The Encyclical Without Ambiguity

Author: Fr. David Knowles


Fr. David Knowles

This article is reproduced by permission of the Editor of "The Tablet", London, where it was published in its issue of October 5th. A point of policy of the paper is to sustain the right of contributors to express their views with complete freedom.

'Beloved priest sons—expound the Church's teaching on marriage without ambiguity.' ('Humanae Vitae', section 28)

THESE lines are written in response to an unsolicited invitation from the Editor, an old and close friend of forty years' standing. They come from a priest who, like others, has done his stint of theological teaching, and who has since become an academic historian. He speaks now as a Catholic to his fellow-Catholics.

I will begin by saying that I feel that some, at least, of all those who have written and spoken about the Encyclical Humanae Vitae cannot have read and re-read it with reverent care. For myself, its full power was only revealed after constant re-reading. It is, taken as a whole, a majestic and eloquent document, a careful exposition of a theme in which no consideration of importance is omitted. It is solemn and magisterial, yet intensely personal and compassionate. It is fully cognizant of modern conditions of life and modern ways of thought. It is perfectly clear and simple—would that all comments upon it had been so—but it assumes in the reader a recognition of his complete creaturely dependence upon God, as also a living faith in his vocation, aided by God-given powers, to be a child of God, and to rise to Christian fulness of life here, and to the fellowship of the divine nature hereafter. Unlike almost all his commentators, the Pope allows for both sin and divine grace as practical, "situational" factors in the human predicament.

The Proper Use Of Sex

His declaration, if I may try, to summarise it, is this. Our body, as we know it here and now—however it may have evolved to what it is—is a wonderful and most delicate organism, each part with uses and functions and relations and effects that we know by living with them. Among these none is more wonderful than the organs for the transmission of life, and no merely natural and human condition is more marvelous than the combination of these physical powers with the most intimate and fulfilling experiences of marriage and parenthood. The physical process and the human love, which in the case of baptised and married Christians is also at least potentially spiritual, are in God's design indissolubly linked, and to put one of these (either the love or the physical process) out of action, or to prevent the possibility of the physical action having the consequence for which it exists throughout the animal creation, is to thwart the design of the Creator.

This connection of sexual love and sexual process can be and is known instinctively and intuitionally and is in no sense a creation of the Church or of the Pope. The proper use of the sexual organism is an intuitive realisation of moral truth, and it is a part of chastity in its widest sense as a human, and still more as a Christian, virtue. But it can be obscured, like many of the simplest truths, by original and personal sin, by the culpable loss of sensitivity, by contrary instruction, by misunderstanding, by sophisticated argument, or by mere human confusion. For this reason it can be and needs to be reasserted by the Church. The Church has also the right and duty of reminding us that Christian marriage is not solely a natural union; that in the Creator's design for the human race the physical instincts and impulses are to be subordinated to the reason, and the reason to the light of faith and the Gospel teaching. It was for this, as a part of our Redemption, that the Son of God became man and died to repair in us what sin had broken and to make possible, nay joyful, a harmony of the whole man under the law, that is the freedom of the sons of God. It is therefore the teaching of the Church, not that of Paul VI apart from the Church, "that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life."

The Natural Law

The Pope is well aware of the extrinsic arguments against this teaching, which have pullulated since the perfecting of the oral contraceptive. Particular attention has been given in the press to his appeal to natural law, as if this of itself invalidated both his argument and his teaching. The existence of natural law is denied, or alternatively it is said that the natural law is what is discovered by man's own reason and cannot be imposed on him.

It is true that many schools and climates of present-day thought reject the traditional conception of natural law. They also, in many different ways, reject much else that Christians hold and always have held, explicitly or implicitly to be reasonable and right. As the Pope himself said, in his recent declaration of the Catholic faith, a reflecting Christian must needs make basic assumptions which some systems of thought, both ancient and modern, have refused to accept. Thus we hold that the intellect which God has given us reaches reality, that which is, in the universe outside our minds, and that it can also ascertain that which is right in human conduct. But indeed the flight from natural law, is far from universal, even at the present day. Moreover, many of those who expel it from their systems verbally, make use of something very like it translated into their own technical language.

As for the suggestion that the natural law, in order to be recognised as law, must be something that each individual ascertains for himself, one can only say that the term law, even when used as here only by analogy, implies indeed that a general ability to recognise an obligation exists, but this does not imply a universal personal recognition, still less one that cannot be obscured, very widely and commonly, by the consequences of original sin and by personal sin, contrary teaching, contrary habit, insensitivity and the like. It is precisely for this reason, as the Pope says, that the teaching organs of the Church can reassert and interpret natural law.

I would earnestly beg any of my readers who are troubled by the references to natural law in the papal Encyclical to read and ponder a familiar passage in the gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 19, verses 1-12. It is not a "proof-text" of Humanae Vitae, nor an exact parallel, but it shows Our Lord dealing with a cognate problem, familiar in our time also, the indissolubility of marriage, and the same elements are present: the primeval "natural" law of the Creator's design; the failure in its observance through human "hardness of heart"; the reassertion by Christ of the principle both natural and spiritual; the objections of the disciples to the consequent hardship; and the calm maintenance of the teaching with an invitation to chastity aided by grace.

Conscience and Authority

Much has been written about the individual conscience both as regards contraception and the acceptance of the Encyclical itself. The word conscience has a terrible ambiguity, which cannot be by-passed by a kind of bland assumption that we are all always acting with clear minds and pure motives. Those, who have had dealings with the claims of conscientious objection to military service, and those who consider for a moment those two great champions of the individual conscience, King Henry VIII and St. Thomas More, will have a different, a truer, and a more truly "situational" appreciation of man's condition.

We all agree that in the ultimate resort we must do good as we see it at the moment of action. Vatican II in a welcome (but not infallible?) pronouncement declared that in all matters of belief the sincere conscience of the individual must be respected, and that freedom is of the essence of moral action and a fortiori of a credal assent. But the Council was also very careful to define the conditions of an objectively good conscience, though in words which yield their full meaning only when closely regarded. As Christians we know that we must always act with what present light we may have, but we know also that there is for us, in every event of our lives, a course of action entirely in harmony with God's will for us as individuals ("Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"). This we may fail to see here and now through ignorance, carelessness, education, emotion, present or past moral failing. But Christians, and above all Catholics, know that they have in grave matters of belief and morals a wholly reliable yardstick, agreement with the teaching of the Church ("I believe whatsoever else the Church proposes to be believed"). To follow that is never to renounce true reason, though it may sometimes imply transcending the conclusion to which our own reasoning has apparently brought us.

Theologians who extend the realm of "free responsibility" to solemn pronouncements of the magisterium must weigh their words. Do they suggest that the attitude of the faithful to a dogmatic papal pronouncement should be a suspension of judgment and a critical examination of anything that seems to shock their presuppositions? Do they realise whither they are tending? Do they remember that the Second Vatican Council itself is exactly of the same status as they claim for Humanae Vitae? None of its decrees or utterances enjoy infallibility save those (and are there any?) which formally claim it, or those which are reassertions of existing Catholic belief. And with regard to Humanae Vitae, even if we grant that an individual may suspend his assent, would these theologians extend this freedom to expressing it in public, to writing about it, to persuading others to gang up against it and to form a pressure-group of opinion?

But we are reminded that the Encyclical is not infallible. Here again some theologians escape from reality into a world of logical categories which they assume that others are inhabiting. The infallibly defined portions of Christian truth are only the tip of the great iceberg of Christian doctrine, and the pronouncements of authority in preaching the whole of that doctrine are of various degrees of weight. We cannot throw any of them straightway into a bin labeled "not infallible". When he proposes something from the pulpit as Catholic doctrine we accept what our parish priest says, unless or until a higher authority, or our own instructed research, proves him to have been mistaken. When a bishop speaks from his chair, declaring the faith, there is an extremely grave obligation to hear him for he is one of the great college commissioned by Christ to preach his word. When the Pope speaks on a grave matter of faith and morals, even if not ex cathedra, who can measure his authority? Or rather, who can straightway put in a plea in bar of his claim? We must remind ourselves that there is no intrinsic difference of truth between a pronouncement before and after it has become infallible by the form of its promulgation. The very conception of the requirements of an "infallible" definition is modern. It is a purely external seal, so to say, it does not necessarily reflect any difference of the quality of the truth declared. I do not for a moment deny the juridical and confessional difference, I wish only to deplore the division of certainty and authority by a sharp line rather than by a gradual dawn of sunshine.

What, then, shall we say of the degree of authority inherent in Humanae Vitae? It is agreed that it lacks the external ticket, so to say, of infallibility. But it cannot be agreed that it is, in the words of some commentators, even of theological note, that it is only the private opinion or the personal view of Pope Paul VI. He is expressly teaching us as Pope, and the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church reaffirms what Catholics already believed, that "We owe the offering of the religious allegiance of mind and will in a unique way to the authentic teaching of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra... This should result in a sincere adherence to the judgments on faith and morals which he has delivered, complying with his obvious meaning and intention."

No candid reader can mistake the "obvious meaning and intention" of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. But is it the "authentic teaching" of Paul VI alone that we are hearing? A superficial reader (the present writer was one such) may fail at first to notice how often the Pope puts forward what he says not as his teaching (it is noteworthy that in the doctrinal part of the text the first person is never used) but as the teaching of the Church. And how is he speaking? Consider the last words of paragraph 6: "We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ..." Note also how he insists upon the declarations as those of the Church: "manifested by the constant teachings of the Church" (para. 10, end); "this teaching of the Church on conjugal morals" (para. 16); " the Church teaches " (ibid.); " the teaching of the Church in this field " (ibid, 17); and, most important of all, the operative declaration: "the Church teaches... that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (para. 11, end).

It is the teaching of the Church, not the natural law, to which we are asked to give our assent. Do we, simple Christians, know better than the Pope what the Church teaches? And if, as the Pope truly and historically asserts, this has been always the teaching of the Church, is not this "the global teaching of the bishops of the Church with the Pope at their head", to which Bishop Butler's adhesion is identical with his adhesion to the Church itself (The Tablet, 21 September, p. 935) ?

Attempts have been made to draw parallels between previous declarations of popes that have either been reversed by their successors or passed into desuetude as social habits changed. One who has for the past ten years been engaged in reading and writing the history of the thousand medieval years of the Church's life would have no difficulty in adding to their number. Some of them are indeed "motes to trouble the mind's eye", and there were sore eyes enough before the decrees of Vatican I were passed. But I have not seen either in this paper or elsewhere a single example alleged that is within hailing distance of being a parallel to Humanae Vitae.

The Tangle We Are In

Here, then, is the matter as it stands. We have a grave moral problem affecting in one way or another almost every Catholic Christian (and many other Christians and men of goodwill). Nor does it affect our generation alone, for papal pronouncements do not die when the writer is no more with the Church militant. Two successive popes, one being the dearly loved Pope John, withdrew a consideration of the matter from the agenda of Vatican II. The present Pope engaged himself to give an answer more than four years ago, as to whether the Church could modify her teaching.

The Pope has, as we have been told in sincere and moving words, read much, spoken much, thought much and, what is more, prayed and suffered much, and devout souls throughout the Church have prayed with him and offered the Holy Sacrifice for his intention. We know, and he knew better, what a tremendous and agonising responsibility was his; indeed, a greater responsibility can rarely, if ever, have confronted a pope; and he knew that he would be, like his Master, "a sign of contradiction ". We are told that gradually he saw more and more clearly what he must say. He answered on the spiritual level, transcending all debates on natural law and reasserting, though in ampler terms, the constant teaching of the Church of which he is Head. Is any Catholic, believing in Christ's promise to Peter and in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, prepared to assert that he answered not only inopportunely or unwisely, but faultily and wrongly?

We are in a tangle, and argument, good or bad, will not restore peace and unity to us. Silence and prayer and quiet thought alone can restore peace. And peace can only come through union, in faith and filial obedience and understanding, with the Vicar of Christ.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
31 October 1968, page 5

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