Opposing the Sexual Holocaust

January-February 1995By Luis R. Gámez

Luis R. Gámez is a professor of English at Western Michigan University.

Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader.  Edited by Janet E. Smith. Ignatius Press. 591 pages. $24.95.



Janet Smith prefaces her selection of essays supporting the encyclical Humanae Vitae by recalling Walter Miller's 1959 futuristic fantasy A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller envisions a post-nuclear-holocaust world blown back to the Dark Ages; resisting this new ignorance are monks of the Order of Leibowitz, who hoard such fragments of knowledge as are left unscorched by the Bomb, and lovingly preserve this "Memorabilia" with traditional monkish patience — Planck's theorem hand-copied on vellum, a circuitry diagram illuminated in gold leaf — until the illiterate world should want its learned patrimony again. Smith trenchantly observes that today, "the Church is in a somewhat similar position, as she attempts to preserve the wisdom of the ages about what constitutes sexual morality and tries to recover what makes for wholesome family life. We have exploded ourselves back into or even beyond the Stone Age (one suspects those in the Stone Age were not as perverse in their sexual behavior as people in our age)..."

But Smith modestly neglects completing her parallel: Herself one of our leading Leibowitzes, she opposes the fallout of the current sexual holocaust with a compilation of 22 essays that serves admirably as memorabilia of Humanae Vitae's wisdom.

Students of philosophy and moral theology may find Smith's scope here less comprehensive than that in her seminal 1991 study Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (HVAGL). Smith favors traditional natural-law arguments against contraception (the evaluation of acts rather than choices); the more innovative attempts of Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William May to argue the illicitness of a "contralife will" earned a crushing critique that was one of the highlights of HVAGL. You'll find no treatment of the "contralife will" here. On the other hand, Smith is deeply influenced by the rich personalistic philosophy of Karol Wojtyla: One section of her reader is devoted to "The Views of John Paul II" on the theology of the body, self-mastery and self-giving, the communion of persons, man's interiority, the language of the body, and the lie of contraception. Analyses by Smith, Finnis, Cormac Burke, and John F. Crosby elucidate the thought of the man who sees even the newly restored Sistine Chapel as a "sanctuary of the theology of the human body." This section alone is worth the cover price.

While Smith offers no direct refutations of consequentialist arguments like those of Charles Curran and Bernard Häring (for those, see HVAGL), several essays examine specific issues used to counter Humanae Vitae: totality (Ralph McInerny), infallibility (Russell Shaw), individual conscience (May), and world population (Herbert F. Smith). Another chapter treats the moral use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Ruth Lasseter's poignant testimony in "Sensible Sex" complements Elzbieta Wójcik's insightful contrast of the psychology of NFP with that of contraception. Smith includes early defenses by Dietrich von Hildebrand, Mary Rosera Joyce, and G.E.M. Anscombe, along with Paul VI's 1970 address to the Teams of Our Lady (wherein Paul presented a fuller treatment of marriage and the "domestic church" of the family than Humanae Vitae's narrow focus on contraception allowed). Smith closes the volume with her analysis of Paul VI's prophesy about the current "general decline in morality" (a disaster recently acknowledged by Avery Dulles as owing to dissent from Humanae Vitae), and with her new, painstaking translation of the encyclical itself.

"Contraception and Conjugal Love," by Paul Quay, S.J., is a superb philosophic defense of the assertion that contraception violates the value of conjugal love, as well as the value of procreation. Written eight years before Humanae Vitae, Quay anticipates John Paul's insight that contraceptive intercourse is analogous to lying. While dissenters typically charge the Church with "physicalism," Quay demonstrates that natural-law reasoning can provide "a psychologically more effective position" based on the distinctly human (and not merely physical) purposes of sexual intercourse. And Quay cheekily shows how Freud might classify the psychological essence of contraception as "perversion."

One of the most original theological defenses of Humanae Vitae is John Kippley's "A Covenant Theology of Human Sexuality." Kippley's biblically based argument is dazzling in its utter simplicity: He proposes that "sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant," and that contraception violates the total self-giving that spouses mutually pledge on their wedding day. The direct, bracing realism of Kippley's presentation rests upon the authority of his 21-plus years' leadership of the Couple to Couple League, a lay apostolate dedicated to helping married couples teach other couples the sympto-thermal method of NFP. Kippley's lifetime dedication represents an incarnation of Humanae Vitae's precepts.

Smith unfortunately neglected to anthologize Gustave Martelet, S.J., whose early advocacy of the personalist values of marriage may make him the most influential theologian behind Humanae Vitae. A more serious oversight was reprinting her translation of the encyclical without including her extensive commentary, as it appeared in HVAGL. This commentary carefully summarizes Church documents cited in Humanae Vitae's footnotes, with Smith arguing that the encyclical "relies upon a whole history of moral analysis developed over the centuries, and indicates what use it makes of this tradition by citation in the footnotes. Anyone who wishes to understand thoroughly the encyclical should read closely the material cited in the footnotes." Yes. Thus, she should have included the commentary. Among the petty typos, the table of contents is misnumbered, and citations in Smith's translation of Humanae Vitae refer to chapters in HVAGL, not to those in the present book.

The 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae has come and gone, largely ignored by a culture in defiance of its teaching. But the Leibowitzian monks knew that "cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded…. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection." When we finally emerge from this sexual Dark Age, we'll owe much to those like Smith who kept the spark burning.



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