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.
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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.”