ROME – Though Humanae Vitae has faced frequent dissent in the 50 years since it was published, that dissent does not detract from its truth, a law professor said at a recent conference on the encyclical.
John Finnis, professor emeritus of law and legal philosophy, at the University of Oxford, spoke during a June 14–17 conference at the Paul VI Institute in Brescia, promoted by the Italian Confederation of Centers for the Natural Regulation of Fertility.
Blessed Paul VI promulgated the encyclical July 25, 1968, despite pressure to approve the use of artificial contraception by Catholics, in at least limited circumstances. When the encyclical upheld traditional Catholic teaching forbidding artificial contraception, it was met with widespread dissent.
In his lecture, Finnis noted that “Paul VI omitted to state openly in the encyclical something which he took for granted, something that he assumed all Christians willingly or reluctantly accepted, as they had accepted from the Church’s beginning…that everyone at all times has the arduous responsibility not to seek sexual satisfaction in a non-marital way.”
This proposition was “believed even if not fully practiced,” noted Finnis.
Paul VI’s omission had “a wholly unintended effect,” Finnis said.
“It made it easier for many bishops and priests and other Christians to suppose, or tell themselves, mistakenly, that the pope could have made some ‘opening’ or ‘ loosening’ of the ‘rule’ or ‘ban’ against contraception.”
This happened, Finnis continued, because these bishops “supposed, without careful thought” that the pope “could have [approved the use of contraception] while leaving intact the rest of the teaching about sex that you find throughout the New Testament.”
The philosopher stressed that the same bishops “paid no attention to the fact that the advisory commission who, by majority, urged him in 1966 to make this ‘opening’ had tried but wholly failed to find any persuasive argument against the conclusion that any such ‘opening’ would also be an opening to homosexual sex acts, solitary self-gratification, consensual adultery, premarital intercourse.”
He added that “that majority had likewise failed to show that their principle of ‘totality’ could be adopted without abandoning the whole Christian teaching about acts intrinsically immoral whatever the circumstances.”
Finnis’s comments referred to a campaign that filled the media before and after the promulgation of the encyclical, whose effects, he said, are enduring still today.
Although dissent from the encyclical has had “countless negative consequences,” none of these “detract in the least from the truth of the teachings in Humanae Vitae, or from our responsibility to make those teachings our own, both in our innermost thought and heart, and in word and deed,” he said.
Humanae Vitae’s contemporary relevance was discussed at the same conference by ethicist Father Gino Zampieri, in a lecture titled “From Humanae Vitae to Amoris Laetitia: Open horizons, kept promises and paths opened.”
Zampieri said that the encyclical presents the exercise of sexuality as a reciprocal gift among spouses, and this understanding helps to “recognize that every person is at the same time a gift of God, gift of his parents, and gift of humanity.”
That means, for example, that “spouses have no right to a child,” as the child is the fruit of “the reciprocal donation of themselves;” and this rationale is part of the discussion about fertility issues like in vitro fertilization.
Humanae Vitae also restated the “no” to any abortion, as “every person is donated to the whole humanity,” is “taken away from it when the gift is unfortunately not welcome,” he said.
Zampieri said that Pope Francis’s 2016 Amoris Laetitia invited couples to rediscover with courage and freedom Humanae Vitae, describing the invitation as “coming from the Church’s concern for the common good, both Christians and non-Christians, both those who have welcomed [Humanae Vitae’s] message in their lives and those” — the majority, he said – “who still do not know nor live the fecundity of that message.”
In the end, he said, both Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia show “the beauty of…sexuality within the family.”
Both of the documents, he added, are pro-life and pro-responsible fatherhood and motherhood, pro-family, pro-educational toward children, pro-social, and pro-ecological.
That means that both of the documents are “in favor of humanity’s integral development.”