Paul II - Theology of the Body
A Discipline That Ennobles
General Audience, August 28, 1984
1. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae,
while demonstrating the moral evil of contraception, at the same
time fully approves of the natural regulation of fertility and, in
this sense, it approves of responsible parenthood. Here one must
exclude the possibility of describing as "responsible" from the
ethical point of view that procreation in which recourse is had to
contraception in order to regulate fertility. On the contrary, the
true concept of responsible parenthood is connected with the right
and lawful regulation of fertility from the ethical viewpoint.
2. We read in this regard: "The right and lawful ordering of the
births of children presupposes in husband and wife first and
foremost that they fully recognize and value the true blessings of
family life, and secondly, that they acquire complete mastery over
themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of
free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no
doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the
expression of love, particular to married life, conform to right
order. And this is especially true as regards the practice of
periodic continence. But self-discipline of this kind is a shining
witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, so far from being a
hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a
more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand
that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same
time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to
the full their personalities and be enriched with spiritual
blessings..." (HV 21).
The proper attitude
3. The Encyclical then points out the consequences of such a
line of conduct not merely for the couple themselves but also for
the whole family understood as a community of persons. It will be
necessary to treat this subject again. The encyclical underlines
that a right and lawful regulation of fertility demands above all
from husband and wife a definite family and procreative attitude.
That is to say, it requires "that they acquire and possess solid
convictions about the true values of life and of the family" (HV
21). Beginning from this premise, it was necessary to proceed to an
overall consideration of the question as the 1980 Synod of Bishops
did (cf. On the Role of the Christian Family). Later, the doctrine
concerning this particular problem of conjugal and family morality,
treated of in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, found its proper place
and fitting perspective in the comprehensive context of the
Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. The theology of the
body, especially as the pedagogy of the body, has its roots, in a
certain sense, in the theology of the family and, at the same time,
leads to it. This pedagogy of the body, whose key today is the
Encyclical Humanae Vitae, is explained only in the full context of a
correct vision of the values of life and of the family.
4. In the text quoted above, Pope Paul VI refers to conjugal
chastity when he writes that the observance of periodic continence
is the form of self-mastery in which conjugal chastity is manifested
(cf. HV 21).
In undertaking now a deeper analysis of this problem, it is
necessary to bear in mind the whole doctrine on chastity understood
as the life of the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:25), already considered by us,
in order to understand the respective statements of the encyclical
on the theme of periodic continence. That doctrine remains indeed
the real reason, beginning from which the teaching of Paul VI
defines the regulation of births and responsible parenthood as
ethically right and lawful.
Even though the periodicity of continence in this case is applied to
the so-called "natural rhythms" (HV 16), the continence itself is a
definite and permanent moral attitude. It is a virtue, and therefore
the whole line of conduct guided by it acquires a virtuous
character. The Encyclical emphasizes clearly enough that here it is
not merely a matter of a definite technique, but of ethics in the
strict sense of the term as the morality of conduct.
Therefore, the Encyclical opportunely sets out in relief, on the one
hand, the necessity to respect in the above-mentioned line of
conduct the order established by the Creator, and on the other hand,
the necessity of an immediate motivation of an ethical character.
5. In regard to the first aspect we read: "To experience the gift of
married love while respecting the laws of conception is to
acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life, but
rather the minister of the design established by the Creator" (HV
13). "Human life is sacred"—as our predecessor of holy memory, John
XXIII, said in his Encyclical Mater et Magistra—"from its very
beginning it involves directly the creative action of God" (AAS 53,
1961; cf. HV 13). As regards the immediate motivation, the
Encyclical Humanae Vitae requires that "there exist reasonable
grounds for spacing births, arising from the physical or
psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external
circumstances..." (HV 16).
Living by the Spirit
6. In the case of a morally upright regulation of fertility effected
by means of periodic continence, one is clearly dealing with the
practice of conjugal chastity, that is, of a definite ethical
attitude. In biblical language we could say that it is a case of
living by the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:25).
The morally correct regulation is also called "the natural
regulation of fertility," which can be explained as conformity to
the natural law. By natural law we mean that order of nature in the
field of procreation, insofar as it is understood by right reason.
This order is the expression of the Creator's plan for man. It is
precisely this that the encyclical, together with the whole
Tradition of Christian teaching and practice, stresses in a
particular way: the virtuous character of the attitude which is
expressed in the natural regulation of fertility is determined not
so much by fidelity to an impersonal natural law as to the
Creator-Person, the Source and Lord of the order which is manifested
in such a law.
From this point of view, the reduction to a mere biological
regularity, separated from the order of nature that is, from the
Creator's plan, deforms the authentic thought of the Encyclical
Humanae Vitae (cf. HV 14).
The document certainly presupposes that biological regularity.
Indeed, it exhorts competent persons to study it and to apply it in
a still deeper way, but it always understands this regularity as the
expression of the order of nature, that is, of the providential plan
of the Creator, in the faithful execution of which the true good of
the human person consists.
Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 3
September 1984, page 1
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