Do we understand the Pope?

In a recent allocution the Pope addressed some questions concerning Humanae Vitae. I have selected a few key points (see full text).

“And it is here that knowledge of the natural rhythms of the woman’s fertility becomes important for the couple’s life. The methods of observation which enable the couple to determine the periods of fertility permit them to administer what the Creator has wisely inscribed in human nature without interfering with the integral significance of sexual giving. …We may ask ourselves: how is it possible that the world today, and also many of the faithful, find it so difficult to understand the Church’s message which illustrates and defends the beauty of conjugal love in its natural expression?…Indeed, as we well know, not even reason suffices: it must be the heart that sees. Only the eyes of the heart succeed in understanding the proper needs of a great love, capable of embracing the totality of the human being.”

Outstanding here is the use of thoughtful and compassionate language which contrasts with the usual tone of pronouncements on this subject. There is no condemnation but an aspiration that we should grow towards a fuller understanding. Yet there are points which I think need fuller discussion.

First, there is an implicit acceptance that human reason is inadequate to demonstrate the truth of the existing doctrine. That of course we already knew. But it is not clear what is meant by “the eyes of the heart”. If this, as it would appear, is a subjective realisation then something more needs to be said about the many holy people, lay and cleric, who do not have this subjective realisation or from where it might arise – and how such a realisation could be imposed as universal and unqualified law.

Second, the “wisely inscribed in human nature” needs some attention. The natural, average, rate of fertility is somewhere between eight and 10 births, as 19th century records show. In that, and earlier times, such a rate was necessary to ensure that the human race grew only at a moderate rate – because of high early mortality. So we simply evolved that way. But in most of the world today such a fertility rate would not be supportable. This overhang from our evolutionary past (and there are plenty of examples of such overhangs) is no longer appropriate. The phrase “wisely inscribed” does not fit well with the way in which God appears to work through the mechanism of evolution.

Or does it? I look for answers from you


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Do we understand the Pope?

  1. Juliana says:

    In the context of this extract from Humanae Vitae, the Pope’s use of “wisely inscribed” appears to mean the infertile period of women built in to their monthly cycle by their creator, God.

    We, in the 21st century, know how to use this to our advantage, thereby reducing the possibility of giving birth to the 10-12 children able to be produced by a woman in her reproductive lifetime.

    What has this to do with evolution? I haven’t a clue….but we haven’t “evolved” in any physical way as humans since the most ancient of civilisations from the Sumerians onwards. Their women would have had menstrual cycles and an infertile period but they may not have been as aware of how this operated as we are, nor of how to benefit from it. Indeed, because of the high rate of infant mortality, they may not have wanted to benefit from such a “safe period”. But we do and we are able to so I imagine this is what is meant here.

  2. Glad you saw this. I am having trouble getting email out this evening, so no Second Sight News yet.
    You give me the opportunity to explain a little further. Formerly any woman whose fertility was such that she had few children was unlikely to produce enough progeny to survive and breed. Thus evolution favoured high fertility women. So modern females have inherited the level of fertility suited to the times when infant and child mortality was high. Of course anyone can take the view that God chose to set fertility at this level, but all the evidence is that God chose to work at the biological level through evolution.
    Evolution has a habit of being untidy What was required in primitive conditions is often not required, and sometimes disadvantageous, in a modern environment. Accordingly we use our God-given reason and ingenuity to get around these difficulties. Of course the Pope was using our impoverished human language which is necessarily metaphorical. But it seems to me to be possibly misleading to draw real world conclusions from a metaphor.

  3. Lucius says:

    Regarding the meaning of the Pope’s heart-language you say the following: “First, there is an implicit acceptance that human reason is inadequate to demonstrate the truth of the existing doctrine.

    Here’s what the Pope said:”Of course, in important human issues the technical solution often appears the easiest. Yet it actually conceals the basic question that concerns the meaning of human sexuality and the need for a responsible mastery of it so that its practice may become an expression of personal love. When love is at stake, technology cannot replace the maturation of freedom. Indeed, as we well know, not even reason suffices: it must be the heart that sees. Only the eyes of the heart succeed in understanding the proper needs of a great love, capable of embracing the totality of the human being.”

    I don’t think that the Pope’s language is saying that reason is inadequate to demonstrate the truth of the Church’s doctrine. The fact of the procreative meaning of sexual relations is manifest from the act itself. The destructive consequences of divorcing this meaning from sexual relations is also manifest: gay “marriage”, the legitimization of any kind of sexual expression as legitimate etc., etc.

    I think the problem is not with reason. The problem is the lure of technology and the inability to make distinctions. The human being is overawed by technical achievement and there is a subtle background premise used by the technocrats: whatever science can do, must be done and is good. The problem is not reason but restricted reason. The biblical meaning of “the heart” is not simply the feelings or anti-reason but the whole center of the personality.

    The warnings against a technology-approach to human activity has been sounded by Romano Guardini “Letters from Lake Como” and novels like 1984 and Metropolis. Restricted reason, techno-reason leads to the destruction of the human person. Natural law reason is not restricted reason. It involves the body-soul integrity of the human person.

    The divorce of the procreative meaning of sexual relations has led to a shift in the very meaning of marriage. Today marriage means whatever you want it to mean. Whereas the natural law/sacramental meaning indicate marriage is received and is social in nature. Thus it is not simply about the subjective states of happiness and reason of the individuals. It is about obligations and consequences of individuals touching the very basis of society and the Church which involve self-sacrifice and going beyond oneself and subjective states of self-satisfaction.

    Check out the subtext of all these male-enhancement commercials. A great marriage means male sexual satisfaction period. I think women would disagree. (A re-reading of Karl Stern’s “The Flight from Woman” is needed.) It comes from the contraceptive mentality, the divorce of the procreative meaning of sexual relations from the marriage act which point to realities beyond sexual satisfaction in the bedroom sense. Where does the message to young women, especially young women, that your fertility is a “disease” to be protected against come from if not from restricted reason and the contraceptive mentality coming from restricted reason? Too many folks look at the condom as the kind of mastery of nature as man taking on the artificial wings of the airplane allowing him to fly.

  4. RBlaber says:

    Would Lucius be against the condom as a prophylaxis against sexually transmitted disease? Would he be against any and all sexual practices (including foreplay) that did not have the capacity to result in procreation, even if those sexual practices were part of a couple’s lovemaking that included the procreative act?
    With regard to Juliana’s comments: I have made these points before, but I do not apologise for repeating them. By 2045, the human population of this planet will have reached 9.1 billion. That is totally unsustainable – there will be a Malthusian catastrophe on a colossal scale. There will not be enough drinking water, food or energy for all these people, and the impact of climate change will diminish their survival prospects.
    Given these facts – and I believe they are facts, and virtually irrefutable – the need to control human fertility is an absolute. If we don’t do it, we’re doomed. Humanae Vitae is a luxury we simply cannot afford, and the sooner the Church abandons it, the better.
    To try, as Lucius wants us to do, to hold on to the pre-modern ‘natural law’ reasoning that is the basis of Humanae Vitae’s thinking, is – to be brutally frank – both childish and futile. What he calls ‘techno-reasoning’ is what has given us modern science and technology, and all the insights into the workings of the Universe that have come with them. We cannot go on pretending that Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas represent the last word in philosophy!
    No: if we wish to find a place for the soul and the spiritual in the scheme of things, then we must turn to the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, and his interactive dualism. (Which is not say that we can afford to ignore later philosophers, such as Kant, or Wittgenstein.)
    A final point – re Juliana’s assertion that H. sapiens has not evolved since the Sumerian Civilisation flourished (3500-2300 BC). Broadly speaking, this may be true, but it rather depends what one means by ‘evolved’.
    Humans have been mutating steadily since the time of Y-chromosomal Adam (lived approx. 100,000 years ago) and Mitochondrial Eve (lived ~140,000 years ago). The mutations have been trivial, and quite unnoticeable, but they are detectable in our DNA, and this enables geneticists to place us all in different ‘haplogroups’, depending on which mutations they find.
    My Y-DNA Haplogroup is R1b, which means that, in terms of my patrilineal ancestry, I am a Western European descendant of the Cro-Magnons. However, as far as my matrilineal ancestry is concerned, my mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup is J, the founder member of which lived in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) about 50,000 years ago. Her descendants moved north-west into Eastern Europe about 10,000 years ago, which corresponds to the founding of the R1b Y-DNA Haplogroup by my distant male ancestor.
    Of course there are other mutations that have cropped up – many of which have been deleterious, genes resulting in hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, for example – but that does not rule out the possibility of beneficial mutations.
    Some geneticists have discussed the possibility of germ-line gene therapy, which would involve altering the DNA of a newly fertilised ovum in vitro before implanting it into its mother’s womb. The aim would be to eliminate a cystic fibrosis gene, if one were present, or to perform some other therapeutic action.
    However, it would be a very small step from there to making alterations for other purposes – such as to increase intelligence, athletic, artistic or musical ability, or whatever. A group of people calling themselves ‘transhumanists’ are active advocates of genetic manipulation of human beings – and cybernetic enhancement of human beings, too! One thinks of the Cybermen in ‘Dr Who’!
    The problem, I think, comes when science is unrestrained by common sense and ordinary human decency – when it goes ‘over the top’. That is the danger, and we must guard against it; but we are fools to ignore science because of the excesses of scientists.

  5. RBlaber speaks of the “possibility” of good human mutations. Just for the record, here are one or two. Black Africans tend to have wide nostrils; this enables them to cool the air as they ingest it. In cooler climates people have narrow nostrils to warm the air. Inouits are short and stocky: this helps to retain body heat in Arctic regions.

    Measured by IQ tests there are significant differences between races. Clearly the benefit of conventional IQ tended to prevail in those cultures where it gave an advantage. Other cultures benefited from different characteristics and so developed those.

    Of course these differences are marginal but in evolution even small differences count when advantage continues over many generations.

    Mutations related to fertility are particularly powerful because they act directly on breeding success.

  6. Juliana says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t quite understand Quentin’s points….
    He says
    1) Evolution favoured high fertility women.
    2) Modern females have inherited that high fertility.
    3) …but all the evidence is that God chose to work at the biological level through evolution.

    What does this last point mean if women have not “evolved” at all from the high fertility that so frightens RBlaber? Where is this evolution of the female from high fertility to the low fertility that would suit this age?

    It is true that there is a decrease in fertility, in the Western world, generally due to later marriages, STI’s or the feminising of men (perhaps because of oestrogen in the water supplies?) but this is not evolution, just modern living. Perversely the powers that be bend over backwards to provide infertile couples with babies via IVF and similar procedures, which negates their contribution of having less children in the world….however, abortion has eliminated millions and will continue to do so.

    It is not the Catholic countries that have the really high birthrates, but the Muslim ones, where they do not hold with limiting family size and can have up to four wives at any one time producing many more offspring than the average Catholic family. And of course atheistic China has millions more than any other country although they have tried to rectify this with potentially disastrous results… why do Catholics always get the blame for over-population?And the Pope is so often heaped with abuse by the anti-life groups….an easy target perhaps for people who do not think true?

    The South American countries are counted as Catholic and do have large populations but their growth rate is on average 1.25% which is less than the Muslim countries’ average.

    Most Catholic families who use NFP, as encouraged by Humanae Vitae, now have more information on how to use the safe period as more has become known about it. This is perhaps where the development lies ( or the “evolution”)…in the growth of biological knowledge and in the means to use it.

  7. Juliana, RBlaber can answer for himself – and usually does, but my point is much narrower. I am suggesting that the natural rate of fertility, which evolved at a time when circumstances made it necessary, is much too high, given low infant mortality. While evolution is the cause of this, it doesn’t work backwards because there is no evolutionary advantage in having lowered fertility. I am only questioning the Pope’s phrase “inscribed by God”, because it simply isn’t appropriate in terms of the way evolution works.

  8. Horace says:

    What RBlaber seems to be saying is that human evolution is proceeding but not quickly enough –
    “. . there will be a Malthusian catastrophe on a colossal scale. There will not be enough drinking water, food or energy for all these people, and the impact of climate change will diminish their survival prospects.
    . . . – the need to control human fertility is an absolute. If we don’t do it, we’re doomed.”
    This is the rather gloomy theory of Malthus.
    Question is; what should we do about it, if anything?
    The answer that RBlaber has in mind is clearly; Contraception, chemical, mechanical or both.
    Perhaps I should therefore say “these are not the rather less gloomy theories of Condorcet”?
    RBlaber dismisses Lucius contemptuously:-
    “Would Lucius be against the condom as a prophylaxis against sexually transmitted disease? . . . To try, as Lucius wants us to do, to hold on to the pre-modern ‘natural law’ reasoning . . is . . both childish and futile.”
    Does modern philosophy simply suggest that anything technologically possible may be done if it seems that the result is desirable? Or are there limits? And if so, what are they?
    Aside from the rather obvious remark that not having promiscuous sex is an even more reliable prophylaxis against sexually transmitted disease, can we advance any more inspiring counter argument?
    RBlaber’s suggestion is “The problem, I think, comes when science is unrestrained by common sense and ordinary human decency – when it goes ‘over the top’.”.
    It is in this context that I read Benedict’s statement –
    “When love is at stake, technology cannot replace the maturation of freedom. Indeed, as we well know, not even reason suffices: it must be the heart that sees.”

  9. Iona says:

    Quentin says there is “no evolutionary advantage in having reduced fertility”. – but in certain circumstances there is. Where resources are scarce, and only to be secured through grindingly hard work, a couple may be more likely to rear a small number of children to adulthood than a large number. – when I say “a small number of children”, I mean, via a small number of pregnancies rather than a large number of perinatal deaths, since pregnancy itself is demanding of a woman’s time and energy.

    Horace wonders what if anything we should do about a likely forthcoming Malthusian catastrophe. I think Malthus’s recommendation was for a great many of us to abstain from sexual activity for a great deal of the time (maybe going in for a contemplative lifelstyle instead…)

  10. Horace says:

    Re: Malthus’s recommendation above – I believe that was actually Condorcet, hence my comment.

  11. Iona, no doubt you are right. But I would think that the effect you describe is very small in comparison with the evolutionary advantage of large families. For example the total fertility rate in the US in 1880 (all women of childbearing age – married single, fertile, infertile) was 7.
    The problem about describing many historical evolutionary adaptations is that one can often do no more than look for the highly plausible. It can’t be definitively checked.

  12. Iona says:

    But how many of those 7 survived into adulthood?

    In some of the poorest African countries a woman has to give birth to 10 children in order to have a reasonable chance of being cared for in her old age by a surviving son (the tradition being that it’s the sons, not the daughters, that care for their ageing parents).

  13. Horace says:

    It may be of interest to expand somewhat on my brief comment of yesterday.
    What Condorcet actually wrote was :-
    “. . les hommes sauront alors que, s’ils ont des obligations à l’égard des êtres qui ne sont pas encore, elles ne consistent pas à leur donner l’existence, mais le bonheur ; elles ont pour objet le bien-être général de l’espèce humaine ou de la société dans laquelle ils vivent ; de la famille à laquelle ils sont attachés, et non la puérile idée de charger la terre d’êtres inutiles et malheureux.”
    From Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, “Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain” (Paris: Masson et Fils, 1822)
    ( which we may translate as:- “. . men will then know that if they have obligations in regard to beings who are not yet [conceived] these do not consist in giving them existence, but happiness ; with the object of the general well being of humanity or of the society in which they live ; of the family to which they are attached, and not the puerile idea of filling the earth with useless and miserable beings.”)
    Condorcet wrote this while in prison awaiting execution by the Jacobins!

    Compare this haughty belief in the power of reason with the humility of “not even reason suffices: it must be the heart that sees”.

  14. Some of the strands we have been discussing are neatly, if somewhat frighteningly, drawn together in these representative statistics, displayed by the latest World Population Survey
    They compare The Congo with Italy. The Congo’s increase in population, projected to 2025, is 65%; Italy, 3.5%. Lifetime births per woman are: Congo, 6.5, Italy, 1.3. Congo life expectancy at birth, 53 years; Italy, 81 years. Percent of population undernourished in Congo 74%; Italy, less than 2.5%.

    Italy, along with many Western countries (including those with Catholic traditions) have a problem with population replacement, and an aging population. Congo is just the opposite. 47% of Congo’s current population is under age 15; 14% of Italy’s is under age 15. In both cases fertility, health and population growth and shape are badly out of kilter. Clearly, solutions, if they are to be found, are multiple, and must differ dramatically according to different societies.

  15. Fariam says:

    I would just like to re-post a comment I made on another blog. And add that I see no conflict with evolutionary development. I do see a great need for pro-life education and for the freedom to pass on that pro-life information unhindered.

    It seems to me – as also in the case of artificial birth control, abortion, embyronic research and IVF – the more these areas are researched and the more pro-life alternatives are made available the less need there will be for arguments and practices which do not respect human life. Modern pro-life science, psychology and research – when allowed a voice – are clearly showing that they actually coincide with and uphold Natural Law and Church teaching.

    These sites provide valuable, up to date information:
    Life Fertility Care:
    Mater Care International:
    After Abortion:
    Rachel´s Vineyard Ministries:
    Abortion is the UnChoice:
    Adult Stem Cell research:

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