems that even here some of the reasons for the immorality of contraception remain valid while others do not apply. (The question also arises whether it is not the case that most or even all forms of the pill are effective not only before but also after conception and are therefore abortifacient and hence also for this reason, even when used for purely therapeutic reasons, are always immoral.)
 On the nature and many essential features of the person in which this dignity is grounded, there is an immense literature. I myself have presented many reflections on this topic. See Josef Seifert: “Osservazioni dal punto di vista di una metafisica fenomenologica della persona“, in: Paul Ricoeur, Persona, comunità e istituzioni, a cura di Attilio Danese (San Domenico di Fiesole: Edizioni Cultura della Pace, 1994), pp. 202-211; „Die vierfache Quelle der Menschenwürde als Fundament der Menschenrechte“, in: Burkhardt Ziemske (Hrsg.