Humanae Vitae Apologists Still Aren’t Making Sense
In my quest to come to terms with Catholic sexual morality, I have poured over countless essays by lay apologists and professional theologians. Like a gambler pumping coins into a slot machine, I read each essay with the hope that maybe—just maybe—this will be the time I hit the jackpot: a clear understanding of the rationale behind Humanae Vitae. So far, no luck.
Part of the challenge is that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Christopher West), lay apologists shy away from making full throated defenses of the encyclical. You’ll find plenty of denunciations of the HHS Mandate on the internet, but nary a word on why the Church has drawn such a hard line on this issue. Revealingly, Catholic sexual morality is more often than not treated by religious conservatives as a theological idiosyncracy, rather than a universal moral imperative. (Except in the gay marriage debate, where it is simply assumed to be the foundation of Western civilization.) Thus, for example, Rod Dreher compared Church teaching to Jewish dietary law in his commentary on the HHS Mandate.
While I could certainly comment on the essays I’ve photocopied out of obscure academic journals, for blogging purposes it makes more sense to focus on online content, however scant it may be. Anyhow, the difference between the two mediums, I have found, is more a matter of word count than substantive content. So to illustrate why it is I find “defenses” of Humanae vitae so exasperating, I will take an example from a recent post by Mark Shea, which epitomizes much of the literature out there on Catholic sexual morality in tone and substance. (I am not unsympathetic to Shea’s post, which makes a number of wise and insightful points.) Shea writes:
The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power.
Everything in these two sentences is either a self-evident statement or an unsupported assertion. As for the latter, Shea simply assumes that contraceptive sex cannot be a union of love. For Shea, true sexual union is by definition open to fruitfulness. Why is this the case? We aren’t told. And yet the logic behind this link is precisely what Humanae Vitae skeptics such as I claim not to understand.
Even supposing Shea were to concede that contraceptive sex can amount to a union of love, all he is left saying is that contraceptive sex separates pleasure and love from fruitfulness—which is by definition true. We don’t gain any new insight. Shea simply redescribes contraceptive sex so as to imbue it with sinister overtones: on the one hand you have a “permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure”; on the other, the “sacramental union of love and fruitfulness.” While I don’t deny that Shea is a fine prose stylist, what’s missing is a substantive argument. Finally, Shea makes an appeal to revelation, which is a typical last resort for pro-Humanae Vitae apologists. We are to accept the teaching because the Church speaks for Christ. And yet the Church also wants to claim that Humanae Vitae is rooted in natural law, which any rational animal is in theory capable of grasping.
I realize that Shea’s post was not an attempt to provide a sophisticated defense of Humanae Vitae. One ought not give passing remarks the same weight as a doctoral dissertation. With that said, defenses of Humanae Vitae–whether academic or popular–never seem to rise above this level of discourse. What you typically get instead are theologicaly rich rhetorical flourishes, or self-evident statements masquerading as arguments, or reminders of the fact that Catholics are obligated to accept definitive Church teaching, or diatribes about how the hierarchy’s right to believe these things is being crushed by tyrant Obama. All diversions if you ask me.