The argument of Humanae Vitae

1.) Before 1960, all known forms of contraception were either barriers or poisons and so could be easily categorized as contradicting the (more or less biological) nature of sex.

2.) After 196o synthetic estrogen became widely available and could suppress ovulation, making pregnancy much less likely (failure rates between 2-10%). Unlike barriers and poisons, women’s bodies release estrogen to suppress ovulation all the time. So long as the only Catholic objection to contraception was its being a barrier or poison which interfered with a natural process, the Pill was licit.

3.) If there is something wrong with artificial contraception it could no longer be based on appeals to defending the integrity of a natural process. The easy condemnation of biologism was lost. What it was replaced with is articulated in Humanae Vitae pp. 12 ad 13, which argue that willful suppression contradicts love of one’s spouse (12) and God (13).

4.) HV speaks of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significance of marital sex, and somewhere along the way the became the “dual ends of the sexual act”. The only point HV is trying to make, it seems to me, is that contraception is wrong because it is loveless, which is such a bold claim that everyone has been assuming that it must be saying something else. The point is not that marital intercourse has two autonomous goals that Catholics have to try to simultaneously both keep in view, it’s the much more striking claim that an essential condition of loving someone erotically is wanting to have a child with them, at least so far as this means doing nothing to suppress fertility.

5.) Claiming this does nothing to remove the usual objections. What about elderly marriage? Marriage to women with hysterectomies? HV might be content to just claim that the eros here can only be imperfect, though accounts of a type of thing don’t take peculiar circumstances into account. Just how far one can develop this idea of degrees of imperfect eros might be an interesting research project.



  1. Peter said,

    February 8, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    An essential condition of loving someone erotically is wanting to have a child with them

    This would seem to be contradicted by NFP, since the goal of NFP is to love someone erotically without having a child with them. Yet NFP remains licit even if its use is circumscribed.

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of contraception, most couples who use it do believe that they love each other. To claim that they in fact do not, would probably seem not so much bold as incomprehensible.

    • February 9, 2017 at 6:55 am

      Are you objecting to the text, or my interpretation?

      Here’s the text in question:

      12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

      The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.

      13. Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.

  2. Peter said,

    February 9, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    This part of the text seems to be closest to what you are getting at:

    And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination

    It would seem to suggest that if only the unitive aspect is there, then there is a deficiency of love. If so, then it is a considerably lesser claim than “contraceptive sex is loveless”. It would only be “the love in contraceptive sex is less perfect than it might be.”

    While many people would probably agree that some perfection is missing if a couple desire a family of just the two of them and no children, this doesn’t mean they have to hope that every time they have sex they will have another child. Obviously the Church agrees, otherwise NFP would be illicit.

    Speaking frankly, this is how it appears to me. The real reason the Church considers contraception illicit is, nothing other than that it is committed to the proposition that it can’t be wrong if it has taught something universally. It is not the reasoning of HV, it is simply that the Church as a whole taught against contraception once which means it was infallibly right in that teaching. But if the Church was right, then it must have been right for some reason. It must be possible to explain that to people in a way that accords with human rationality and common sense. HV is an attempt to find that explanation.

    Does it succeed? It must be significant that all branches of Christianity that think the Church can be wrong about contraception do appear to think the Church has been wrong. This means that, on its own, HV doesn’t convince. Perhaps I’m wrong and there is some Protestant sect today that doesn’t believe in the infallibility of the Church’s universal magisterium, yet they still agree with HV, but I’ve never heard of them. (Yes I know this was the situation of all the protestant churches until around 1930, but they did not do so on the basis of HV which had not come out, nor did HV convince them that their earlier position had been right).

    A cynic would say that it’s all very simple: the Church painted itself into a corner over contraception and would like to get out but it can’t (although it has wiggled as much as it can, with NFP and the pill for nuns at risk of rape). For the Protestant churches, the only reason they are not still in the corner is because there is nothing forcing them to stay there.

    • Timotheos said,

      February 9, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      It’s not entirely true to say that all “branches” of Christianity besides Catholicism view contraception as licit; for instance, the Orthodox do not have a unified position on the issue, and when Humanae Vitae came out, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at the time, Athenagoras, said that he agreed in full with it. Because the Orthodox do not have any unified front on doctrine however, outside of an ecumenical council, bishops and priests have seen it fit to take different opinions on the issue; many now approve of contraception, but it’s not really clear that it’s even the majority position, let alone universally agreed upon.

      As for Protestants, there are a few that don’t care for contraception; the most prominent are probably the Amish, but you can find a few pockets of traditional Presbyterians and such who don’t care for it. Further, Orthodox Jews do not permit any form of contraception that “spills the seed”, so to speak; hence, they don’t ever use condoms, and abstain from certain types of birth control pills. They do not completely rule out all birth control pills however.

      Honestly though, just because all Christians besides Catholics think X does not mean that Catholics should start thinking about believing X; for one, Catholics are, strictly speaking, in the majority when it comes to numbers, and further, that would lead one to start questioning the infallibility of the Pope, the indissolubility of marriage, the exact formulation of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the validity of Ecumenical councils VIII-XXI, etc. I mean, no Calvinist really takes anyone all that seriously when they are told that they are in the minority, so exactly why should Catholics?

      Lastly, as far as your idea that the Church has painted herself into a corner on this point, it’s simply not true; or at least not true in anyway that does not also apply to the Orthodox, and any Christian that takes the weight of tradition seriously. Humanae Vitae did not come from Pope Paul VI as infallible teaching, and thus, it is not infallible doctrine on the level of the Extraordinary Magisterium.

      Now as far as tradition is concerned, the Catholic Church believes that it is clear that her position on this is the only consistent with what has always been believed, and on those grounds this doctrine is to believed as infallible; if she is right in this belief, then it follows that the Orthodox should also oppose contraception on these grounds, as well as a good many traditional Anglicans and probably even some traditional Lutherans. So, in a strict sense, Catholics are no more bound to the teaching than the Orthodox, in terms of infallibility, but I think it is clear that there are reasons other than the Church’s own belief in its own infallibility as to why it opposes contraception.

  3. Peter said,

    February 9, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    in a strict sense, Catholics are no more bound to the teaching than the Orthodox, in terms of infallibility

    That seems reasonable. However, isn’t it the case that the Orthodox (as well as these other Protestant sects, or subsets of them, are also bound to it for the same reason as Catholics – infallibility of tradition?

    I agree that it’s not simply a numbers game. But if there are reasons consistent with human reason and natural law that support the Catholic position, they should be convincing in themselves and not only to people who already believe in it due to infallibility, and we would expect to see significant numbers of non-Catholics (and non-Orthodox) who find them convincing. This is indeed the case with abortion. One can agree or disagree with the Catholic position, but the reasoning is clear and accessible to (and accepted by) many non-Catholic Christians, members of other religions, and even atheists. It seems to me that the Catholic position on abortion really is well-supported by human reason and natural law, hence you don’t need to be Catholic to find it convincing.

    I think it is clear that there are reasons other than the Church’s own belief in its own infallibility as to why it opposes contraception.

    This is less clear to me, for the reasons I’ve given above. It’s possible that the Catholic Church is still right about contraception, it just doesn’t know why it’s right. Perhaps if things turn to custard 50 years from now due to demographic crises, it might then become apparent that the Catholic Church knows things about sex that the world doesn’t know, or has forgotten. But this is speculation.

  4. Peter said,

    February 9, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    OK, I will answer my own post. George Orwell was probably an atheist and certainly no friend of the Catholic Church, but he did seem to see something repulsive in contraception. It would be interesting to know why this was the case, and whether there was any overlap between his views and the Church.

  5. February 10, 2017 at 3:34 am

    Sometimes these things are discussed in very ideal and abstract terms: ‘a couple desires a family of just the two of them …’, which underlines the limitations of ‘wishing to have a theory’. This family comprised by ‘just the two …’ isn’t the only situation; the topic isn’t only of couples who want no children. A couple may desire a family of a certain number, but not a bigger one. More and more kids doesn’t mean for everyone more and more love.

  6. Captain Peabody said,

    February 12, 2017 at 8:59 am

    This doesn’t strike me as particularly insightful. The argument against contraception (in any Christian tradition) never rested on the use of poisons or barriers, but simply on the frustration of natural ends.
    Hence, the traditional objections to coitus interruptus as well as to sex without female orgasm, both of which seem to be far more paradigmatic ideas of contraception historically than the use of barriers or poisons.

    Indeed, the entire idea of “biology” as you seem to be using it here strikes me as quite foreign to the Catholic tradition, and indeed to most of Christianity prior to the 20th century. Biology is not a shorthand for nature. The moral consideration always had to do with the nature of the act itself and its ends, rather than with “processes” in the biological sense. The fact that, say, hormonal contraceptives use hormones that the body can release on its own doesn’t strike me as something that most moral thinkers throughout Catholic history would even have considered relevant, let alone determinative.

    This is not to say that your idea about a link between procreative potential and love is wrong–though this argument is laid out a lot more straightforwardly by John Paul II than by Paul VI. Here, though, the argument is not so much by way of eros (though there are certainly implications for it) as by way of charitas. That is, if sex is to be essentially an act of love directed towards the other person as person, it must fully accept the other person’s procreative potentials and the procreative nature of the sexual act itself–anything less is in danger of degrading the person to the level of object. This is obviously shorthand, but I don’t see that such an argument has to lead to any great degradation of erotic love between infertile coups.

    • February 12, 2017 at 9:23 am

      This doesn’t strike me as particularly insightful. The argument against contraception (in any Christian tradition) never rested on the use of poisons or barriers, but simply on the frustration of natural ends.

      This claim doesn’t fit with the history of the debate about the Pill in the early ’60’s, where even Thomists of the strict observance saw estrogen’s suppression of ovulation as perfectly natural. Infertile periods are not only intended by nature but constitute most of a woman’s cycle, and so the Thomists of the time were not crazy in seeing synthetic estrogen as assisting a natural process (sc. infertility as a part of a cycle). This does not mean they were correct, but it called into question moral evaluations that were based entirely on the nature of the sexual act considered as a merely animal or natural process. HV clearly wants to preserve some elements of this old critique while tying them to a Platonic notion of eros that cannot be itself if it is severed from reproductive possibility (I don’t see the opposition you are trying to draw between eros and charity as helpful. Plato’s account of eros gives it the same immediate object as charity). The result is perhaps not as clearly defined as one might like, as happens with many attempts to advance bold new ideas, and it would have to contend with Feser’s arguments that perverted faculty arguments are the only sort of arguments that can be used against sexual vices.

      • February 12, 2017 at 4:22 pm

        I’m not questioning the fact that the Pill represented a new “genus” of contraception, or that this led to significant debate, in the context of mid-20th century Catholicism (esp. given neo-Thomism’s emphasis on reconciling modern science) over whether it should be counted as contraception at all. What I find problematic is this as an account of the pre-20th century traditional idea of contraception and the reasons given for its immorality.

        Specifically, it seems to me that the idea that the pre-20th century concept of contraception is even remotely approximated by “the use of poisons or barriers to frustrate biological processes” is problematic. The examples of coitus interruptus and non-orgasmic sex require at least a modification of that; not to mention the constant and entirely accepted uses of poisons in other contexts in Medieval medicine. Put at its simplest, the traditional concept seems to that the nature of sex has a procreative end, and so any voluntary attempt to interfere with or remove that end is perverse and immoral (cf: Casti Connubii: “Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”). Indeed, in the case of non-orgasmic sex, we do not seem to have in view so much even a deliberate action contrary to procreation as a lack of action necessary to achieve that end. That this discourse can be simplistically identified with a mere “don’t use poisons or barriers to frustrate biological processes” strikes me, again, as very distortive.

        I do think you’re onto something with the idea that the bringing in of “love” (in whatever sense) into the argument represents a new dimension or emphasis, at least. This, however, is not an innovation of Paul VI so much as of earlier 20th century theology, which was brought to focus more on the unitive nature of sex and its intrinsic connection with love and marriage in opposition to eugenics and other proposals for “scientific breeding.” “Casti Connubii” earlier in the century could be considered innovative in its teaching that love and the unity of the spouses constitute “the chief reason and purpose” of matrimony, and its rejection of any conception of marriage as a purely procreative union (it also condemns contraception and allows for what we would call “NFP” on basically the same grounds as “Humanae Vitae,” but this is not its main focus).

        In this regard, I appreciate your clarification on what you mean what you talk of “eros.” This is very helpful, and I think it gets to the heart of what troubled me about your initial discussion: the very Platonic and idealized character you ascribe to Paul VI and John Paul II’s discussion of contraception. The argument, even in its incorporation of love, seems to me much more basically Aristotelean in nature: that the application of personalistic love to sexuality specifically requires an acceptance of the procreative ends found in nature, which in turn rules out certain actions contrary to that end. This can certainly have implications for how we understand eros in the broad philosophical sense–this is where we get discussions of “spiritual maternity” and “fruitfulness” and similar applied to other kinds of infertile or even entirely non-sexual “erotic” relationships–but I don’t think this is the grounds on which the argument rests at all. You seem to be heading vaguely in the direction of seeing the Pill as an impossible problem for Catholic-Aristotelean morality that could only be rescued by an ill-considered retreat into Platonistic idealization; and I think this involves a lot of distortion of the relevant traditions and arguments to make work.

        I will also add that I find Feser’s insistence on the *sole* legitimacy of the “perverted faculty argument” in sexual morality to be rather bizarre and unwarranted.

        I apologize for the length of this post, but I always appreciate a good conversation, especially with someone whose thought is as generally incisive and interesting as yours; and I do think that it’s especially important that we get a lot more philosophical discussion and expansion of Catholic doctrine on contraception that doesn’t just amount to “Humanae Vitae is obviously stupid and weird” or else “just go read Humanae Vitae.” Thank you.

  7. February 13, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    The word “debitum” does not show up in this conversation thread in a search, so I assume that no one has said this, but in Medieval understandings of marriage, the nuptial mystery is a _debitum_ that one is obligated to pay, mutually. Accidents like aging (or infertility) do not relinquish one from this debt. In certain canonical rulings, like when a dude slept with his wife’s sister, and the wife appealed to the Pope (was it Innocent III?), the Pope ruled that the husband’s ability to claim that debt was forever relinquished, but hers was not, for she’d done nothing wrong.

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