Pro-Life and Social Justice: ‘Humanae Vitae’ Helps Catholics Breathe Out of Both Lungs

COMMENTARY: Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical — like the moral teachings of the Church more broadly — is both a pro-life and traditional encyclical and a progressive social encyclical.

Pro-lifers hold signs on Aug. 22, 2015, in front of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Clinic on Bleecker Street in New York City.
Pro-lifers hold signs on Aug. 22, 2015, in front of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Clinic on Bleecker Street in New York City. (photo: a katz / Shutterstock)

Many of the debates over Humanae Vitae are as old as the 1968 papal document itself. Much of it has been intense — indeed, I can very clearly remember a time in the Church in the U.S. (importantly, most of the dissent from Paul VI’s great encyclical has been very Western, very white and very privileged) when schism was on the tip of many Catholic tongues unless this “teaching not received” was overruled.

I can remember the time very clearly because folks in my circles — myself included — were saying such things. But through the grace of God (which showed up as loving and patient mentors, colleagues and friends, helping me learn new things), and through more research and life experience, I came to very different conclusions about the encyclical. Indeed, each year that goes by I become more convinced that it is one of the most important set of teachings the Church has ever proposed.

One of the key global insights that cleared the conceptual space for me to take Humanae Vitae more seriously was understanding that it is not a “right wing” or “conservative” encyclical. At the time I was so opposed to Humanae Vitae I was very interested in having a tribal identity with the left, and part of what this meant in Catholic circles was the largely unstated assumption that Humanae Vitae was contemptible.

It should have given me pause that Humanae Vitae came from the pen of St. Paul VI, the pope who finished Vatican Council II and instituted its reforms. He was also the pope who published so-called “social” encyclicals like Populorum Progressio, which insisted that an essential part of what it means to be Catholic is having a preferential option for the poor and that private property is under a social mortgage for the common good. Indeed, Humanae Vitae was thought by many to be the encyclical that broke the heart of St. Paul VI — he found the level of outrage (again, mostly in Europe and the United States) such a shock to his system because he saw Humanae Vitae, though challenging, as consistent with the social-justice trajectory of his pontificate.

Unfortunately, both Paul VI and Humanae Vitae got subsumed into one of the most terrible infections that the Church in the U.S. has ever had the misfortune of acquiring: that of the right/left antagonistic ideology. Importing categories and assumptions from the surrounding secular culture, we came to imagine ourselves as having pro-life and traditional points of view at war with progressive and social-justice points of view.

But Humanae Vitae — like the moral teachings of the Church more broadly — is both a pro-life and traditional encyclical and a progressive social encyclical. (I now assign it as part of my “Catholic Social Teaching” course at the seminary.) Once you look at it through that lens, it opens up a new and better way to see the coherence of Catholic moral theology.

But don’t take my word for it: Take the word of Planned Parenthood.

In some ways, what we have here is the inverse of the Church’s consistent moral vision, but it is worth noting that Planned Parenthood recognizes logical connections between issues. I’ve done a lot of my academic work in conversation with the work of Peter Singer — someone who also sees logical connections between issues as the Church does but reasons in quite a different way. Singer’s way gets him to infanticide of newborn children and euthanasia of those with disabilities that make them less than rational and self-aware. Planned Parenthood’s way (today) goes from abortion rights to the right to birth control and (so-called) gender-affirming care. Historically, however, they went to the right to birth control first and then to the right to abortion. This, as we will see below, will become very important indeed.

The throughlines in the Church’s logically consistent approach to these issues are based on an embodied vision of the human person in which the body reveals much about God’s will for our having a happy and flourishing life as the kinds of creatures God made us to be. As disability-rights groups remind us, we are not our capacity for certain traits (like independence, rationality, self-awareness, intelligence, etc.) — rather, we are human beings, ensouled human animals. And the will of God for us is revealed in significant ways based on how our bodies have been created to function.

This insight has implications for multiple areas of human life, obviously, but Humanae Vitae was primarily concerned with the new questions raised by birth control in 1968 for much of the Western world. Concerned with God’s loving design of sex within marriage, sex evidently plays two main roles: one unitive and one procreative. Intentionally resisting either of these God-given purposes and plans, Humanae Vitae taught, intentionally resisted God’s design and is therefore sinful.

But the encyclical is not interested in merely contextless moral precepts like connecting sex and procreation. On the contrary, it is very much aware of the social context into which it is speaking. Humanae Vitae specifically invokes “economic, psychological, and social conditions” as “serious reasons” which could lead to legitimate choices not to have children — whether through not having sex or by having sex only during infertile periods given to us by God.

The encyclical is clear that mitigating these very real concerns, however, requires a social response. Indeed, it argues quite directly that the perceived social need for contraception comes from “an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children.” Humanae Vitae insists that, in light of these realities, there “must be no relaxation in the programs of mutual aid between all the branches of the great human family.”

But the social concern of Humanae Vitae was not limited to what responsible parenthood should look like. It was also very concerned with what would happen to the culture — and especially to vulnerable populations — if the logic of the contraceptive mentality separating sex and openness to procreation were to take hold.

St. Paul VI could not have known how right he would become in the specifics: the collapse of marriage and the social effects this has had on children, the rise in the sexual use of girls and women (especially via hook-up culture, sexting and sites like OnlyFans and the ubiquity of unlimited porn), the structurally coercive control of population rates, the unholy combination of consumerist eugenics and artificial reproduction, and so much more.

Part of the “so much more” is the explosion of abortion violence that accompanied the widespread use of contraceptives. Those responsible for Planned Parenthood’s business model understand the connection between the contraceptive mentality and abortion better than most Catholics do: Once sex is stripped of the sense that the partners involved could be responsible for the life such an act is designed to create, the recourse to abortion follows. The fact that abortion is now considered the fail-safe for contraception is what keeps Planned Parenthood financially viable.

Another area in which St. Paul VI taught better than he could have known regards so-called gender-affirming care. Planned Parenthood, again, sees the connection better than most Catholics do. One of the prominent exceptions to this is Notre Dame professor and author Abigail Favale, who, in her magisterial book The Genesis of Gender, shows in considerable detail how the separation of procreation from sexual embodiment has led to an understanding (in many circles, though certainly not all) of sex and/or gender identity understood as something entirely separate from sexual embodiment.

Significantly, the Church’s response to the culture’s push for abortion and gender-affirming care — like the response of Humanae Vitae to contraception — is not merely about affirming contextless moral precepts. On the contrary, the Church has very significant ministries geared toward supporting people who have been hurt in these areas and works to both support women and families facing difficult pregnancies and to provide appropriate medical care to persons with gender dysphoria.

Can we do better on the social-support front? Absolutely, yes. Frankly, it is an urgent need. And one obvious way to meet that need would be for a unified Catholic faithful to reject our destructive right/left antagonistic ideological framework and find ways to work together to find the social support required for wounded, vulnerable human beings to have as few obstacles as possible put between them and the will of God for their lives.

Let us therefore refuse to choose between the Catholic left or the Catholic right and instead, united in the fullness of the Church’s teaching and wisdom, breathe out of both our pro-life and social-justice lungs as we pursue the truth in love.