Christian Morality and Scientific Humanism

Author: Cardinal Luigi Ciappi


Cardinal Luigi Ciappi


It is not a mystery that the Encyclical Humanae Vitae—the tenth anniversary of which falls this year (25 July) has been the most debated document in the ordinary Magisterium of the Sovereign Pontiff Paul VI. It had been desired by him with firm resolution and far-sighted deliberation, for the purpose of "a new and deeper reflection upon the principles of the moral teaching on marriage: a teaching founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation" (n. 4).It was legitimate, therefore, to expect a brightening of the rather stormy sky of Catholic thought on the legitimacy or not of artificial contraceptive methods.

On the contrary, the Encyclical led to lively reactions and dissent, at least in a number of students of moral, ecclesiastical and lay disciplines. This has certainly not fostered the "unity in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor 1:10), wished by the Supreme Pastor (Enc. H.V. 28).

But the Pope was well aware that this universal concord, even if intended and ardently invoked by the Spirit of truth and love, would not be easy to attain; actually, he foresaw its failure, at least as regards its universality. In fact, he observed: "It can be foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all: too numerous are those voices... which are contrary to the voice of the Church. To tell the truth, the Church is not surprised to be made, like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction’ (Lk 2:34); yet she does not because of this cease to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical" (n.18).

Looking back at the decade since the publication of the Encyclical, an obvious question arises: What were the reasons that, like a stumbling block, caused the partial failure of a document of supreme importance, not only on the pastoral plane, but also, and primarily, on the doctrinal one? There were many. Leaving it to others, more expert, to consider them in a more adequate and thorough way, I will merely call attention to the dissent that has taken place around the quotation of St Thomas's thought. Speaking of "responsibleparenthood", the Pope states: "In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions; human intellect discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are part of the human person" (n. 10). In note 9, attached to this declaration, readers are referred to St Thomas: SummaTheologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2.

The question has been posed: "Does the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, to which Paul VI refers as the rational basis of his teaching, justify knowledge and respect of the functions of the biological processes. Or does it not rather encourage knowledge and manipulation of these functions, for the good of the human person, according to a wide interpretation of the principle of totality?" Has it not a view also towards avoiding greater harm or promoting the greater good of married couples, the family, and society, also on the international plane, such as is the planning of births on the world scale? (cf. Franz Böckle, Osservazioni teologiche sull'Enc. "Humanae Vitae", in the vol. HumanaeVitae, theologico-pastoral notes, AA.VV., Queriniana, 4th ed. 1969, pp. 124-125).

It is clear that, if the interpretation given by the Encyclical to the text of St Thomas betrays his thought, the teachmg of the Magisterium still keeps its real value as regards the true interpretation of natural law with regard to contraceptives; but it loses the support of the Common Doctor of the Church; and, at least in this case, he would lose the right to this title. The well-known saying should rather be applied to him: "Aliquando etiam bonus dormitat Homerus".

But, in respect of the truth, it seems that it must be recognized that, with regard to the morality of the conjugal act, the Doctor Angelicus did not nod, nor did the Encyclical Humanae Vitae abuse its doctrinal authority when it condemned also in his name the manipulation of the functions of biological processes, that is, the positive alternation of the latter, for deliberate contraceptive purposes.

We read, in fact, in the text of Summa Theologiae, quoted by the Pope: "The first principle of practical reason is based on the notion of good, good being what all beings desire. Here, therefore, is the first precept of the law: Good is to be done and to be sought, evil is to be avoided. And all the other precepts of natural law are based on it; so that all other things to be done or to be avoided belong to the law of nature, since practical reason knows them naturally as human goods.But all things towards which man has a natural inclination, are accepted by reason as good, and therefore as to be done, and their opposites are accepted as bad and as to be avoided; because good presents itself as a purpose to be reached, evil as the opposite. So the order of the precepts of natural law follows the order of natural inclinations. In fact we find in man, first of all, the inclination to that natural good which he has in common with all substances: that is, since every substance aims by its very nature at preserving its own being...

"Second, we find in man the disposition towards more specific, things, owing to the nature he has in common with the other animals. And on this side there belong to natural law 'the things that human nature has taught all animals' (Ulpian, De Iustitia et Iure,lib. 1), for example, the union of male and female looking after offspring, and other similar things. Third, we find in man an inclination towards the good which is in conformity with the nature of reason, and which is specifically human: the inclination, for example, to know the truth about God, and to live in society" (Vers ital., ed. Salani, Vol. XII, pp. 94,96).

Ontological personality

That the biological processes and their functions are part not only of man's specific nature, but also of his ontological personality, appears clearly from the following Thomistic definition of the human person: "The supposit is everything that the specific nature possesses as its formal and perfective part... Everything that is found in a person, whether it constitutes his nature or not, is united with him in unity of person... The operations, natural properties and all things that belong to nature in the concrete, are attributed only to hypostasis: we say in fact that this man reasons, laughs, is a rational animal" (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 2, aa. 2-3, ed. cit., vol. XXIII, pp, 72, 78).

It is, therefore, incompatible with the genuine thought of St Thomas to appeal to the dignity, the autonomy, the freedom, the dominion of man over his body, and to the real interests of the human person, to justify morally the manipulation of his biological nature; as though the latter does not share the essential dignity of nature and of the human person and is not also ordained to the good of the human composite and of the complete man, as a rational being, a member of the family and of society. This human truth is clearly seen also from another text of the Summa found in the treatise on the Holy Trinity. There St Thomas writes: "The person generally means an individual substance of rational nature... Therefore the person, in any nature, means what is distinct in that nature. Thus in human nature it means this flesh, these [bones], this soul, which are the principle of individuation for man; these things, though not being part of the meaning of person, are, however, part of the meaning of humanperson" (I, q. 29, a. 4; vers cit., vol. III, page 90).

But if we want a text of the Holy Doctorwhich lets us, know explicitly his thought on the serious evil of contraception, then we must have recourse to a work of his intended to enlighten also "all men of goodwill" (as is the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, by divine law Pastor of all redeemed humanity, because all men are called to form the one Mystical Body of Christ: the Catholic Church). This is what St Thomas writes in The Summa against the Gentiles (do not be scandalized by the title): "God has care for every thing in relation to its good. Now, for every being good consists in attaining its own purpose; and evil lies in moving away from the due purpose. And this holds good both for the whole and for its parts so that each part of man and every act of his must reach the due purpose. Well, human sperm, although it is superfluous as regards the preservation of the individual, is necessary, however, for the preservation of the species... Therefore the ejaculation of sperm must be so ordained that there may follow from it both the begetting and the upbringing of offspring. It is clear from this that all ejaculation of sperm, produced in such a way that begetting cannot follow from it, is contrary to man's good. And if this is done deliberately, it is necessarily a sin. I am speaking, however, of those ways according to which, of themselves, ("secundum se") procreation cannot follow: for example, all ejaculation of sperm without the natural copulation of male and female. If, on the other hand, procreation cannot follow from the ejaculation of the sperm because of some accident, it would not for this reason be contrary to nature and a sin: as when, for example, the woman is barren... It must not be thought that it is a trivial sin to produce ejaculation of sperm outside the due purpose of begetting and bringing up offspring, owing to the fact that it is a trivial sin or not at all a sin to use some other part of the body for purposes to which it is not ordained by nature... Because with these disordered uses man's good is not prevented in a considerable way. On the contrary the ejaculation of sperm contrary to ordained purpose removes that natural good which is the preservation of the species.Therefore after the sin of murder with which human nature already existing is destroyed, there comes in the second place this kind of sin, with which the begetting of human nature isprevented"' (From It. version by Tito S. Centi, Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1975, pp. 628-864).

Clear principles

It would be arbitrary and unjust, however to attribute either to St Thomas or to the Encyclical H.V. (as some people have done) the rigoristic idea according to which every conjugalact must have procreation as its purpose ("finis operis" and "finis operantis"). In fact, both St Thomas and the Magisterium of the Church are well aware that many conjugal acts cannot ("per accidens") have this purpose (e.g. in infertile periods, in barren individuals, after the menopause, in pregnancy), but both St Thomas and the Encyclical teach that no act, in itself potentially fertile, may be deprived of its fruitful capacity by a positive, free and intentional intervention. In this case, in fact, there would be a manipulation of human physiological nature, which is not justifiable for any anthropological, family or social purpose, even if the procreation and education of offspring are not the only legitimate ends of marriage.

It is opportune, finally, to point out that for St Thomas the evil of contraception does not belong to the "First common principles" ("prima principia communia") which express man's fundamental inclinations, both as substance, and as an animal or living being, and as a rational being. It belongs, on the contrary, to the "direct conclusions" by way of, or after the manner of, necessary deductions, be they near or remote. For example, the commandment which forbids killing is derived from the general principle that "one must not harm anyone". Such are the Ten Commandments.

I dare not tackle here the interesting and vast subject of natural law according to St Thomas. Just in the last few days a masterly work, fruit of many years of teaching, has come out on this matter, from the Dominican Father Reginaldo Pizzorni: Ildiritto naturale dalle origini a S. Tomaso d'Aquino.Historico-critical essay (Pontificia Università Lateranense-Città Nuova Editrice, 1978, pp. 522). The author, a lecturer in philosophy of law at the Lateran, St Thomas and Urban Pontifical Universities, reproduces and examines, in the first part, the main texts of various authors, including St Thomas. In the second part, he examines systematically the naturalness, historicity and dynamism of natural law in the classical Thomistic definition of "participation of eternal law in the rational creature".

I do not presume that I have offered readers an adequate defence of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae even as regards the quotation of St Thomas. I think, however, that it is possible and necessary, taking into account also the valuable critical study of Fr Pizzorni who aligns himself with the best interpreters, ancient and modern. In conclusion, I point out that it is comforting to find oneself in agreement in defence of Paul VI's Encyclical, against the accusations of ultraconservatorism, physicism and biologism, also with scientists such as Prof. P.P. Grasset of the Academy of Sciences, France. The latter wrote in Le Figaro of 8 October 1968: "The Pope has spoken as defender of the individual and of the whole of mankind. The Encyclical H.Y. ensures in an elevated way the maintenance of Christian doctrine and morality and also the development of true scientific humanism. The Encyclical is in harmony with the data of biology, it reminds doctors of their duties, and starts man along a way in which his dignity, both physical and moral, will not undergo any aggression. For us, the controversy is closed" (quoted by P.E. Lio, O.F.M., in the volume in collaboration: Medicina e Morale, Tip.Poligl. Vatic., 1968, p. 153).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 May 1978, page 7

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