Godtalk: Human Sexuality


Paul VI

The close of the recent Synod of Bishops gathered to discuss family life issues, was the occasion of beatifying Paul VI.  It is unfortunate that Paul is remembered negatively by many because of his encyclical Humanae Vitae 1968 (‘On Human Life’). 

It may be that Humanae Vitae, while missing a strategic opportunity, was in many ways prophetic. The opportunity missed was the occasion to articulate clearly the difference between contraception and the taking of human life. After condemning abortion as a means of birth control, the encyclical says that forms of direct sterilization, whether lasting or temporary, and other forms of contraception are ‘equally to be excluded.’ (N.14)

That ‘equally,’ possibly an effect of seeing only grave matter in sexual sins, has the unintended effect of equating contraception and abortion. Abortion is not contraception; it is the termination of an early human life.

It could be that this faulty ‘equalization’ is behind the fact that the abortion rate among Catholics, is little different from that of other groups. If one has already tried (unsuccessfully) contraception, why not try abortion? Failing to teach the difference dulled, rather than formed, consciences.

Had the encyclical been called ‘On Human Sexuality,’ it might have been clearer that Humanae Vitae was in many ways prophetic.  The document would have been better introduced with the simple truth that sex is only part of the moral life, albeit a significant part.  That might have defused the wild reaction to the letter, itself a sign of a fixation on sex.

Prior to Humanae Vitae there were many Catholics who thought that sex was the only significant moral topic.  Subsequently, although there were still a few who centered their ethical world on sex, many more Catholics joined the general crowd, thinking that sex was the only part of human life that had no moral import –  a consequence unintended, surely.   They came to view sexuality simply as a matter private liberty. 

 Humanae Vitae  offered a vision of human sexuality as responsive to the will of God and faithful to the insight that the profound intimacy of sexual intercourse required a covenant of persons and an openness to the life that is made possible by the intercourse of man and woman. It warned of the risks of ignoring this vision:  sex and women becoming a commodity, fragmentation of the spousal relationship and the distancing of parents from offspring.

Could it be that, unmoored from the will of God, spousal love and the reality and symbolism of reproduction, sex is reduced to a matter of unfettered liberty in fulfilling desire or the traffic of entertainment and commerce?

Those who think that God and ethics have nothing to do with the bedroom or reproduction have some hard questions to face. Are there no moral constraints at all on sexual or reproductive freedom? Is nothing morally required of us in matters of this significant part of human experience? Is one's ‘heart's desire’ the final answer for all our decisions?

One wonders what might be the source of the repression of compunction in priests who abused children, of parents or relatives who violated their own, of teachers who seduced their students. Such horrors have taken place for ages. But have they been done with such absence of guilt?    

And what of sex itself?  Do the large profits in pornography, the mounting rates of sexually transmitted diseases, the images of pop music videos or the edgy offerings of the television and fashion industries offer any vision of sex that is even remotely connected to love, commitment, or children?

Every area of our lives - the political, the economic, the personal and, yes, the sexual - is an arena for holiness and generosity.  In a commerce-culture such as ours, if we do not witness to our young that we live a different way, we will bequeath them neither love nor holiness, but moral chaos.  Humanae Vitae told us as much.

Peter Knott SJ