The Encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Structure of Human Life

Author: Jean Guitton


Jean Guitton

The Encyclical "Humanae vitae" has given rise to a great deal of discussion. There is not a human being, there is not a human group, that does not feel an interest in the thought of Paul VI, operating as the responsible head of the Church: and consequently of the Church not only in her present state, but in her development and in her ultimate finality. And a philosopher can ascertain that this document on "human life" touches on the problems that philosophy has raised from the beginning: what do we mean by "nature"; what is the relationship in us between characteristic essence and the temporal existence into which this essence of ours is, so to speak, thrown. The theologian sees that the Encyclical indirectly concerns the problem of the authority of the Church, the charisma given to Peter, which unites him with the Twelve at the same time as it distinguishes him from them, and, even more generally, the problem of the relations of authority with freedom, that is, the problem of obedience.

I think that every human person, in this year 1968, feels that this Encyclical raises questions for him to answer. To my surprise I have seen that it does not leave anyone indifferent; that it stimulates passions to the highest degree, above all that it forces everyone (whether for or against) to clarify his reasons, his intentions, his fundamental conception of the world and of life. And this did not surprise me, aware as I am that sex is a point of contradiction, use of sex a sign of division between men.

In this article I would like to make this examination of conscience, the examination that every conscience, as I have said, is making at this moment, and examine what point the Encyclical has made me reflect on most.

About twenty years ago, I published a work on "Human Love", which included a chapter on the significance of sexuality. I meditated on the mystery of marriage, placing it in the framework of the total mystery of life, in the divine plan of nature and of history. And I was struck by the twofold meaning which sexual union has for mankind and which so greatly differentiates it from animality.


In man, a "reasoning animal", "a finite being inhabited by the Infinite", "a fallen God", as Lamartine said, who remembers heaven, the union of man and woman has two aspects which are at the same time distinct and united, different and inseparable, and which therefore make up what in other times—before the word had had such currency—I used to call a "Structure".

What are these two aspects? Procreation on the one hand, the loving union of two beings on the other hand. It is clear that animals know only the first of these laws. It could be said, as Doms says, that marriage has a purpose (Zweck) which is propagation, and that suffices to define it; and at the same time it has a meaning (Sinn), and this meaning is married love. It is obvious that if objectively the purpose is more important than the meaning, subjectively it is the meaning that comes first for conscience. People marry because they love each other, for the purpose of founding a family. But the child is not the immediate aim but rather the multiple blessing of married love that is reflected in this aim. The development of human and Christian thought has stressed this aspect of love contained in every marriage, not unknown to both pagan (Plato) and Christian horizons, but which was pushed into the background when the principal function of life was to multiply. Now it seems rather that life should be limited.

Let us return to the "structure" of love. Two elements, I said, that are ontologically inseparable: the love of the couple and the foundation of a family. To a philosopher, a similar structure is to be found in a particular case of a more general provision of the creator that reveals his power, wisdom and his art of unifying distinct essences, as in the Incarnation. The soul and the body that make up our being are also two distinct entities, which only death separates.

Since these two entities are distinct, the problem to be solved is whether human art in thought and in act, in philosophy and in technique, has the power and the duty or the right to disunite them,

Here it is necessary to grasp the wisdom of the Church. She has respected the structure of the act of human love; she has not sacrificed one of the elements of this structure to the other, neither the meaning to the purpose, nor the purpose to the meaning. But respecting such a structure since it belongs to the order of essences, she has not admitted that it should be broken or disunited by man's will, although she has admitted that the master of essences, the creator, can divide what he has united.


Let us take an example from monogamy, which is simpler.

One man only, one woman only. Monogamy is essential in its design, since only monogamy allows the equality of destiny of human persons. Polygamy sacrifices the woman to the male. Divorce encourages tile egoism of the two, and is extremely harmful to the child who has no longer a normal educational environment. Such, therefore, is the essential structure of sexual relations considered in their duration. It implies a solemn promise of faithfulness that the social law will protect. Does this mean that a person who has made such a solemn promise is committed to such an extent that no essential incident can break it and that, consequently, he is obliged to be faithful even beyond death? In other words, does God's law forbid second marriages, which might appear as cases of subsequent bigamy?

The Church has not taken this path: she authorizes widowers and widows to remarry. Why? If we meditate deeply on the ontological motives that justify the attitude of the Church in such a case, we find the following consideration. The essential structure of marriage implies monogamy; man cannot, therefore, refuse to recognize this structure and repudiate his wife. But God can undo what he has united, by means of the unforeseeable incident, coming from his sovereignty, which is the death of one of the couple. And then the other is free to contract a new union. And Jesus explains with deep wisdom that such a case does not mean re-establishing in Eternity a polygamy that is forbidden in time, since there will be neither man nor woman in the kingdom of God. The sexuality with which we are concerned in this study is bound up with the temporal condition of human life. Let us consider this.

Some ascetics, Catharists or Encratites, have affirmed that the Church could or should forbid all use of marriage if deprived of the purpose of procreation; for example the marriage of sterile persons, of women deprived of the organs of reproduction, of old people; of women expecting a baby.

If procreation were really the only end of marriage, the moralist should hold that the use of marriage when this end is already reached in nature or when it can no longer be reached, would be an act void of meaning, like continuing to run—for example—when the goal is reached.

Could such a use of marriage be admitted at the most on the ground of weakness, of condescension, of appeasement, as a lesser evil?

I do not wish to deny that a certain number of Christian moralists have supported such a point of view and that the idea of sexual union divorced from the end of procreation should be merely tolerated as a kind of imperfection and not approved.

If seems to me, on the other hand, that on this point, especially in recent times, there, has been considerable progress in Christian sensibility and reasoning.

As a whole and throughout history, the Church has not followed the Catharists. She has not regarded as blameworthy, nor even as all imperfection sexual union that is naturally sterile.


But then, it will be said, why not allow man, progressing beyond the past and having become today more aware and more able to control mechanisms, to dissolve the structure, seeing that nature dissolves it in cases of infertility? Why not allow man to be really a co-operator in the case, a constructor, in a certain sense, of the case, seeing that nature, through a static or dynamic process, makes one woman sterile and another fertile? If the work of intelligence is to replace the statistical case with the rational rule, why should man not do what nature does, what the Supreme author of existences disposes by separating love from fertility? Why define as contrary to nature this work of man's inventiveness, so similar to man's ingenuity in the production of foodstuffs or remedies, since it follows the line of the accidents of nature already mentioned? We accept wine, alcohol, tobacco, sauces, the culinary art that Plato compared to rhetoric. Why not accept as progress the domination of intelligence over cases, in the case of generation?

Here we are up against an extremely difficult problem. And I will say, in the first place, that ordinary common sense understands what a delicate matter it is—considering the generative instinct in its violence and in its subtleties—to dissociate Eros from procreation. If man were naturally pure, if he did not have the tendency to take Eros as the only purpose of the sexual act (which animals do not do), if female nature and masculine nature were equal and comparable on this point, if the male did not have a dominating and alienating power over woman, then, in the hypothesis that an effective and harmless process were found, it could be regarded as without moral danger for man to utilize it just as he utilizes alcoholic fermentation in drinks.

We could say, in a word, that Eros is good in itself, but that its regulation is particularly dangerous, like the inner power of the atom, to such an extent, in the case of the latter, that it would have been better, everything considered, if atomic fission had not been discovered. Good in itself, as the discovery of a cosmic energy, it may one day appear as ungovernable, considering what national egoism in wars is like. And if a wise commander had been able to forbid its use in 1945, he would be blessed. Not, I repeat, that it is bad in itself, but it can be bad in the human context, by reason of the consequences.

It could be maintained, therefore, that, since it is actually dangerous because of the individual and social consequences, due to weakness and also because of the very structure of our nature, it would be better to condemn outright all dissociation caused artificially than to attempt to grade it; better to ban it completely, absolutely, than to establish doses of what is licit and what is illicit.

A comparison will help us to understand better. Let us suppose that considering that the duty of study is arduous, it is left to boys in college to buy wine to drink during the recreation. There will certainly be good reasons to prove the interest, the importance of such a practice which can stimulate work and play, which can increase the boy's autonomy, and give him practice in privation, in mastering his desires. And there will be teachers or directors of education who will apply themselves to regulating the purchase of wines, indicating what is permissible and what is not permissible. But what head master would not be in favour, on the contrary, of a radical ban, since this measure, though coercive, will turn out to be advantageous for study, games, and the true interest of everyone although it limits and violates several individual freedoms.

And yet, to return to our image, if the Head of Humanity, certainly an expert but even more so a leader, were to take a decision of this kind, it would still be imperfect, being pragmatic and empirical instead of rational and really prudent since it is founded on consequence, rather than on causes and principles. Well, man is not only a moral animal, requiring only rules of action. He is also a rational being, who wishes to know "why" he must do what he is asked or commanded to do. An order is not enough. A reason, too, is necessary. And the reason that affirms a thing is useful is not yet sufficient, if it is not accompanied by an ultimate reason: that is to say that the order is true.

Let us reflect on the two inseparable meanings of the word order.


What has to be done is to determine the ontological reason for the law. And this is the function of the philosopher, of the theologian insofar as he is a philosopher, whereas the theologian as theologian has as his main task to find out if the law is contained in the revealed Doctrine. The characteristic function of the philosopher as philosopher is to find out if the law derives from being, existence, reason, nature, if it is obligatory for every reasonable being, whether the latter is illuminated and fortified by reason or not.

Here we have reached the most difficult point, which is also the most important, the crucial one.

If what we have said about the structure of being is true, we see here clearly and distinctly that the Encyclical in so far as it contains, encloses or presupposes a philosophical ontology, respects and determines the fundamental principle that we had supposed at the beginning of this study.

We can state it as follows: when a structure of a unitary being grows, in an indissoluble whole, which thus makes two distinct and different elements cooperate in a profound unity of life, only the creator of this structure has the power of detaching these two elements and allowing them to realize themselves and develop separately.

Hence the corollary: those who are not the creator of natures, cannot separate artificially what has been joined ontologically.

Here, however, it is necessary to be more precise, since things are not so simple as they appear. In fact, in the case of relations between man and woman, there is a situation which is neither the absolute law of nature nor artificial separation; it is the situation of the infecund periods in the female cycle. Observation shows, in fact, that while woman may nearly always be available for love psychically, she is physiologically fertile only in the course of a limited monthly period.

Are we to consider that this sterile period, in which the separation of the meaning and of the purpose of marriage occurs without human intervention and therefore naturally, cannot be chosen by the human agent for sexual union? Or is it to be admitted that such a one may avail of this natural periodic circumstance to have intercourse without fertility?

It is extremely important to answer this objection. We are here at a point where the reader must concentrate all his attention.

In fact, the objector will say at this point: "How can we justify an approval of ‘regulation of births’, that is, of licit contraception, if it is contrasted with a contraception that is considered illicit What real, objective difference exists between the temperature test and the pill, since conception is prevented in both cases?

Only two solutions are logical: either we must refrain from separating, through human interventions what ‘God has united’ thus forbidding both regulation and contraception; or, through eagerness to be all things to everyone and to respect the rights of tenderness and love, we must allow both the pill and the temperature test.

"But to admit the temperature test and forbid the pill—the objector continues—is an attitude of compromise that can be admitted from the tactical, pragmatic point of view, but which is not based on objective reality, on an analysis of true values. Fundamentally, the Church is acting here, as it often does, in a skilful and falsely prudent way: since it is impossible to justify the fact that she forbids here and permits there, through reasons of ontology or ethics".

One might answer this subtle objection in the first place by stressing the effort, the moral value, the self-control, the spiritual elegance—pointing out that the automatism of the pill dissolves effort, reduces love to automatism, and threatens to replace Agape with Eros, by dispensing with the mutual obligation and sacrifice of abstention and waiting.

But this argument would not reach the heart of the problem. In the first case (temperature test) there is not really contraception. Here man acts as in all cases in which he respects natural data: the farmer chooses the favourable time to sow, he does not change the order of the seasons. Now, if the human person has a legitimate reason to space out births or even to renounce births that would endanger the health of the mother, one can see no reason why he should renounce an act or a gesture that fulfils his psychical and moral finality in marriage and love.

One could even go further and say that there is, as it were, an invitation by the creator of nature, of sex and of their union, of married and family life, to utilize the sterile periods placed by the author of nature in woman's cycle.

We can see that there is a deep vision here that concerns the very structure of being and of the human act and also a difference between art and artifice. Speaking as a philosopher (and not as a theologian) I will even say that the Encyclical on human life—particularly in paragraph 16—makes it possible to study a law of being in temporal existence. Morality and Ontology have deep relationships, and it is for intelligence to define them better.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 November 1968, page 6

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