‘Humanae Vitae’ and society’s ‘out-of-body’ experience

My wife Elaine came out to the car with a big smile. When she climbed into the front seat, she bent over, laughing convulsively. My daughter Miriam and I looked at her in wonder. What was so funny?

It was soon after we had moved here from Indiana, we were somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we were lost. We had parked on a side street and Elaine had jumped out to get directions. She had disappeared into what she believed to be a convenience store and there had an out-of-body experience, as she finally related to us once her shoulders stopped shaking.

When she had pushed the door into the building, she discovered immediately that it was the wrong entrance. The interior was empty and dark, except for a flash of light to her right. She turned and glimpsed someone facing her, and thought to herself, “What a nice-looking person with a kind smile. I’ll ask her for directions.” Then she saw that the woman before her was a reflection, an image in a full-length mirror. The friendly stranger was herself, she realized, and at that moment the humor-fits erupted.

I thought of this episode after deciding the topic for this month’s column. It has been 40 years since the most famous, and for some the most infamous, papal encyclical was issued. Reading the rich variety of recent commentary on “Humanae Vitae” has fascinated me, with perhaps the most compelling account being the one penned by J. Francis Cardinal Stafford, entitled “The Year of the Peirosmòs--1968,” easily retrievable by searching the Internet. “Peirosmòs” is Greek for temptation, trial or test.

Cardinal Stafford wrote about a meeting of priests he attended after Pope Paul VI had announced through the encyclical his decision to maintain the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception. The meeting was called by some priests to garner support for a statement of dissent to be published the next day in the secular newspapers. The leaders voiced their opposition to “Humanae Vitae” and asked each attending priest to publicly dissent by joining them in signing the statement. When the leaders turned to then-Father Stafford, the last to be asked, and after every other priest had renounced the encyclical, he refused to join the revolution.

The reaction was “awful,” according to Cardinal Stafford. “The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive. The underlying, ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity. He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.” 

What explains the virulence of the negative reaction against “Humanae Vitae” from so many sectors, especially within the Church, then and now? Another work that I have read for the first time recently, the introduction to the 2006 edition of John Paul II’s “A Theology of the Body,” written by Michael Waldstein, opened my eyes, helping me to see the contraception controversy in a whole new light. Waldstein’s thesis holds that the dissent to “Humanae Vitae” was and remains rooted in western civilization’s own “out-of-body” experience, of a scale larger and more ominous than Elaine’s Cambridge adventure.

According to Waldstein, our society remains locked under the spell of the 17th-century ruminations of philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Bacon trumpeted humanity’s unlimited technological power over nature, and Descartes reduced the body to mere and entirely malleable matter, defining the essence of humanity as pure thought or spirit. Pope Benedict noted the negative influence of these philosophers on human self-understanding in his recent encyclical on hope.

The Baconian and Cartesian philosophies, contrary to orthodox Christian reflection, see the human person not as a synthesis of mind and body, but dualistically as a soul in a machine with the power to tinker with the machine’s gears and sprockets at whim. Our essence then lies not in the soul animating the body and acting according to God’s will as revealed in the body. Instead our essence should be found, supposedly, in the soul’s “out-of-body” independence from and dominance over bodily matter.

A core of Catholic theologians, Waldstein asserts, bought into this divided view of human nature, and put their trust in humanity’s ability to control and reshape bodily functions. Pope Paul VI’s insistence that the procreative and unitive aspects of sexuality should not be treated as separable was a poke in the eye to what Waldstein refers to as “the Baconian project” and its Catholic adherents.

Issued at a time when mankind was earnestly pursuing more and more sophisticated technological advances, “Humanae Vitae” became an immediate embarrassment to many who believed that the Church should cast aside its outdated fears and jump aboard the train of progress.

While the im mediate concern of Pope Paul VI in writing “Humanae Vitae” was a question of sexual morality, the larger issue, as addressed by John Paul II in his reflections on the “theology of the body,” is the true identity of the human person and the true nature of authentic progress.

We have traveled from the year of “Humanae Vitae” for but one-tenth of the journey of 400 years since the days of Bacon and Descartes, whose philosophies still reign supreme. But as we glance again at our image in the mirror, already the clouds are beginning to thin, and the fog of misunderstanding is starting to lift.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.