Speakers: After predicting sexual revolution ills, ‘Humanae Vitae’ still offers hope

| Susan Klemond and Matthew Davis | October 30, 2018 | 0 Comments

Mary Eberstadt, a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, talks about “Humanae Vitae” Oct. 22 during a conference at the University of St. Thomas. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Fifty years after the issue of “Humanae Vitae,” St. Paul VI’s landmark encyclical affirming the Church’s proscription on artificial birth control, the Church has a better explanation for its basis in natural law and more scriptural arguments supporting the encyclical’s teaching — thanks in part to St. John Paul II, said Janet Smith, an ethicist whose work has included significant scholarship on “Humanae Vitae.”

Smith was among experts who spoke Oct. 22 at “Contraception — Why Not? Rethinking ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 2018,” a daylong event commemorating the document’s 50th anniversary. The event’s title referred to Smith’s popular talk “Contraception: Why Not.”

Held at the University of St. Thomas, the event also featured speakers Matt Birk, Teresa Collett, Dr. Maureen Condic, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Robert Fastiggi, Mary Eberstadt and Deborah Savage.

The interdisciplinary conference examined some of the far-reaching consequences of the sexual revolution — those both predicted and those unforeseen by St. Paul VI in his controversial encyclical — as well as the scientific, social and moral context for questions of married love, parenthood and the use of artificial birth control. In the process, speakers considered the encyclical’s layers of meaning, which scholars and other Catholic thinkers continue to explore. The 1968 papal encyclical issued in response to the rise of contraception-use in society has sparked debate inside and outside of the Church over the past half-century.

About 275 attended the daytime portion of the conference, and 250 attended an evening event that condensed the ideas explored earlier that day. Attendees included leaders of parish religious education, youth groups and pregnancy resource centers, as well as with priests, seminarians, students and professors.

Topics ranged from the document’s infallibility and lessons from the sexual revolution to contraception and the U.S. government, and living the truth in love, and featured perspectives from theology, philosophy, biology, law and public policy. Several speakers hailed St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” articulated the Church’s vision for human sexuality.

“We’re trying to show people today that [‘Humanae Vitae’] itself is not intended to place unnecessary restrictions on people’s lives but actually open them up to the great joy that life brings,” said Savage, a St. Paul Seminary professor and co-founder and director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture at St. Thomas, who presented and helped organize the conference.

Childbearing ‘advances salvation’

A professor of moral theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Smith explained the Church’s teaching on birth control is rooted in its understanding of sex. When it comes to sex, humans stand apart from animals because their reason and dignity enable them to know the truth and decide to act in accord with it, not solely on instinct, she said. As the encyclical states, both conscious parenthood and a lifetime marital commitment are part of responsible sex, she said, and that in the mission they have of transmitting life through sex, humans can be co-creators with God. 

“God wants spouses to transmit human life,” Smith said. “That’s what God asks of them and that advances salvation. … ‘Humanae Vitae’ has this deep, deep meaning of seeing that these are the two meanings of the sexual act: union and procreation.” 

The complexity of life issues, including embryonic stem-cell research, health care, abortion, and euthanasia and broader end-of-life issues can make it difficult to understand how they are interconnected, said Maureen Condic, a neurobiology and anatomy professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. Within the “life continuum,” people often make arbitrary judgments about when it begins or where it has value, she said.

While some question when life begins, there are discrete, observable scientific characteristics that differentiate a human zygote, or early embryo, from other types of new cells, she said.

“Many people look at the conclusion — that the human zygote is a human being — and even pro-life people tend to stage some sort of emotional revolt,” Condic said. “It seems so outrageous that [what looks like] the little Bayer aspirin and a mature human are the same. This is the point at which a different kind of intellectual exercise has to kick in. We can’t wrap our heads around this.”

Many are unaware that the sexual revolution was another industrial revolution and the biggest social fact of our time around the world, said Eberstadt,  a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of “Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution.” “The first revolution was about the way humanity makes things, and the second is about the way humanity remakes its very self,” she said.

In “Humanae Vitae,” St. Paul VI predicted that widespread contraception use would have adverse consequences for women, and empirical secular evidence is bearing this out, she said. The pope also predicted that governments could impose artificial birth control on citizens, which is happening through aid organizations in places like Africa, she said.

Eberstadt also attributed the decline in and division within membership among Protestant churches to their acceptance of contraception. Prior to the 1930s, all Christian churches understood contraception use as immoral. 

Continuity within Church teaching

Rachel Houglum, director of youth and young adults at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, listens to a speaker during “Contraception — Why Not? Rethinking ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 2018,” a daylong event commemorating the document’s 50th anniversary Oct. 22.

Robert Fastiggi, a theologian who, like Smith, teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, said the teaching in “Humanae Vitae” about the immorality of contraception stretches back to the Church’s beginnings.

“This is a case where following the historical research, we don’t find any Church Fathers allowing for acts which deliberately frustrate the procreative end of marriage,” Fastiggi said.

Fastiggi explained why the debate over the document’s infallibility is moot. He started by describing the three levels of infallibility outlined in the 1989 Profession of Faith, a pledge offered for Church leaders to profess their “acceptance of definitive teachings of the Magisterium.”

Level one applies to divine revelation, while level two includes “everything definitely proposed by the Church regarding teachings on faith and morals,” he said.

The immorality of contraception and the related sin of “onanism,” which fall under level two, have been definitively upheld in papal encyclicals and other Church documents throughout the centuries, including “Amoris Laetitia” in 2016. “Would the Holy Spirit allow such a consistent rejection of contraception if the teaching were not true?” he asked.

A professor at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Savage spoke of growing up in the 1960s during the sexual revolution and the response of “Humanae Vitae” to the birth control pill. She knew many female college classmates who felt pressured to have sex and regretted their decision.

“It was there that I actually witnessed firsthand what the Holy Father’s teaching was intended to avert,” she said. “I recognize those events now as the beginning of a new kind of slavery.”

She noted that the birth control pill came around at a time when society had already been sexually charged. The pill became a means to “cure the fertility problem” society perceived as an “obstacle to unfettered access to sex without a penalty — or so we thought,” Savage added.

She told her story of not being able to have children after marrying her husband, Andrew. They adopted a daughter, which gave her a deeper understanding of the blessing of children.

“I did not know you could love someone that much,” Savage said of her daughter. “I have learned that children are their own gift. They are given to us in every case, whether through natural birth or adoption.”

Government gets involved

Almost a century before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “contraception mandate” required employers to pay for contraceptives as a medical benefit, Margaret Sanger crusaded for government acceptance of contraceptives. That was a first, St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett explained.

She spoke of the Comstock Act of 1873, which Congress passed to ban the mailing of contraceptives. “In 1873, it was clear the legislative bodies around the country thought that contraception was contrary to the public good,” she said.

Sanger’s work in the 1910s opposed the contraceptives ban, despite her multiple trips to prison for illegal clinics. The New York court of appeals acquiesced in 1918, allowing contraceptives for women’s health. Sanger’s founding of Planned Parenthood and the Anglican bishops’ allowance of contraceptives “in hard cases” in the 1930s augmented their acceptance in the first half of the 20th century, Collett said.

Law surrounding contraceptive-use became more permissive in the years following the sexual revolution. “It’s important then to recognize that Pope Paul was correct when he said that governments will be involved in the most intimate decisions of husbands and wives if, in fact, contraception is included,” Collett said. 

Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Catholic speaker Matt Birk offered insight on living out the teachings of “Humanae Vitae” in the final talk of the daytime conference.

Birk, a former Minnesota Vikings lineman, compared the virtues needed to live God’s plans to what it takes to succeed on the gridiron. Both come down to discipline, he explained.

“You either choose the pain of discipline or the pain of regret,” he said. “The pain of discipline is up front, but it goes away because [when] you look back, you’re glad that you were disciplined. Regret … that can last forever.”

Bishop Cozzens spoke of the graces of living married live generously and “open to life.” He said that since he has been speaking about “Humanae Vitae,” the most common question he has been asked by young adults has pertained to serious reasons for the spacing of children and limiting family size.

He said he often replies, “I have yet to meet a couple in their old age who have regretted that they had so many children.” The generosity in openness to life needed for marriage takes a “life of prayer” and faith and trust in God, he said.

‘Still great truths to be unearthed’

St. Agnes parishioner John Benyon, 71, attended the conference to learn more about the controversial encyclical. “When ‘Humanae Vitae’ came out I was in college,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it. It was given such a bad spin. There was such turmoil, so much resistance. We never got the truth. We had to find these resources and read them for ourselves.”

Father Allan Paul Eilen, pastor of St. Patrick in Oak Grove, said the conference offered good news he plans to share with his parish. “This is information that a lot of people are still ignorant of, and we need to meet them where they’re at and really give them the tools, the gifts they need to enter into that vocation of love that we’re all called to.”

“Humanae Vitae” may gain a better hearing in the new, growing Catholic counterculture, Eberstadt said.

And young people continue to learn from the encyclical, Smith said. “There are still great truths to be unearthed in ‘Humanae Vitae,’ she said.

Event sponsors included the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies, the Archbishop Flynn Catechetical Institute, St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, and the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture at St. Thomas, and the Cana Family Institute.


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