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The Leaven of Married Love: Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body

by Peter J. Colosi, PhD

This month, the Church celebrates the 44th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. There is a direct relationship between Pope Paul VI's Humane Vitae (HV) and Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (TOB).

In TOB 118.3, John Paul tells exactly which part of HV he intends to focus on:

The considerations I am about to propose will refer particularly to the passage of the encyclical that deals with the "two meanings of the conjugal act" and their "inseparable connection." I do not intend to present a commentary on the whole encyclical, but rather to explain one passage at greater depth.

Specifically, that passage is this one, from HV 11-12:

The Church...teaches that each and every marriage act (quidlibet matrimonii usus) must remain through itself open to the transmission of life. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.

Something very surprising happened in Church teaching on conjugal relations in the year 1930. In the encyclical letter Casti Connubii, par. 59, Pope Pius XI added a fourth end to the traditional three ends of marriage and conjugal relations. The traditional three ends are divided into primary and secondary ends. There is one primary end: the procreation and education of children (procreatio). There are two secondary ends: mutual help (mutuum adiutorium) and remedy for concupiscence (remedium concupiscentiae). To these Pius XI added what he referred to as a third secondary end: the cultivating of mutual love (mutuusque fovendus amor). This brought the total number of ends up to four.

Although Pope Pius referred to this love as a secondary end in par. 59, he referred to it in another way in par. 23 of Casti Connubii, when he said,

[C]onjugal faith...blooms more freely, more beautifully and more nobly, when it is rooted in that more excellent soil, the love of husband and wife which pervades all the duties of married life and holds pride of place in Christian marriage.

In this passage, Pope Pius describes the love between husband and wife as that which should pervade and make whole all the duties of marriage. In so speaking, he seems to take love out of the category of secondary end, and place it in the position of leaven to the entire marriage and conjugal life of the spouses, enriching and informing the way the couple lives out the three traditional ends.[1]

Since the time of Casti Connubii, The Church speaks in her moral pronouncements on married conjugal relations in terms of "two meanings": the unitive and procreative.[2] This changing of the language from the three traditional ends of marriage to the two meanings of marriage caused some confusion and debate in the Church. I believe John Paul II intended to resolve that debate when he wrote Theology of the Body.

In spite of the clear moral rejection of contraception in all her documents, some have wrongly thought that the new emphasis on the love between the spouses implies that contraception should be allowed. Those who dissent from official Church teaching on the "right" and the "left" both hold to the same false notion that the introduction of the "unitive meaning" into Magisterial documents opens the door to artificial birth control. Those on the so-called "left" go from there to argue that artificial birth control should be morally allowed. On the "right" the argument is that we must revert exclusively to the three traditional primary/secondary ends and then expunge all talk of "two meanings" from recent Church documents.

In his Theology of the Body John Paul II wanted to refute once and for all that false premise by means of a deep meditation on the spousal meaning of the body. Contraception by its very structure necessarily violates spousal love, and so the truth of the matter is that the love between spouses which is expressed and fulfilled in the unitive meaning of conjugal relations, confirms the never changing Church teaching against contraception and also deepens our understanding of it. To explain this takes effort, but once that is accomplished it becomes clear that the "two meanings" language represents a wonderful example of what Pope Benedict XVI calls a "hermeneutic of renewal."[3]

The publication of Humanae Vitae was certainly a flash point in Church history. Blessed John Paul II transcended the ensuing mayhem in an utterly unique way, and it seems to have been his special calling to do so. In his Theology of the Body his central concern was to explain the teaching of Humane Vitae, yet he knew that the only way to fully explain it would involve a massive undertaking of philosophical, theological and scriptural study to get at the very heart of love, marriage, sexuality and male/female complementarity.

And so we can say that Theology of the Body is a rich commentary on Humanae Vitae, meant to bring to light the goodness of its teaching by explaining the underlying reasons in a way that inspires the faithful to live it because they themselves understand those reasons.

Peter J. Colosi, PhD is assistant professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, PA. Here is a video (start at 6:35 for English) in which he presents his approach to John Paul II's Catechesis, and here is the website for the International Theology of the Body Symposia, which will soon have information about the upcoming Fourth Symposium in Fatima, Portugal June 13 - 16, 2013.





[1] See also Love and Responsibility, 66-68. On those pages, after affirming that the traditional three ends remain intact, John Paul goes on to express this view of love by pointing out the error of identifying love with the secondary end of mutual help. He says that this is a common mistake and leads to the separation of love from the primary end of procreation and the other secondary end of remedy for concupiscence. The truth, he explains, is that love imbues all three so that the couple pursues them properly.


[2] See, for example: Gaudium et Spes, 48; Humanae Vitae, 11-12; The 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1055 ยง1: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2360 - 2363; and throughout Theology of the Body.


[3] Pope Benedict XVI defined this term in his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia.



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