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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2008

The Battle for the Human Person

by Margaret M. Whitehead

In defending conjugal morals in their integral wholeness, the Church knows that she contributes towards the establishment of a truly human civilization; she engages man not to abdicate from his own responsibility in order to rely on technical means; by that very fact she defends the dignity of man and wife (Humanae Vitae #18).

Forty years ago, when Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the reaction was immediate, widespread, and overwhelmingly negative. Pressure from the Papal Birth Control Commission and from many theologians, as well as the desire of many couples to be in control of their own fertility, was intense. It seemed that the technology to do this was out there and was just waiting to be used to bring greater freedom and happiness to everyone!

However, in studying the issue, it became clear to Paul VI that the Church could not accept a position which “departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church.” (HV 6). Nor could the Church deny the nature of the marital act itself, which was part of God’s creative design and plan — and was not just “the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces” (HV 7). “By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives” (HV 8). Paul VI was convinced that there was something essential to humanness in maintaining the connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act.

In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI was at pains to affirm that this was not a trivial matter, nor did it just concern the couple and their wishes. It could not be “arbitrary” or just a personal choice. The “unbreakable connection” between the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act had to be maintained because they were part of God’s creative plan for the human person, both in this life and the next. Paul VI prophetically pointed out some of the negative consequences that would follow from destroying the unitive-procreative connection; these included conjugal infidelity, a general lowering of moral standards, corruption of the young, disrespect for women, and also the danger inherent in placing a “dangerous weapon” in the “hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” All of these consequences have ensued, in fact.

In Humanae Vitae, the pope offered pastoral suggestions and reached out to explain and reinforce the beauty, depth, and importance of the Church’s teaching. He wrote:

By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man’s most high calling to parenthood. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle. (HV 12)

With this document, the essential truth about the human person and the marital act were maintained — but just barely. Most people did not see that there were any important issues involved beyond establishing control of their own reproductive life. People were not as “deeply reasonable”, nor as open to God’s plan, as the pope had hoped. Statistics, in fact, show that the use of contraception is widespread both in and out of the Church as well as worldwide. And where the people have not been so open to contraceptive practices, governments have stepped in to try to force these practices upon them, as Pope Paul predicted.

However, in spite of the highly publicized and world-wide negative reaction to Humanae Vitae forty years ago, there were some who realized the importance and necessity of re-affirming the constant Church teaching concerning the “unbreakable connection” between the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act. They realized that this was an extremely important teaching, and hence they taught it and they lived it. However, even fewer realized just how significant this teaching would be in maintaining not only the integrity of the marital relationship and the parent-child relationship, but in maintaining the humanness of persons.

One negative aspect of rejecting this teaching, which was not so apparent in 1968, but which has become very apparent in recent years, is how rapidly the abandonment of the teaching led to the diminishing of the very idea of a “human person”. As a result of this diminishing, both the concept and the reality of human personhood have been widely replaced by the concept of what we may call the “human lab animal”.

The scientific eugenics movement has re-surfaced in a big way in the last twenty years — in fact, with more power than ever — to clone human embryos, extract and experiment with embryonic stem cells, practice artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization (IVF), create animal-human “hybrids”, engage in major gene manipulation, etc. — all of which are now carried on today with apparent public approval and with virtually no restrictions or oversight.

This kind of manipulation of human beings is never presented in a negative way. The scientists and politicians who support these things are always said to be only interested in helping people. They just want to cure diseases, make life pleasanter, get rid of genetic defects, help people to have the children that they have a right to have, and so on. The fact that human persons are being used as human lab animals in the most literal sense, and that some people are being harvested and destroyed for the benefit of others, just hasn’t registered yet with most people. The fact that all scientists are not just interested in knowledge and the amelioration of life, but also seek power over the rest of us, also hasn’t registered very widely yet.

“If science is really given a free hand, it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal.” Thus we read in That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis (Chapter 2). This novel represents more than just a fictional statement foretelling what it would be like with amoral scientists in charge of the world. Lewis accurately foresaw what has in fact come about.

Then there is this factual description by a modern academic of what is now widely intended to be the new norm in the Brave New World of today: “For a relatively small investment, this new age of science and medicine has found a way to bypass the treatment of disease altogether: create a group of siblings in a laboratory and grant life only to the few without the disease, while denying life to those who may suffer a certain illness.” This “purely eugenic practice” is the view of Professor Julian Savulescu, who holds the Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics at Oxford University. “Believing that because we now have at our disposal the technology to achieve the enhancement of our species”, he says, “we have a moral imperative to create and select the best child possible for living the highest quality of life” (Reported in the Culture of Life Newsletter, July 9, 2008).

If Professor Savulescu or his like-minded colleagues could have located the right gene 55 years ago, presumably someone like the recently deceased and much-admired journalist, presidential press secretary, and TV commentator, Tony Snow, who died from the same type of cancer that killed his mother at an early age, could have been eliminated before his birth. In the professor’s view, his could well have been a life not worth living, and the professor would have been only too happy to spare everyone the pain of coming into the world with an inherited disease.

Frequently in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI refers to what he calls the human character of the unitive-procreative marital act; he speaks of it as being “fully human” (unlike IVF and cloning and such). Forty years ago, I don’t think it was nearly as clear as it is now, that breaking the connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act, once accepted and taken for granted in society at large, would lead so inexorably, as it has, to the destruction of even the idea of such a being as a “human person”. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien shows the attractiveness great power can have even for very good people:

“Ah! The ring!” said Boromir, his eyes lighting. “The Ring! Is it a not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for such a small thing? So small a thing!… For you seem ever to think only of its power in the hands of the Enemy: of its evil uses not of its good…. Truehearted Men, they will not be corrupted…. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And, behold, in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say: a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him (Book 1, p. 414).

Empowerment is one of the most popular and recurring terms used especially by modern women. They long to be “empowered”, and to be able to control their reproduction; this is considered one of the clearest signs and proofs of this “empowerment”. Contraception has thus become our modern-day “Ring of Power”, and many people think that, although it might be used for evil, say, in totalitarian China, they would only use it for very good purposes! They do not realize that they have really opened the way for “the Enemy” to take over. The Enemy does not appreciate the creative goodness of God, and that if it is used at all, it will inevitably serve the purposes of the Enemy.

Humanae Vitae after forty years is more relevant than ever and its value is clearer and deeper than many of us ever imagined when it was first issued. It is an important arrow in the quiver of those who wish to maintain the reality and dignity of the human person and resist those who are prepared to use human persons as lab animals and do in fact so use them. An important contemporary thinker has observed in this connection:

Technology is useless if we do not know for what it is useful, if we no longer ask who we are, or what is the nature of the things we make (Co-workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992; March 20 meditation from Auf Christus schauen, p. 23).

We need to be asking these questions and making sure that those who have power, whether it is scientific or political, are being held to true moral standards. Forty years ago, in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI provided us with ample warning that severing the unitive from the procreative in the marital act would lead not only to the loss of integrity of the act itself and of marriage, but also to the destruction of the very notion of the human person and human dignity.

Margaret M. Whitehead has been a teacher and director of religious education for many years and continues in retirement to teach religion as a volunteer. She is a member of the editorial board of Voices. Married for fifty years to Kenneth D. Whitehead, she is the mother of four grown sons.

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