A Commentary on Humanae Vitae

 Before getting into the topic of Humanae Vitae I want to first make a distinction between what Pope Paul VI refers to when he speaks of the conjugal act and conjugal love. The word conjugal can merely be thought up as marital. In the context of love and act the conjugal meaning brings about certain precepts and characteristics based on the natural law to make these distinctions whole. When I refer to the conjugal act, I am referring to the marital embrace when the spouses come together in sexual intimacy. When I refer to conjugal love, I am referencing the totality of the union, which is the marriage itself. The conjugal act is the culmination of conjugal love, but the life of marriage is described in the characteristics of conjugal love which could be jeopardized when we sterilize the conjugal act and can carry heavy implications for the marriage and society at large.

       In Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae, we are warned of what happens to a society that goes outside the bounds of the natural order to achieve one’s own desired end. Humanae Vitae explains that there is a twofold understanding of the conjugal act in itself. This is embedded in the natural law, which tells us that it is both unitive and procreative. What exactly is meant by this? Being unitive means that it draws spouses closer together in the marital embrace, and to be procreative is that the act is always open to life. Why did Pope Paul VI come to this conclusion at a time when the sexual revolution and popular rhetoric was wanting to do away with the old mold? Pope Paul VI stresses that there are four main characteristics to conjugal love which spouses must adhere to when coming together in marriage. The first, is that it is fully human, the second that it is total, the third that it is faithful and exclusive until death, and the fourth is that it is fruitful. This culminates in the fullest gift of marriage, which is that of children. These four characteristics of the conjugal union is the wedding table at which we find ourselves seated at with our spouses.

       Humanae Vitae is known to many as being highly critical of contraception. This because it does exactly the opposite from what the conjugal union was intended for, by doing away with procreation completely. The integrity of the act is highly compromised when we remove one aspect of the conjugal union, as it inadvertently will also frustrate the other parts of it. Think of this as a runner running toward the finish line. If the runner only has one leg to stand on, finishing the race becomes virtually impossible. Much as in the case as with man having two legs and man participating in races, a relationship too, in a similar way stands on two legs. Man by his nature has two legs much like the conjugal act by its nature has unitive and procreative legs. Contraception, sterilizes the conjugal act and this would be equivalent to man entering a race and willfully removing one of his own legs. These conditions are in place in order to help us achieve a higher good, which is what is good for both the spouses, which is in line with God’s plan for marriage. It is obvious that contraception leaves no room for the act to be fruitful, but how does that also translate to the act sterilizing the other three characteristics of conjugal love in the relationship?

       The characteristic of being fully human and total is compromised when engaged in the conjugal union without being open to life, as it lacks the totality of the human individual. Reducing the act to a tool of mere self-gratification, “It is good because it feels good” and worse it dehumanizes the other person because it is self-centered, essentially saying “you are good, because you make me feel good.” This compromises the unitive property as it reduces the other person from subject of our love to mere object of our impulsive desire. This is already occurring rampant on an ongoing basis, where men become the beneficiary of contraception by indulging in their lust without any consequence or responsibility to the individual woman. Spouses can easily fall into this trap as well by saying to the other “there is no room for your fertility in the marriage,” or “your fertility must be suppressed because it is a nuisance.” In taking away from what makes a woman full you take away the humanity of woman and integrity of the marriage. Thus, conjugal love requires it to be fully human and not fully self. Your spouse is a gift from God perfectly made with the intent of being perfectly loved.

       Faithful and exclusive until death. It is no secret that contraception exploded in the 1960’s along with the sexual revolution and we have seen a rise in both divorce and infidelity. As explained previously in frustrating the conjugal act through contraception has dire consequences as it reduces the other person to a mere object. Now here comes the scary part, if the conjugal act no longer has its integrity preserved as it was intended, and the self becomes the subject of receiving, then it stands to reason that there is no difference in how we view our spouse and how we see other people. To put this into context there are about 7 billion people on this planet or to put it more bluntly 7 billion bodies to satisfy one’s own lust with.

       Finally, when the gift of fertility becomes a nuisance, so too does the gift that comes from fertility, children. If the self is the subject of receiving in relation to another, then this objective is achieved at a cost. Leaving the door open to any means necessary for satisfying the self at the expense of any responsibility, and this begins with your spouse. When a spouse becomes just an object of pleasure it will inadvertently carry unintended consequences dehumanizing your spouse preventing the spouse from being an equal partner. The sequence in the chain of self-gratifying pursuit is that a new human life that is brought about in the marital act is also seen as a threat to the self. There are an estimated 63 million abortions since Roe v. Wade became legal in the United States, the trail of bodies is hard to ignore. Especially considering that when we view self as the subject of receiving, then one will inadvertently view all consequences against the self as a threat.

       Pope Paul VI made four corresponding predictions when we move away from the realm of responsibility and adhering to the natural law in regard to contraception. The first, is that it would lead to conjugal infidelity, the second, that it would lead to widespread disrespect for women, the third that it would become a dangerous weapon in the hands of public authority, and the fourth, is that it would give human beings the impression that they have limitless dominion over their bodies. It has now been just over 50 years since Humanae Vitae was written and I would say that these prophecies are being fulfilled today. The future looks grim in the face of new technologies that look to dissipate the natural law. The natural law is there to help guide man to his highest good, and without it we face impossible odds with a culture in continuous turmoil.

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