Humanae vitae, political aspects of the encyclical on conjugal love

Lecture by Stefano Fontana

at the Faculty of Theology of Sardegna

20 April 2018

Read the full text in italian here


Stefano Fontana delivered a lecture on “Humanae vitae, political aspects of the encyclical on conjugal love” at the Faculty of Theology of Sardegna in Cagliari on Friday, 20 April 2018. Introducing his presentation were the Dean of the Faculty, Prof. Rev. Francesco Maceri, and Rev Roberto Caria, professor of social morality. The Ordinary of Cagliari, Most Rev. Arrigo Miglio, was also present, and addressed words of welcome to those present.

According to Mr. Fontana, “The current panorama of considerations regarding the Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae of Paul VI seems beset by confusion and uncertainty in many ways”. Even though many consider the encyclical’s teaching to be “unchangeable”, discussion is underway. In this debate, however, very limited seems to be interest in the relationship between the encyclical and the public ambit of the Christian faith related with political reasoning.

In this regard, Mr. Fontana recalled that in the Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI had included the Humanae vitae of Paul VI among the encyclicals of social importance. “This  means, “ said the speaker, “that its core theme – conjugal love and procreation – plays an important role in the correct approach to the social issue”: “The Encyclical Humanae Vitae emphasizes both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexuality, thereby locating at the foundation of society the married couple, man and woman, who accept one another mutually, in distinction and in complementarity: a couple, therefore, that is open to life.”

The public significance of conjugal sexuality

After positing these premises, the speaker spoke about the “public” significance of conjugal sexuality. “Present in a couple’s sexual relationship”, he said, “are the two fundamental aspects of society and sociality, intrinsically connected with one another.  At the origin of society and sociality stand not two individuals indifferent with respect to their respective sexual identities, but a heterosexual man-woman couple. This is the ultimate political reason why the heterosexual couple is to be confirmed and sustained with the institution of marriage, while the reality of two a-sexed individuals cannot enjoy political recognition, and remains within the private sphere”. “In the reality of two same sexed individuals”, he continued, “there is no communion insofar as there is no complementarity; they just add up to a twosome, but do not complete one another. In man-woman dual complementarity, the two persons unite in a new reality. While the heterosexual relationship is public by way of origin, and hence evokes marriage in its own right, the sexual relationship between two individuals of the same sex is private by way of origin, and hence cannot be recognized as marriage”

Such a vocation has a bond with openness to life, because only under this condition is it completely unconditional mutual welcoming. Otherwise the welcoming between the two is instrumental, and their relationship, in contrast with the vocation recognized and present in the language of the two differentiated and complementary bodies, is akin to that of a same sex and sterile couple.  The vocation to mutual complementarity implies the unconditional nature of love, and love, in order to be unconditional, must stem not from the conditions set by the two ‘contracting parties’, but from the imposition of an order that precedes and transcends them, and is inscribed in their selfsame nature. “If standing at the origin of society”, continued Mr. Fontana, “are not two individuals, but a couple, and if this couple is such insofar as constituted by virtue of the assumption of a non accommodating order, a vocation, then sexuality as a couple has a truly fundamental role for the simple reason that no other ‘welcoming’ reality would ever be possible without this”.

The non-political significance of contraception

Quite natural at this point is moving on to consider the non-political significance of contraception. “This [contraception] prevents the gift of self which, if it is true gift, must be unconditional. Moreover, it introduces the feature of a technical contract in force and intended to guarantee self with full accessibility to the relational process. In this manner the sexual relationship becomes an end unto itself, and the use of one’s own body and that of other-than-self becomes instrumental. The use of contraception means the relationship does not take place according to a natural order, and hence amounts to an albeit consensual form of violence. This is why contraception corrodes sociality instead of fostering it..

Mr. Fontana went on to say that according to classical thought, Christian philosophy and the Social Doctrine of the Church, society does not have an origin because it exists by nature. The man-woman couple is natural and original. According to the mentality ushered in by contraception, however, at the origin of society there would be two individuals neutral with respect to any natural and objective order, and engaged in an instrumental mutual relationship. This situation evokes the theory of modern political thinkers regarding the origin of society.

The private sphere and the public sphere

This brings us to the third part of Mr. Fontana’s lecture: the relationship between private and public. According to modern political thinkers, especially Hobbes, society is the outcome of a conventional and instrumental pact whereby isolated citizens join together in society, making themselves subject to an absolute power. Neither the citizens nor the ‘power’ are obliged to abide by any preexistent and constituent natural law, and therefore power itself becomes akin to a Private entity, albeit stronger than the citizens. This brings us to the consequences: “Embodied in the use of contraceptives in the sexual relationship between a man and a woman is the non-political principle of a society understood as a series of individuals side by side and subject to an absolute power that is neutral in terms of principles and values, and hence technically omnipotent. The result is that the ambit of the transmission of life in the family, something contraception wanted to be kept within the private and individual sphere, is invaded by political power, therefore by the public sphere. The openness to life and the relationship according to a natural order guarantee the public dimension of sexuality, and call for the institution of marriage, within which fully human self-fulfillment may be achieved. The State, for example, as specifically called for by Casti connubi,  should have respected and defended religious matrimony not only from divorce, but also from civil marriage, and likewise protect conjugal fidelity. This also guaranteed the deeply personal space of nuptial life and defended it from both interference and outright invasion. The aim of contraception is to ensure liberation from openness to life and a natural order, considering them to be undue interference by the public sphere in the private sphere. What it actually does, however, is open the personal relationship as such to the devastation of technology, markets, parliaments, and both national and international centers of power and influence”.

We thereby see the paradox of a private sphere invaded more and more by the public sphere, understood in its turn as a nothing more than a stronger ‘private’ entity, and men, as Humanae vitae states with surprising foresightedness, “would reach the point of leaving the most personal and most reserved part of conjugal intimacy prey to intervention on the part of public authorities.”

Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church

Stefano Fontana concluded his lecture by pointing out that during the years when Humanae vitae came under the fire of criticism, the same thing was happening to the Social Doctrine of the Church. This highlights the fact that Paul VI’s encyclical and the Social Doctrine of the Church presuppose the same underpinning of thought based on a metaphysical order of reality. “It is obvious”, concluded Mr. Fontana, “that were this philosophical underpinning to wane away and be replaced by a vision that embraces the “modern transcendental” in the form of historicism, existentialism or hermeneutics, the selfsame underpinning or structure could be revisited, and with it the individual dispositions of  Humanae vitae. This would mean, however, a very extensive and disruptive change, with effects that would reach far beyond the encyclical whose 50th anniversary we are commemorating.

Benedetta Cortese

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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận