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John F. KavanaughMay 22, 2006

Thirty-eight years after its publication, the encyclical Humanae Vitae is once again causing a stir. The Italian weekly L’Espresso featured in its April 21 issue an extended dialogue between the bioethicist Ignazio Marino and the retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J. (For the text in English, search the World Wide Web for chiesa martini marino.) The discussion includes egg or sperm donation, the scientific use of abandoned frozen embryos, the use of condoms for spouses when one of them is infected with AIDS, abortion and euthanasia. Although I did not see the encyclical specifically mentioned, it seems to haunt the proceedings. This became evident in the following weeks, as a flurry of articles raised the possibility that the church’s blanket condemnation of contraception might be modified.

There is extensive literature on the encyclical, including intense critiques and strong defenses. Offered here is merely a reflection that might be worthy of attention when thinking about human life and human sexuality.

My own judgment is that Humanae Vitae, while missing a strategic opportunity, was in many ways prophetic. The opportunity missed was the occasion to articulate clearly the difference between contraception and the taking of human life. After condemning abortion as a means of birth control, No. 14 of the encyclical says that forms of direct sterilization, whether lasting or temporary, and other forms of contraception are equally to be excluded. That equally, possibly an effect of seeing only grave matter in sexual sins, has the unintended but disastrous effect of equating contraception and abortion. Abortion is not contraception; it is the termination of an early human life.

It is my suspicion that this faulty equalization is behind the sad fact that the abortion rate among Catholics, even in countries like Poland, is little different from that of other groups. If one has already sinned mortally by using (unsuccessfully) contraception, why not try abortion? Failing to teach the difference dulled, rather than formed, consciences. The encyclical should have been called Of Human Sexuality. It was on that topic that Humanae Vitae was in many ways prophetic.

The document should have started with the simple truth that sex is only part of the moral life, albeit a significant part. That might have defused the wild reaction to the letter, itself a sign of the fixation on sex. Prior to Humanae Vitae there were many Catholics who thought that sex was the only significant moral topic. Subsequently, although there were still a few who centered their ethical world on sex, many more Catholics joined the general crowd, thinking that sex was the only part of human life that had no moral import. They came to view sexuality solely as a matter of private liberty. Humanae Vitae offered a vision of human sexuality as responsive to the will of God and faithful to the insight that the profound intimacy of sexual intercourse required a profound covenant of persons and an openness to the life that is made possible by the intercourse of man and woman. It warned of the risks of ignoring this vision: commodification of sex and women, fragmentation of the spousal relationship and the distancing of parents from offspring.

Could it be that, unmoored from the will of God, spousal love and the reality and symbolism of reproduction, sex was reduced to a matter of unfettered liberty in fulfilling desire or the traffic of entertainment and commerce?

Those who have chosen the full libertarian agenda that God and ethics have nothing to do with the bedroom or reproduction have some tough questions to face. Are there any moral constraints at all on sexual or reproductive freedom? Is nothing morally required of us in matters of this quite significant part of human experience? Is one’s heart’s desire the trump card for all our decisions? One wonders what might be the source of the massive repression of compunction in priests who abused children, of teachers who seduced their students, of parents who violated their own. Surely such horrors have taken place for ages. But have they been done with such absence of guilt? And what of sex itself? Do the astounding profits in pornography, the mounting rates of sexually transmitted diseases, the images of pop and hip-hop music videos or the edgy offerings of the television and fashion industries offer any vision of sex that is even remotely connected to love, commitment or children?

Questions about unrestricted reproductive liberty are even more troubling. In televised cases presented to my own medical ethics class, we encounter partners shopping for sperm sold by donor-merchants who look like the latest movie stars. College women are offered up to $50,000 for their eggsif they are 5 feet 10 inches tall and have an appropriately high I.Q. Babies are born, only to be unclaimed by an ovum seller, a sperm seller, a surrogate carrier for pregnancy and the contracting original couple now separated. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is used not only to select for healthy prospective babies, but also to select for genderbecause having a boy was my heart’s desire.

If we are serious as Christians, as Catholics, we have to be willing to admit that every area of our livesthe political, the economic, the personal and, yes, the sexualis an arena for holiness and generosity. In a totalizing commerce-culture such as ours, if we do not witness to our young that we live a different way, we will bequeath to them neither love nor holiness, but moral chaos. Humanae Vitae told us as much.

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