The Archbishop of Paris is Right: Humanae Vitae is Prophetic

Fertility is biological, but it is not just biological.

Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit attends a Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday in front of Sacre Coeur Basilica on Montmartre hill in Paris, March 30, 2018.
Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit attends a Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday in front of Sacre Coeur Basilica on Montmartre hill in Paris, March 30, 2018. (photo: Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Archbishop Michel Aupetit is a voice to listen to, not just because he is a bishop but because he is a practicing physician who brings rich medical experience with him.

July 25 marks the 52nd anniversary of St. Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae. As St. John Paul II noted even prior to his election to the papacy, the encyclical was a “sign of contradiction” for modern humanity, one that involves a “lively battle for the dignity of man.” Various authors even called Humanae vitae “prophetic.”

Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris has just written a short book about the encyclical, Humanae vitae: Une Prophétie. Archbishop Aupetit’s last sentence in the book sums up his argument: “Yes, Humanae vitae is an encyclical that remains prophetic!”

Archbishop Aupetit is a voice to listen to, not just because he is a bishop but because he is a practicing physician who came to a priestly vocation later in life and brings rich medical experience with him. He’s been an active voice in the French episcopate in pressing engagement on bioethical issues. As noted in the Register two and a half years ago when he became Archbishop of Paris, Aupetit brings scientific knowledge, professional experience, philosophical reflection and theological insight into the “life issues” that modern society faces.

He does the same in his new book, published by the Parisian publisher, Editions Salvator. Unfortunately, it is currently only available in French but deserves to be translated as soon as possible. (Attention any interested publishers — I volunteer to translate!) For the moment, these reflections must suffice. (All translations mine).

Archbishop Aupetit is clearly influenced by the sexual ethics of Karol Wojtyła/St. John Paul II, in both their pre-papal (Love and Responsibility) and papal (Theology of the Body”) forms. At the same time, Archbishop Aupetit builds on that inheritance, especially by providing explicit scientific data as well as drawing the philosophical and theological developments since the encyclical and the writings of Wojtyła/John Paul. He is especially impressive by tying the insights of Pope Francis and “integral ecology” into the picture. At the same time, he also employs what I would call a “subconscious phenomenology” — a use of phenomenology as a philosophical method or tool to make us look at our ordinary, everyday experience and ask ourselves honestly, “what is it telling us about ourselves?”

The first critical point that Archbishop Aupetit makes is to move the discussion of Humanae vitae away from the narrow issue of contraception. Too many people — including many critics — attack the encyclical they never read (which is why there is a link above) as being “just about” contraception. Archbishop Aupetit makes it clear that the starting point of this encyclical, implicitly for everybody but explicitly for Catholics, is “what is my vocation as a Catholic Christian in this sphere of life? What, especially, is my vocation as a Catholic Christian spouse?”

“Fertility is not simply biological. Because the Savior calls man and woman to fertility [see Genesis 1:28 — author] it is by/through their whole person. Fertility is not just biological. It is the first word that the Creator addressed to the human being after having created him. One could even say that it is a question of the one word that the Savior committed to man until he will be fully configured to the Word of Life. … Because it connects to the Word of Life, the fertility for which man is responsible has an eternal scope.”

Fertility is biological, but it is not just biological. “Not just” can have two meanings: encompassing something more or being reduced merely to. Both meanings are important.

Human fertility, a gift from God, is not just biological in the sense that it is not exhausted by the biological. Following Wojtyła, Archbishop Aupetit speaks of sex as physical attraction, emotional feelings, and an act of the will. Human fertility is not (and should not be degraded to) an act of rutting or a rush of hormones, even though there is a hormonal and estrous basis to human sexuality. But the Archbishop of Paris is clear that human sexuality is a matter of the hormones, the heart (feelings), and the brain (will). In fact, it is doubly a matter of the heart because, if we take the biblical understanding of heart as the seat of our conscience and commitments — “where one’s heart is, so is one’s treasure” –it is not just of feelings but of choices, sometimes chosen even in opposition to feelings.

That said, human fertility is not just biological in the sense that it can be reduced to the merely biological. Fertility is not some sub-personal rhythm within a man or a woman. It is an indivisible part of who that person is. To reject that aspect of the person is not to reject some “biological” substrate that is momentarily inconvenient. It is to reject the other person as being, here and now, momentarily inconvenient. That is not love. It is use.

Archbishop Aupetit develops the notion of the person as needing to love to become himself. A person must love — must accept the other as he is — to truly develop as a person. Aupetit in fact builds on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 by drawing out some additional insights to what St. John Paul II did in his original “theology of the body.”

First, in the creation of the human person (Genesis 1:26-27) a communion of persons is involved. Unlike all the other creatures that preceded the human person, the creation of human beings is not just an act (“God said … and there was”) but an interpersonal deliberation (“let us make man in our image”). God’s bringing the original man and woman in the world is preceded by a deliberate act of the (Triune) communion of persons just as every subsequent man and woman should come into this world amidst such an act of a Triune communio personarum (husband, wife, God — because this is a vocational act). God considered what he was doing (and no doubt foresaw the “inconveniences” he was preparing for himself through disobedience) but he gave life. Likewise, in bringing a new person into not just the world but — by God’s cooperation — into eternity, a potential father and mother should consider what they are doing (and no doubt not hesitate out of “inconvenience” nor reduce the meaning of their act to what John Adams called “sexual combustibility”).

Second, Archbishop Aupetit stresses the importance of sexual differentiation and complementarity to realizing what it means to be human. The man, fruit of his parents, brings his past with him but only through his gift of self to and receiving the gift of the woman is his gift capable of realization and only then is he and can he be opened to the future. His fertility is incomplete without her. Neither sex is complete or self-sufficient without the other.

Third, Archbishop Aupetit acknowledges that, while contraception and “birth control” (which includes abortion, since it “controls birth”) were argued to be essential to women’s “liberation,” he asks whether in point of fact that is true. Is it not still true, he asks, that responsibility and the consequences of fertility still fall primarily on women? Has not, in fact, the ethos of “birth control” introduced in opposition to Humanae vitae liberated men at the expense of women and the expense of genuine loving interpersonal relations? Is that “freedom?”

One casualty of that vision has been a subtle but extraordinarily corrosive shift in the way people think about parenthood and childbearing. “Love” shifts from a will for the other to a will for one’s own will. That self-centering of the will leads to turning all sexual morality into, essentially, “consent” — as long as two people agree, nothing is inherently wrong. But prescinding from the full truth about ourselves — including our fertility — means that at best we coordinate pleasure or make a contract for certain experiences, while calling it a “relationship” stretches (and snaps) that word.

In the end, it flows into how we see a child. Archbishop Aupetit does some of his own exegesis of Genesis. When Eve, the “mother of the living,” brings forth Cain, she says: “I have gotten” or “I have acquired” a child (Genesis 4:1). The focus is on her bringing forth a child. But that child brought forth supposedly by woman’s (and man’s) efforts proves to be the world’s first murderer, incapable of respecting another life in that world. When Eve later gives birth after Abel’s slaying, she names her new son Seth, saying “God has granted me a child” (Genesis 4:25). The focus on her receiving a child as a gift. A child is and always must be more than a “parental project.”

So writes the Archbishop:

This is the struggle experienced by the woman in the midst of childbirth: to self-appropriate the gift of life or to receive it from God. These two attitudes orient the life of a person, of a couple, of a child, of a family, and of a civilization.

It is, in the end, the core question of Humanae vitae (and shows why the encyclical is ultimately one about vocation). It is the attitude that underlies the ethic of choice and, ultimately, the culture of death.

These few words can only provide a foretaste of the challenging, thought-provoking, and potentially life-changing insights Archbishop Aupetit provides in his timely new book. May it soon find an English readership.