Scottish Bishop: Humanae Vitae ‘Is More Acutely Relevant Today Than Ever’

Bishop John Keenan says Paul VI’s encyclical ‘cast clearer light ... about the truth and meaning of the human person and sexuality in general.’

Bishop John Keenan
Bishop John Keenan (photo: Courtesy of subject)

Bishop John Keenan became bishop of the Diocese of Paisley, Scotland, in 2014.

During his priestly ministry, Bishop Keenan served as a parish priest, a university chaplain and a lecturer in philosophy at Scotus College in Glasgow, as well as vocations director for the Archdiocese of Glasgow.

He is committed to revitalizing the faith in the U.K. and sharing the truth of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). In an email interview with Register correspondent K.V. Turley, he said Western society’s rejection of Paul VI’s encyclical will continue to have grave consequences. He spoke of the dangerous “new crusade” in Europe against any person or institution that dares to reject the advances of the sexual revolution. For the Church to withstand the culture of death, he said, a “new catechesis” and the strength of “associations” are needed to equip Catholics to take their faith into the public square.


How do you see the culture of life in the United Kingdom today?

In British culture, the culture of life is perhaps at its lowest ebb ever. It is hard to think of a time in British history when there was an attack on human life on such a massive scale and for so long. The Abortion Act of 1967 has overseen what is approaching 10 million terminations of the lives of unborn children.

This human reality cannot but have a catastrophic impact on our cultural sanity, not least since every scientific and technological development in the past 50 years [could be considered] pro-life, endorsing the unique humanity and personality of the child in the womb, from discoveries in DNA and genetics to intrauterine cameras that give us real-time videos of children moving around, yawning, smiling and sucking their thumbs.

The effect of such evidence now right before our eyes has necessitated a shift in the pro-abortion argument. Now, it rarely claims “it’s just a bunch of cells,” since the camera does not lie, but simply ignores reality as it is, or, worse, admits there is a living human being in its mother’s womb but yet insists on a woman’s right to choose to kill it.

So today’s culture is one that has opted to say not all living human beings deserve to be called “persons” with absolute dignity and inalienable rights. Instead, it believes that it is up to the people to decide which human being qualifies to be a person and who does not. This is a tactic employed by other tyrannies down the ages who denied personhood to sections of humanity, with appalling consequences for those cultures.

In the end, all this amounts to what the great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed called a cultural insanity, defined as the flat denial of what is in order to live in a world of make believe.

As a philosopher, I have a strong conviction that such a denial of reality is pathological and can only end in the death of the culture itself, unless checked.


What is the particular part British Catholics have to play in building this? 

As in the past, when the Roman culture declined and fell, it was left to the Catholic Church to save Western civilization from the ashes. So it is again today. I do not see any other institution that can save Europe from itself but the Church.

Europe is now taken over by a neo-paganism focused on the sexual revolution as the first article of its creed. It is the belief that any sexual identity, orientation or lifestyle is valid and good so long as it is chosen from the autonomy of each individual and does no obvious harm to another. It defines as heretics to be burned at the proverbial stake anyone who should dare to deny this neo-orthodoxy. Thus, it is taking on the hallmarks of an intolerant religion engaged in a new crusade.

To respond adequately, Catholics need a new catechesis as the backbone of their New Evangelization. Effective catechesis, as [Cardinal John Henry] Newman said, forms Catholics to know exactly what they believe and why they believe it, to be able to see their faith all as a connected whole and to be able to give an account of it to anyone who inquires of them, or a defense of it to anyone who questions it. We are a long way from that today.

In matters to do with the culture of life, it means Catholics need to know much better the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics in Britain see this social teaching through the prism of left-wing politics, as though it were its manifesto, and this leaves them, quite rightly, full of admiration for politicians who are the voice of the poor, but quite disdainful, wrongly, of politicians who are the voice of the most voiceless of all, the unborn children. Catholics need to grasp that our social teaching is neither left nor right, but protects and promotes all that is authentically human.

After this, Catholics need a sense of evangelism that urges them to take their faith into the public square, for, as St. John Paul II noted, “Faith that does not become culture is not wholly embraced, fully thought out or faithfully lived.” Equally, we have to have a realistic sense that the Good News is not always “in season,” but is often “out of season,” so evangelization also involves standing up as a sign of contradiction to the values of the culture in order to transform them.

Finally, the same Pope encouraged Catholics to come together in associations to serve particular aspects of the common good. We are stronger together. He said that, although all “apostolate” has to begin in the heart of each person who wants to be involved ever more deeply, and continually, in discipleship in the Church, to do this effectively, nonetheless, he soon realizes he has to join a good group. Good groups work well when they witness to their shared communion and have a plan for how they can be ever more holy, faith-filled, fraternal and apostolic in society. This is the growing strength of the pro-life movement in the U.K., following the lead of the U.S.A. — our real strength is in association, in coming together to shout the message from the rooftops.


We are approaching the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. What relevance does it have today? And is this document just for Catholics?

Humanae Vitae is more acutely relevant today than ever.

Pope Paul VI addressed Humanae Vitae not just to the clergy and faithful in the Church, but to all people of goodwill. This is because he was convinced that the kinds of questions it raised and the teaching it gave were “based on the natural law,” which appealed to the mind, experience and conscience of every human person, of all faiths and none. He wanted to write it because the new questions modern technologies were bringing to bear on humanity required “new and deeper reflection on the principles of morality in relation to marriage.”

All that faith did was to cast clearer light and make more rich what everyone could and should already have come to know and accept about the truth and meaning of the human person and sexuality in general.

Indeed, Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis and perhaps the single most influential contemporary thinker on human sexuality, had already reached similar conclusions as the Pope, at least on this point. Famously he said that “the common characteristic of all perversions ... is that they have abandoned reproduction as their aim.”

He goes on to clarify his own intellectual position that “term(ed) sexual activity perverse when it has renounced the aim of reproduction and follows the pursuit of pleasure as an independent goal.”

Freud, of course, would have been no ally of Christian sexual mores. A closer associate might be the great Mahatma Gandhi, civil-rights leader of the Indian independence movement and man of peace. His views on contraception were equally candid. Noting the demoralizing effect contraception was having on Indian culture, he put out a warning to the nation: “It is said by protagonists of the use of contraceptives that conception is an accident to be prevented except when the parties desire to have children.

“I venture to suggest that this is a most dangerous doctrine to preach anywhere, much more so in a country like India, where the middle-class male population has become imbecile through abuse of the creative function.”

Just last year Cosmopolitan magazine ran an article aimed at trying to understand why millennial women were “turning away from the pill in droves.” While some cited fears about its negative impact on their physical health, discomfort and even links with depression, one woman, after she decided to go vegan, said she found herself increasingly aware of what she was putting in her body, and taking the pill started to feel incongruent with her new lifestyle. Cosmo concluded that “women are rejecting the pill in an emerging cultural backlash against hormonal contraceptives in general to try to reclaim autonomy over their bodies,” Kourtney Kardashian being only the latest convert to this emerging new feminist movement.

This is why Pope John Paul, in his “theology of the body,” chose not so much a theological method, but one that appealed to the personal experience of every human person. The use of Scriptures he employed were really only to bring into sharper focus the experiences and aspirations for wholeness and happiness in mind, body and relationships that are present in every human heart.


Do you see Humanae Vitae as prophetic?

I do not think I could put it better than Mary Eberstadt, who concluded that Humanae Vitae, “the most globally reviled and widely misunderstood document of the last half-century, is also the most prophetic and explanatory of our time.” 

The Pope predicted that the negative personal and cultural impact of contraception would be seen in four areas: infidelity and moral decline, lost respect for women, the abuse of power — including of industrial powers on the developing world — and people’s craving for unlimited dominion over their own bodies.

We now live in that contraceptive world, which is at the same time the home to wildly increased divorces, abortions, single parents and out-of-control venereal disease; it is a world of #MeToo, in which women feel more pressed and less valued that before; a global reality of the forced sterilization of countless women across Africa and forced abortions in China, which has entered a crisis of underpopulation, followed hot on its heels by Western Europe, which faces its own crisis of sexual orientation or gender identity and suicides, not least among the young, on almost-epidemic proportion. By any metric, it is hard to see, on the ground, how contraception has not made society much the worse and close to a crisis point. It is only the ideologues who will admit no evidence to the contrary, who believe this is what freedom and progress look like.

It is difficult to see how those who were skeptical or timid in the Church to support Humanae Vitae in past times can have much excuse for not giving it a fulsome endorsement today, in the light of the past 50 years of bitter experience.


What part does it play in the building of a culture of life?

In his biography of Pope John Paul, Witness to Hope, George Weigel noted how, at the time that Pope Paul VI was writing Humanae Vitae, he was reading Cardinal Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility. It led some to conclude that so much of what was to become John Paul’s theology of the body made its way into Humanae Vitae, that, published 10 years before he became pope, Humanae Vitae can be considered John Paul’s first encyclical.

Weigel rejects this, believing that not enough made it in, which is why, in the intervening decade, Wojtyła set himself to develop a coherent personalist anthropology, which he felt Paul VI’s encyclical was critically lacking and which would be necessary to ensure the deeper understanding and acceptance of the Church’s vision on human sexuality. In fact, John Paul stated quite unequivocally that the whole of his theology of the body was written as the necessary context for understanding Humanae Vitae.


Given so many recent setbacks on life issues throughout the British Isles and the many battles still to come: Are you hopeful for the future? 

George Weigel was prepared to play a waiting game for the social acceptance of Humanae Vitae around the world and called theology of the body “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”

“When that happens,” he concluded, “it may well be seen as a critical moment, not only in Catholic theology, but in the history of modern thought.”

I am personally convinced that the fate of our world so depends upon our coming to terms with the truth and significance of Humanae Vitae that our Western civilization will wither not be here in the future, or if, by the grace of God we still are, it will be with Humanae Vitae as the Magna Carta of our global culture.

K.V. Turley writes from London.