Humanae Vitae – 40 Years After

5 08 2008

(Yes, even here)

But I don’t feel qualified enough to comment, so I will just push at the last minute the conference hosted by the St. Anthony of Padua Institute and the Diocese of Oakland that is to take place this Saturday, August 9th, in Moraga, California, on the beautiful St. Mary’s College campus. I’ll be there if you want to stalk me in the flesh. More information can be found by following this link. Pre-registration is required.

In the interest of sparking some reflection on the subject, I post this link to an essay on Catholic writer Ryan Grant’s blog where he gives a critical review from the traditionalist perspective on the papal encyclical. Here is a section of it so that you can wet your whistle a bit:

There is a reason why the Church had maintained since St. Augustine (and before him) that the primary end of marriage is the procreation of children, and that happiness of spouses is subordinated to that end (though by no means unimportant). If the happiness of spouses were the primary end of marriage, and children were subordinated to that end, there would be nothing logically barring homosexual unions based on such an understanding in natural law…

Thus, why did Paul VI not make explicit mention of this? Who knows. Regardless, I am not here arguing that if he had only formulated it right Catholics would have accepted the encyclical. That is false, nothing but a reinforcement of Catholic teaching on obedience, humility, and traditional moral teaching in every parish in every diocese with a constant prayer life and a strong authentic liturgical life could have prevented the onset of the resistance to Humanae Vitae. As Janet Smith surmised correctly responding to John Galvin, Paul VI might have just re-issued Casti Conubii. Not a bad idea, but given the assault on the liturgy in every parish it would not have done much good. People had been told for years that the teaching will change, the liturgy after all changed, the catechism changed, the appearance of doctrinal integrity coming from the apostles seemed removed when heretics were given pride of place in periodicals and pulpits, so why not contraception? If the state of affairs created by modernism were not in place, the effect of Humanae Vitae would have been far greater, in spite of its flaws.

Note: If you have a problem with what he says here, take it to his blog. I would rather not get into it here. I am just the messenger.


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3 responses

6 08 2008
John Cassian

“Indeed, I will say that subordinationsist language keeps things in the concrete”

I suppose it all depends on what one means by “concrete.” My main problem here is that most traditionalist language about primary and secondary ends is intended to be “concrete” by translating the words “primary” and “secondary” as roughly equivalent to “more important” and “less important” or “really good” and “not nearly as good” or “essential” and “not particularly essential.” You get the idea.

This sort of mental translation project is contrary to the meaning of those terms, as used historically throughout Scholastic theology, and it imposes a whole set of theological and ethical categories on marriage that would be foreign both to the Schoolmen as well as the Church Fathers. It leads very easily to that distorted view of marriage, common in traditionalist circles, where maximizing the production of children is seen as somehow fulfilling the primary end of marriage.

I wholeheartedly support subordinationist language, rightly understood, and would agree that it does keep the discussion of marriage firmly anchored in something besides one’s own personal pleasures. I just think that its possible to move away from a strict subordinationist view when needed to correct its distorted use. Chrysosotom never uses it, and he does not seem to fall into the sort of errors which the blog post says will happen if subordinatism is abandoned.

6 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I don’t know that there is a “full metaphysical context… traditionally possessed in Catholic theology” when it comes to marriage outside of the latter day fancies of phenomenologists reading their own versions of Patristic thought according to their own prejudices. Indeed, I will say that subordinationsist language keeps things in the concrete lest we float off into dangerous abstractions that lead to even more dangerous practices, but that’s all I’ll say about that.

5 08 2008
John Cassian

At the risk of contravening your stated desire to “not get into it,” I might point out that it is exactly this sort of reasoning that gives the word “tradition” a bad name. I can sympathize with the author’s larger aim – there are segments of the conservative Catholic world which have latched on to all of the recent language regarding the unitive ends of marriage, and transformed it into to a manner of speaking that reflects the sexual disorders of our culture, as if not contracepting were simply a way to have great Catholic orgasm.

Still, it would seem that the post exhibits a selective reading of Church tradition, as if twentieth-century papal encyclicals, so long as they are pre-Vatican II, are sufficient sources for capturing the entirety of Church teaching on the subject. Admittedly, it is a blog post and not a dissertation, but at least a polite nod towards Chrysostom would have been nice.

It seems his argument also misconstrues the word “subordinate” in treating the ends of marriage, assigning it an exclusively ethical implication, and divorcing it from the full metaphysical context that the word has traditionally possessed in Catholic theology. It smacks of the dime-store Thomism that was widespread in the Twentieth century, and which most traditionalists still imitate in their thought and practice (n.b. – Russell Hittinger discusses this phenomena in last month’s First Things – a better reference for what I am trying to get at here)

I would speculate that it is the deficiencies of “cheap Thomism” that led Paul VI and his successors to omit the strict subordinationist language used in previous documents. In a culture where discussions of “primary” and “secondary” ends tend to quickly degenerate into discussions of “good” and “not as good,” I think it can be argued that moving away from subordinationist language is a move towards a fuller understanding of the Church’s theology of marriage.

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