Humanae Vitae is about two communions of persons: husband-and-wife, and parents-and-child
Last week, in the context of Jesus’ ongoing Eucharistic teaching, we looked at the communion of persons which constitutes marriage. While marriage is a distinct institution, with its own identity, rights and duties, in real-life marriage typically leads to parenthood, which is the second communion of persons we need to discuss.
To form a real “communio” of persons, we need to know the value of the one with whom we are engaging. In a Eucharistic context, that Person is the Second Person of the Trinity. That is why discussions of “Real Presence” are not just theological dancing on the head of a pin: what—or more precisely Who—are you receiving? Are you receiving the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ, or an edible picture post card that “reminds” you of Jesus and His Sacrifice (mainstream Protestant Eucharistic theology)? Is it a Real Presence—or really an absence? These are not just idle speculations: presumably, what we do—our actions—should be meaningful, so the first question is “what are we doing?” Encountering the Lord, or just remembering Him? (This is why the intercommunion debate is not just a question of the “welcoming” versus “the teachers of the law” supposedly hung up about tradition).
The same when it comes to the communion of persons that comes into play when we consider the beginnings of human life. Last week, we considered the value of the person of the spouse. Since marriage should be a union of love, the value of the person means that we cannot “love” a spouse because of A and B (is physically attractive and emotionally compatible) but not C (is a fertile person. Note—a fertile person, not a person with fertility. There’s a difference).
Now, let’s consider the other pole of the communion of persons and the beginning of life: the child. The child is also a person. The child has the value of a person. A person has a right to be loved.
But child-persons are pretty little and are generally dependent on adult persons to recognize and affirm their personal value. And so, consider: because the unborn can’t speak for themselves, there are two camps that justify their dehumanization. One simply writes them off as “blobs of tissue,” disparaging their humanity. The other, less willing to acquiesce in unscientific ignorance, recognize that the fetus is “human,” but they ask, “is it a person?” And then they begin to load up all sorts of externally ascribed criteria – consciousness, reactions, birth, of the former from the latter.
But let’s consider the value of that child-person in the context of Humanae vitae. When people “plan” their families, they take values into account: the value of their money, of their health, of their lifestyle, of their plans … and the value of the person who could come into being through their acts. The question Humanae vitae really poses is whether, by arrogating to themselves the decision to prevent life from coming into being when one performs an act that can lead to that life (which involves accepting the spouse as he or she is at that time, i.e., fertile), one is reducing the personhood of the child.
The value of a person is incommensurable, i.e., it cannot be weighed against other things. That is why there is an old Jewish saying, used today to memorialize the “Righteous Gentiles” who rescued Jews during World War II: “he who saves one saves the universe entire.” You can’t measure a person against a sum of money, a plan or a vacation.
That’s not to say those other things lack value, but their value vis-à-vis a person is relative and subordinate.
Let me illustrate. A few days ago, driving to work, I was listening to one of those morning “drive time” light talk and music stations. The two announcers somehow got onto children (this particular station takes lots of advertising from a local chain of IVF clinics) and how disappointed one listener was because she wanted a “summer baby” but got a “winter baby” (i.e., born six months later).
Okay, but think about this: the gift of life, a value commensurate with “the universe entire,” is a problem for this parent because she had a baby in December instead of August.
And how often do we measure the “immeasurable” value of life against other, lesser values? For the larger culture, where abortion is in practice just another form of birth control, it’s a fact that most abortions are performed for what was once called “abortions of convenience,” i.e., no threat to the mother’s life or health or even because of the criminal circumstances of the conception, but because being pregnant right now conflicts with one’s plans. I know it is now politically incorrect today to use that term (which was in common parlance when abortion was debated in the 1960s and 1970s), because abortion advocates will tell us that an abortion is never “convenient,” but the truth is they also consider that prenatal life inconvenient. Consider, too, that even though abortion advocates are doing their darnedest to get women to “brag about their abortions” as a way of “normalizing” prenatal feticide, people still remain viscerally uneasy with Roe’s de facto unlimited abortion license.
But let’s not get bogged down in particulars, because the teaching of Humanae vitae wants to bring us back to the central question: why are you trying to measure the incommensurable value of the person of the child against other, contingent, limited, lesser values? That is what the encyclical is getting at.
Natural family planning is different from contraception precisely because of this attitudinal issue. In considering sexual intercourse with a spouse who could potentially be a parent, NFP says “while we could become parents, this is perhaps not the moment for that, so we will not do what could make that possible.” Contraception says “yes, we could become parents and what we are doing could actually cause that to happen, but—too bad—we don’t want the parenthood, although we want the intercourse, and will do all we can to stop that life from happening.” And this is why contraception inevitably and ineluctably leads to abortion (despite those who spread the fake news that “if we only accepted contraception we could reduce abortion”): if we think we have the power to do whatever we can to stop life, then why is conception so big a deal? In fact, as I said at the start, children’s voices are small or even silent, so it doesn’t take so much to ignore them or their value.
So, yes, when we talk about Humanae vitae, we are talking about two communions of persons: the spouse and I, whom love demands I respect the whole truth about (including the truth of their fertility) and the child and I, whose life may result from what I do (and cannot result from what I do not do).
So, as we wind up John’s catechesis on the Eucharist next week, let’s remember that the central question here is one of Communion: with whom are we in relationship and how do we relate to that other, through love or use?
Today’s First Reading talks about “wisdom” and “foolishness.” The wisdom of the Church is the wisdom of the person, the “wisdom” of the world a zero-sum game that pits the value of the person against everything else, trying to assign it a price. But what the Wisdom writer discusses today is epitomized—especially as regards human life—in a contemporary saying: “people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”