50 years after “Humanae Vitae,” we still buy into the myth of the self-made man

The 50th anniversary of the publication of “Humanae Vitae” offers an opportunity to consider the distance we as a church and society have traveled since that original date. In July of 1968, human beings had not yet set foot on the moon, but the “race to space” was in full swing. A diagnosis of cancer was still spoken only in whispered, fearful tones, but new or improved vaccines had appeared for polio, measles and rubella, and there was reason for optimism that the eventual cure for this—and perhaps for every human disease—was only a matter of time.

In California, Walt Disney had built a new amusement park in 1955 and officially opened a second location in the sleepy world of central Florida in 1965. Both parks would eventually centrally feature Tomorrowland, relying on the corporate sponsorship of the agrochemical behemoth Monsanto. Disney, reflecting the optimistic spirit of the age, promised “a vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievements.... Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.” As they stepped into Tomorrowland’s “House of the Future,” it was easy for visitors to picture themselves inhabiting such a world.


“Humanae Vitae,” of course, focused especially on “the transmission of human life.” Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth,” the encyclical reaffirmed the long-held teaching of the Catholic Church against artificial contraception. More controversially, in publishing the document Pope Paul VI overruled the conclusions of the majority of the members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, a committee made up of not only of cardinals and bishops but theologians and lay people that was established specifically to consider this question.

Across the ranks of the faithful and even the clergy, the teaching against artificial contraception was questioned and often simply rejected.

Members of that commission were not the only ones who found the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” objectionable. Across the ranks of the faithful and even the clergy, the teaching against artificial contraception was questioned and often simply rejected. Rifts opened that have not yet been healed. The dissent among theologians, led by the Rev. Charles Curran, created dividing lines that still exist in many ways. Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who was a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1968, wrote on the occasion of the encyclical’s 40th anniversary that “within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church.”

In the larger culture, however, in the United States and throughout Europe, a revolution had already been set in motion. By 1968, “the Pill” had been approved for contraceptive use for less than a decade, but it was already taken daily by millions of women. And in many ways, the Pill marked only the beginning of the “new frontiers” in controlling reproduction.

When the now quaint-sounding phrase “designer babies” (like “designer jeans”) first appeared, many imagined the technology was aimed at selecting for certain relatively superficial “desirable” features. Perhaps, the thinking went, we could all have babies with blue eyes or straight teeth. But the notion of designing our children nowadays reaches much further. Would-be parents solicit sperm and egg donors with Ivy League pedigrees. We discuss the possibility of erasing so-called disabilities like Down syndrome or deafness. With the completion of the human genome project and the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of gene-editing technologies, the likelihood of not only more precise genetic testing but also the widespread modification of human genes seems inevitable.

In many ways, the Pill marked only the beginning of the “new frontiers” in controlling reproduction.

Indeed, possibilities barely imaginable in 1968 are now our reality. Some suggest that as new options appear to edit out undesirable genetic traits, parents will face social pressure to carry out those modifications. (Can a responsible parent allow a child to be born with a propensity for heart disease or cancer? What about deafness? Baldness?)

Unsurprisingly, many people are looking for a way to get their bearings.

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

It is worth noting that “Humanae Vitae” itself puts the question of the transmission of life in a larger context. At the very beginning (No. 2) it points out something it calls a “remarkable development”:

Man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.

It is, in other words, not simply children whom we seek to design but our own selves.

It is not accidental, the argument of “Humanae Vitae” suggests, that as we have increasingly imagined ourselves not as simply “begetting” but as “making” children, we have also increasingly come to see our own self-making as the sine qua non of human life. My true self is the self that I—and only I—have made. It is that self that lives a life worth living and who possesses dignity. A philosopher might be tempted to speak of homo se faciens, “self-making man.”

It is not simply children whom we seek to design but our own selves.

Some of us tend to celebrate the economic version of this vision. In our capitalist economy, we all know immediately what it means to say that someone is a self-made man: someone whose business success is owed to nothing but his own determination and hard work. Famously, President Obama challenged this characterization in a 2012 campaign speech: “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. Somebody invested in roads and bridges; if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The backlash was fierce, as political opponents seized on the phrase as an attack on the initiative of small-business owners. Two months later, the Republican National Convention focused their second day’s events on the theme, “We Built It.”

Others, less interested in business or finance, will turn their gaze toward more transcendent constructions of the self. The personal memoir often sets the standard here. A life filled with travel, daring experiments, out-of-the-ordinary adventures, whether quirky or magnificent, is the life to celebrate. Those of us who are less wealthy or more constrained by our station in life can only aspire to live vicariously through the great men and women of our age.

But whether in business or autobiography, the crucial claims appear: Whatever I am that is worthwhile, I have made. And the more fully I create myself from nothing, the more authentic and meaningful my life is. The story of economic success is most compelling when it begins without a penny in one’s pocket. More broadly, one who arrives at the end of his life having chosen its course, one who has traveled widely and gone farthest from whatever beginning has made his life most interesting and most worth living.

Whether in business or autobiography, the crucial claims appear: Whatever I am that is worthwhile, I have made.

How does “Humanae Vitae” help us to consider these accounts critically? First, we should note that although “Humanae Vitae” warns us about modern man’s quest to “extend this control over every aspect of his own life,” it certainly does not condemn human action and initiative per se. The Latin word moderandis used in the document’s second paragraph (cited above) does not carry the same negative connotations as does the English word domination used in the translation. The phrase that follows it, “rational organization,” is better, reflecting a more neutral tone. “Humanae Vitae” here intends simply to note the phenomenon without rendering judgment.

An equal and opposite reaction, furthermore, rarely solves a problem in the realm of human life. Questioning a culture of homo se faciens and the troubling implications of “self-making” is not fruitfully addressed by swinging toward the other pole and fetishizing helplessness or a general submissiveness.

This is especially true since the modern experience of self-making has been lived differently by various groups of people. When we consider the historical burdens imposed on persons of a particular gender or race or some other social power dynamic, we see that the powerful image of a self-making individual is simply impossible for many. The male pronouns I have used thus far were used intentionally; we more often speak of a self-made man.

The male pronouns I have used thus far were used intentionally; we more often speak of a self-made man.

Simply romanticizing the experience of being acted upon rather than acting for oneself will, therefore, have very different implications for different individuals and groups. For some, the outcomes will be harmful. Some already know better than others, after all, that even in an age that glorifies self-making, it is quite possible to have your own choices quashed or pre-empted in death-dealing ways. Even in the United States, the “land of opportunity,” a child growing up in poverty will find that her possibilities for education and employment are profoundly limited. A young woman will find her own particular limitation of choices, as recent national headlines about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace make painfully clear. A young black man will learn early on that the way he is perceived in American society creates significant challenges that his white counterparts will never face.

Creation and Worship

What, then, is the response we are looking for? I would argue that the way forward lies not in an unthinking embrace of docility, but rather in something more complex. In the world of Tomorrowland, the world in which we now live, we are called to do the difficult, often plodding and profoundly rich work of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.”

Tolkien’s genre of fantasy, he claimed, was one of the purest forms of fiction because it involved not simply creating characters and plot but designing languages and geography, a “world” itself. Even so, Tolkien did not see his work as creation itself but rather as a form of worship of the One who already has created and continues to do so. In this sense, Tolkien’s vision is compatible with that of his friend and fellow fiction writer Charles Williams, who speaks of “preferring the given.” Williams’s phrase intends to comprehend all of human life: not only moments of joyously imagining new worlds but other moments as well. Possessing a literary genius that would be praised by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, he nevertheless had to give up his college education because he lacked the funds.

Tolkien did not see his work as creation itself but rather as a form of worship of the One who already has created.

In those moments, in which plans are confounded and in which disappointment can be keen and bitter, Williams’s phrase offers the other side of “sub-creation.” “Preferring the given” means embracing the fact that our own sub-creation occurs always within the cradle of already existing and ongoing creation. Our work is not about dominating or tyrannizing, not about creating ex nihilo, but about loving what has been given and seeking to shape it in beautiful ways.

This, of course, does not mean accepting everything as we find it. As sub-creators who worship as we work, we may often be called to cooperate in moving a situation further toward what is good and beautiful. But we are called to that work and not to some other. The limits, the hard realities, can also be part of precisely the carving out of our own particular work of sub-creation.

Our work is not about dominating but about loving what has been given and seeking to shape it in beautiful ways.

If we can hold together Tolkien’s notion of “sub-creating” and Williams’s of “preferring the given,” we have a profound and life-giving account of art—and the art of human life. Another well-known writer offers us a picture of what this might mean: St. Augustine.

Truths Ancient and New

Augustine of Hippo was a genius with words. He certainly knew what it meant to offer his listeners a world constructed by rhetorical skill. I would argue his Confessions finds its most important moment not at Augustine’s famous conversion to Christianity but in the account of a vision that Augustine shares much later with his mother, Monica. She serves as a symbol and an embodiment of the profound sense in which Augustine has not made himself. Her prayers for him, he makes clear, long preceded his conversion. Not long before her death, mother and son, now united in their faith, experience together this strange and remarkable moment.

The two are engaged in a discussion of everything that is good, beginning with the pleasures of the five senses and “climbing” beyond that, step by step, until they reach toward contemplation of eternal life. “And while we talked and panted after it,” Augustine says, “we touched it in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart.”

But what was in that moment? What did Augustine and Monica find? Before long, he tells his readers this:

If anyone to the tumult of the flesh should grow silent. If the images of earth and sea and air grow silent. If the heavens grow silent, if the soul too would become silent and pass beyond itself by not thinking on itself, if all dreams and imagine visions should grow silent, every tongue every sign, and whatever undergoes change, if all this would become wholly silent to someone—for if anyone would hear them, they say all these things: “We have not made ourselves but he who dwells eternally made us—all this said should now be silence.”

For Augustine, there is a deep truth that is audible to anyone who listens. From 1968 to now, and as we move deeper into Tomorrowland, whether we consider our children or ourselves, we do best when we, too, find our voices and learn to speak boldly. And we speak most boldly when beneath all our words is the affirmation: “We have not made ourselves.”

Bonnie Weissman
1 week ago

I think HV was the beginning of the end in many ways for the church. Nearly every RC woman I know (self included) has used some form of artificial birth control, and simply thought a bunch of celibate old men in Rome, however well intentioned, had no concept of challenges women face in their families, marriages, academia, and the workplace. That was the huge break, especially in the West, as more and more women completed university degrees and entered professions formerly all but closed to them. Many saw traditional friends severely impoverished when dumped by husbands after bearing their children and not keeping a foothold in the workplace. Who could blame them? It was largely a practical consideration the Vatican could not see to save itself.

arthur mccaffrey
1 week ago

If the Incarnation means that the divine became human so that the human might become divine, then the distinction between God-made and man-made becomes artificial. And 50 years after HV we have Laudato Si, encouraging us to respect our planet by not overpopulating it. HV was quite disrespectful of human dignity by its narrow, irresponsible emphasis on procreation, regardless of poverty or fitness to have and raise children. HV was a case of an outdated theology running up against real world constraints. Paul VI tried to make the facts fit the theory, and ended up with an untenable theory. HV's consequent lack of credibility was as punishing for RCC in 1968 as clergy pedophilia is in 2018.

Derrick Kourie
6 days 23 hours ago

Deplorable and damaging as the pedophilia crisis has been for the Church, there is unanimity about its evil nature. I think that the crisis caused by HV runs deeper, and is more corrosive than the pedophilia crisis.

Paul VI tried to protect the notion that the Church never errs in its /teaching/. He judged that allowing chemical contraception would question prior Church teaching about physical contraception. That is why he developed the untenable theory to which you allude --- that every act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of life. But the arbitrariness of his argument calls into question the inerrancy of the magesterium.

It is difficult to be an enthusiastic member of the Church when the weight of its hierarchical structure bears down on one, in effect saying: "Unless you accept the inerrancy of our teaching you are not a proper Catholic. If you violate our teachings you are sinning." But one cannot defend the magesterium's inerrancy when its rulings offend against one's reason, be they rulings in respect of contraception, divorce, homosexuality, female priests, or whatever. Actions condemned by one party are accepted by the other.

The HV affair is therefore symptomatic of the deeper Church crisis with respect to inerrancy. The crisis can only be resolved if the Church openly admits that its teachings are sometimes mistaken. This does not only apply to its historically mistaken teachings about the sinful nature of charging interest, or owning slaves, but in regard to its mistaken teachings in regard to so many other contemporary concerns.

lisa connolley
1 week ago

One aspect that HV did not take into consideration was Rape and Incest; things that are inherently evil, and can produce extreme hardship and risk to impregnated girls, teens, and vulnerable women. Moreover, no one speaks of the newly popular testosterone enhancing drugs that also increase aggression and violence, and are every bit as artificial in reproduction issues as the pill. It would be an act of mercy to revisit the fullness of what is "choice" and what is "life giving."

Charles Erlinger
6 days 13 hours ago

This article is fascinating for at least two reasons: 1) the author’s remarks on creation, and 2) the author’s thoughts on the authoritative characteristics of Church teaching.

On creation, the author’s thoughts awakened for me the long latent idea of how irrationally we seem to attribute reality to metaphoric expressions. In our Judeo-Christian, and, I believe, in other traditions, we usually take as the first definition of creation the making of something out of nothing. On the other hand, we quite commonly attribute creative ability to people who develop, derive, invent, compose or produce new things, things that are new to us, at least, or to those of us who never imagined that such productions could be made. Rhetorically this is perfectly OK, and often quite effective in vivifying (so to speak) accounts of human activity whether in news or in story. But irrationally attributing reality to metaphor is, in my opinion a problem that can result in serious divisions and even catastrophic upheaval, socially, politically, and even philosophically. Take, for instance the very precise mathematical term “equal.” Literally it means “the same as,” not physically, but mathematically, that is in the realm of first degree abstractions. Metaphorically, however, it has been used politically, economically, and morally (in a social justice context) in ways that have caused all sorts of horrible conflicts and fierce hostilities. And all because the metaphorical nature of the expression has been lost and irrationally, some reality other than its abstract mathematical one has been posited as a moral expectation.

On the authoritative characteristics of Church teaching, my thoughts turn to the pros and cons of the applicability of the idea of infallibility to Church teaching. Much has been written on the extent to which infallibility claims apply to various Church teachings. And similarly, much has been written on the meaning of the term magisterium, of what it is composed, and what part of it is associated with the claim of infallibility. My impression is, not that the matter is ill defined in various “official” Church documents, but that the applicability of its full meaning is often assumed or poorly expressed when Church utterances on “new” issues of moral theology (cases) are discussed. Moreover, Papal utterances from time to time seem to open new points of view that purport to clarify the confusing issues that arise. A case in point is the eloquent expression by Pope John Paul II in Centisimus Annus, as quoted by Maciel Zieba, OP in his book “Papal Economics. I apologetically quote at some length, below, an excerpt from the encyclical followed by a remark by Zieba, to illustrate this point:

“‘Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing sociopolitical realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church's method is always that of respect for freedom.’

“By the encyclical's account, ideology maintains a concept of truth and goodness that captures all of reality in a simple and solid schema, and its advocates believe that this concept can be imposed on other people.9 Christian truth, the pope observes, does not fulfill this second condition and therefore is not an ideology.

“The Christian attitude of humility toward truth is fundamental in this context. Ideologues and their followers claim not only that they have grasped the objective truth that clarifies the essence of reality also that they know this truth so well that they can impose their vision on the rest of society….”

Excerpt From: Maciej Zieba. “Papal Economics.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/weJTY.l

Randal Agostini
5 days 21 hours ago

I thought this was a beautiful article that encapsulates the meaning of Humanae Vitae, which is as much misunderstood today as it was when it was written.
We are never in charge so all we can do is be present in the moment, in an act of love, for one another. If we are to believe in a Creator, who is love, then we have to believe in His creation. If we believe in His creation then we will recognize our role as participants, custodians, but not partners.
Supposing we believed in ourselves and in the end were able to create the perfect baby, that in itself would be subjective and impossible in society as we know it. But supposing we saw this through to the end and man became all the same - a society of clones?
With all it's associated difficulties, God's World is the most beautiful and meaningful of all.

Michael Barberi
5 days 13 hours ago

If we negatively speculate about where society is going, and start to believe that most of us will be making designer babies we will likely fall victim to exaggeration and unbridled fear. I would rather keep my eyes wide open, feet securely planted in reality, trust in God and in my God-given reason and not believe everyone's speculative cause and effect theory.

In many ways Humanae Vitae (HV) was a flawed encyclical. If you read it carefully and study all the pros and cons articles authored by theologians over the past 50 years, you will come to the conclusion that the magisterium wants us all to believe that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is God's Procreative Plan, and that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil and against Divine Law. Unfortunately, there is no convincing theological foundation for such claims. In truth, no pope, bishop or theologian knows God's Procreative Plan with moral certainty. Nor is the magisterium or any pope, despite good intentions, absolutely protected from error on every moral teaching. If that was true, we would still have slavery, usury and no freedom of religion because those teachings were taught as truth for centuries by popes and bishops but were eventually changed.

Recently Pope Francis encouraged a HV Study Group to be formed to study all the documents about the birth control commission from the Vatican archives. This group has just completed its work and an article was written of its findings by Professor Marengo, the key theologian of this study group. While his book was just released "in Italian", we are only now just learning of some of its findings. Marengo made clear that after all of this research he concluded that HV was not the undebatable truth that it has since become. Far from it.

While we know that 75% of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission members, including 12 bishops, recommended a change in the Church's position on birth control, it has now been uncovered that Pope Paul VI also asked the Synod of Bishops in October 1967 for their recommendations as well (2 years after the Birth Control Commission Report). While 26 bishops replied, only 7 of them argued for no change in the teaching (about 27% of them). On the other hand, 19 bishops (73%) argued for a change in the birth control teaching! Unfortunately, Paul VI was too fearful of going against the teachings of popes Pius XI and XII, so he condemned artificial contraception.

I wrote an essay that was published in a prestigious Catholic Journal of Theology called "The Origin of Humanae Vitae and the Impasse in Fundamental Theological Ethics". The pivotal principle that undermines HV is called the 'inseparability principle'. In paraphrase, the inseparability principle says that the unitive and procreative dimensions of every marital act must never be separated by man because it is Divine Law. In essence, every marital act must be open to procreation. Ironically, Pius XII said that couples could practice NFP for a long time or a lifetime for good reasons. Yet if a couple for the same good reasons practices artificial contraception, its is intrinsically evil. Unfortunately, NFP is no more open to procreation that taking the pill because NFP couples act to ensure that every marital act is not procreative. NFP is not merely abstinence. Couple measure basil temperature and cervical mucus, plot them on a calendar to determine infertile times, then limit sexual intercourse to those times to ensure that every marital act is not procreative. Suffice it to say that HV should be responsibility changed.

At the moment, 80% of worldwide Catholics do not receive HV. It has become a dead letter. Time will tell what, if anything, Pope Francis will do about the teaching HV or its pastoral application.

Derrick Kourie
5 days 5 hours ago

All you say is true. The key problem is to get Church authorities (the magesterium) to admit that the magesterium is not "absolutely protected from error on every moral teaching." Just about everyone -- except a small group of ultra-conservatives -- privately admits to this. Yet the Church will not openly say "Sorry, we were wrong" because this will cause a crisis of faith in many of our most devout brothers and sisters. Even when a synod of bishops overwhelmingly agreed to just a slightly more liberal interpretation of canon law on communion for remarried divorcees, (it was not even a change in teaching) it caused a huge crisis. So the core problem is one of logistics, not teaching. "How can the church change without causing crisis?" That is the problem.

Michael Barberi
4 days 15 hours ago

I don't have a problem with a so-called crisis because any historical change in the Church always has come with a great deal of tension and disagreement. I do agree with you that today we are seeing much more rancor and unChrist-like rhetoric, even open hostility between many bishops and Pope Francis. For example, some Cardinals have accused Pope Francis of going against Christ and His Gospel, while a significant percent of bishops disagree with communion for the divorced and remarried under certain conditions.

I also agree with you that the hierarchy and the Curia/Vatican will likely never admit to any error, whatsoever. The hope is that Pope Francis will change the pastoral application of various controversial teachings, such as contraception. Time will tell.

Derrick Kourie
4 days 13 hours ago

I take solace in the words of the 14th century British mystic, Julian of Norwich: "…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well"

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 days 12 hours ago

That would be Kevin Bacon in Animal House in 1978😱😇


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