Humanae Vitae and the Feeding of the 5,000

A banquet that has no room for guests offers bread to choke on

Ambrosius Francken I (circa 1544/1545-1618), “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish”
Ambrosius Francken I (circa 1544/1545-1618), “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish” (photo: Public Domain)

Starting July 29 and for the next four Sundays (all of August), the Gospels turn to the subject of food, earthly and heavenly. The Church interrupts this year’s reading of the Gospel of Mark to take us for five Sundays through John 6, in which Jesus teaches about the Eucharist. The whole discussion, as is typical with John, starts today with a “sign” – feeding the crowd.

The last few Sundays have focused on teaching: John teaching, Jesus teaching, Jesus dispatching His disciples to teach, Jesus teaching the crowd. He’s still teaching today, and even though teaching is important, lessons are rarely well learned on an empty stomach (or 5,000 empty stomachs).

Jesus knows what He is going to do but asks Philip “to test him” to feed the crowd. Reckoning purely on a per capita cost basis, Philip essentially declares the challenge impossible: “two hundred days’ wages would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Given 12 disciples, it would take each one putting in almost 17 days of work to feed them; one hopes they run into a generous employer who pays them regardless of their start time (see Mt 20:1-16).

Jesus does not intend to leave those open to Him up the creek without food, so He performs a “sign.” The “sign”—the multiplication of the loaves—allows Jesus to segue into the central theme of John 6, His Eucharistic teaching. But let me suggest that the sign has additional meanings, apart from that central one.

One theme is that Jesus cares for His followers. He does not simply wrap up His teaching and send the crowd off to find something on their own. He does not run Jesus Inc. concession stands, selling “food for body as well as soul.” He cares for His followers, just as the first reading shows God caring for the crowd through Elisha the prophet, who also feeds a hungry crowd. Next week, we’ll hear about how God fed grouchy Israelites with quail and manna and, in two weeks, how He also feeds a somewhat testy Elijah to make sure he’s strong enough to reach Mount Horeb. This series of readings doesn’t include the account of Elijah ensuring the widow of Zarephath and her son have food in the midst of famine (1 Kings 17: 7-16).

God provides because He cares. As the Second Reading reminds us, He is “God and Father….” He is not a Deist windup “God,” who sets the universe in motion and goes fishing, an impersonal Prime Mover. He is the Father from whom all parenthood takes its origin (Ephesians 3:15). And no father leaves his children with stones, snakes, or scorpions when they want something to eat (see Luke 11:11-12).

Which has a lot to say about Humanae vitae.

Writing about the encyclical almost 50 years ago, the future Pope John Paul II posed a very challenging question: Why is “reaction against the Pope’s word … in inverse proportion to proximity to the ‘hunger belt’?”

Humanae vitae appeared in the same year as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, a book which was, in some ways, the anti-Humanae vitae as well as the sacred scripture of Zero Population Growth, an organization founded the same year to advance Ehrlich’s agenda. (ZPG today is called “Population Connection”). 

Ehrlich essentially served up a warmed-over version of Thomas Malthus’ 19th-century thesis about the arithmetic growth of the food supply versus the geometric growth of the population. According to Ehrlich, the 1970s and 1980s would already see mass world starvation from an out-of-control population outstripping food resources. 

For Ehrlich et al., mankind would be cutting each other’s throats over 5-20 barley loaves and two fishes. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs” was not just Pollyanna optimism; it was a recipe for downright global suicide.

But, as Karol Wojtyła observed, the people most bent out of shape about Humanae vitae seemed to be living in places like Germany, the United States, and Canada where food seemed abundant, even more so than in his socialist Poland, where market distortions led to occasional shortages, especially of meat. Could the problem lie elsewhere, perhaps in an inversion of values by which the “means of civilization” that provide for a better life have instead become ends in themselves, causing resentment toward the very lives for whom those means exist to support? Has “having” grown more important than “being?”

I do not propose to be a Pollyanna, nor do I deny that there are social justice issues at stake for how our economy is organized, issues by which that economy burdens rather than benefits those who have children. Wage stagnation, pressures on the middle class, the cost of raising a child are all issues worthy of attention, and which especially affect millennials.

But Ehrlich’s population bomb went out not with a bang but a whimper, although its advocates still push it, now under the cover of “caring for the planet” where human beings represent an unjustified “carbon footprint” and philosophers urge us to consider the benefits of human extinction (here and here and here). The societies that regard their own fertility as evil are the ones whose prosperity is most in question, because they lack the young to work and pay for the entitlements to which limited reproductive elderly have grown accustomed. The very societies that took the myth of the “population bomb” most seriously are those in the most imminent danger of disappearing … or at least needing to import a workforce to support them. The greater prophet seems not to have been Ehrlich or Malthus, but Jonathan Swift who, in a biting satire, suggested the way to address starvation in Ireland was to have the Irish destroy and cannibalize their own children.

Today’s Gospel also leads us back to the question of Providence. Once upon a time, Catholic couples affirmed that “God will provide….” The readings of the next few weeks subtly reaffirm that point. The question is: do you believe it or, rather like Philip, do you plan on controlling the situation but finding 17 days of work per Apostle?

A last word: once upon a time, Catholics were used to reciting grace after meals: “We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O, almighty God, who lives and reigns forever and ever, Amen. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” That prayer reminds us of several things: (a) even the food we eat is a Divine benefit; and (b) God, who “gives us this day our daily bread,” is “almighty.” 

From my childhood, I have added a third petition, which I adapted from Pope Paul VI’s 1965 Address to the United Nations General Assembly: “Please feed the hungry and ensure there is sufficient bread on the table of mankind, without reducing the number of guests at the banquet of life, Amen.”

Because a banquet that has no room for guests offers bread to choke on.