Monday, January 12, 2015

Dignified sexuality and responsible fertility: What does -- and doesn't -- hold from "Humanae Vitae"

by Juan Masiá Clavel, SJ (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Convivencia de Religiones Blog
January 8, 2015

(Question 41 of the current Lineamenta for the 2015 Synod deals with how to "effectively promote [openness to life] and the dignity of becoming a mother or father", and it adds, as a minimal reference, "in light, for example, of Humanae Vitae").

I would answer that question by saying simply three things:

1) Let's review what the criteria for dignified sexuality and responsible fertility are: mutual respect of the individuals, just reciprocity in the relationships and responsibility in welcoming life (which excludes both procreation at all costs and uncompromising rejection of it -- both irresponsible).

2) That what needs to be rediscovered, in order to make this review in its light, is not Humanae vitae, but the Second Vatican Council's criterion on responsible fertility (Gaudium et spes, 47-52).

3) That it be made clear, when talking about the Church's teaching on these issues, what holds and doesn't from Humanae Vitae. What holds are its two main criteria on dignity and responsibility in the marriage relationship and the acceptance of life. What doesn't hold and must be overcome: its narrow interpretations of sexuality and its negative conclusions about birth control methods. That is, all that remains of Humanae Vitae is what is not originally its own, but of Vatican II from which Humanae vitae unfortunately backpedaled.

The aforementioned question 41 alludes generally to that very controversial encyclical which has caused so much loss of credibility in the Church.

The question is inspired by paragraphs 57 and 58 of the Relatio Synodi, which seems to echo the abundant negative reactions to the Lineamenta of the previous year, and is limited to recommending "appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods for responsible procreation," inviting us to "return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae...which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births."

(A Vatican-style diplomatic formulation which leaves room for assenting to the principles and dissenting from the conclusions. It would be preferable to acknowledge the limitations of the earlier teaching, which should always continue to develop and evolve historically, and admit that it forces us to combine assent to valid criteria with disagreement with its applications).

The Lineamenta for the 2014 Synod insists on reaffirming Humanae vitae. The summary of the responses (Instrumentum laboris, 2014) showed negative reactions to these questions. The current survey for the 2015 Synod appears to have taken that into account and opens the door for more open, positive, and advanced answers.

One third of the answers proposed here, at the beginning of this post, is what some of us have been presenting in moral theology classes for the last three decades, recognizing that this opinion is not in accord with the one expressed in the documents of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

A brief summary -- a mere thematic index -- of what holds and doesn't from Humanae vitae is as follows (which I've developed in greater detail in the essays Tertulias de Bioética, Trotta, 2006, and Cuidar la vida, Herder y Religión Digital, 2012).

What holds of Humanae vitae: two major excellent premises.

What doesn't hold: two controversial minor premises and two deficient and inconsistent conclusions.

1. Two major premises that are still valid: A) the criterion of mutual respect for the dignity of individuals in the marriage relationship and dignified and just sexual intimacy; B) the criteria of openness to welcoming life and responsible birth, with decisions made in conscience and shared between the spouses.

2. Two minor premises that ought to be corrected: A) the narrow interpretation on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of each and every act of intimate union; B) the erroneous interpretation on the natural and the artificial, as if everything artificial were anti-natural, forgetting that, as Saint Thomas says, "it's quite natural for human beings to resort responsibly to the artificial."

3. Two deficient and inconsistent conclusions: A) the indiscriminate rejection of methods improperly deemed "unnatural" because they are artificial, and the naively optimistic recommendation of so-called "natural methods" as if they couldn't be irresponsible or infringing on the dignity of the couple when both don't agree with their practice; B) the regulatory imposition of openness to life as indispensable in every act of intimate union or as if that end were an indispensable condition for the legitimacy of said union.

(This is nothing more than the index of a one semester course on the good and bad points of Humanae vitae. Each of these three points could be completed with the writings of reputable moralists like Bernard Häring, Marciano Vidal and Javier Gafo.)

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