Humanae Vitae: what if?

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna has long been a vocal supporter of Humanae Vitae’s teaching on the morally appropriate means of family planning. So it was noteworthy that Cardinal Caffarra recently conceded that, while Humanae Vitae’s conclusions were true, its presentation of those truths left something to be desired. As the cardinal put it, “No one today would dispute that, at the time it was published, Humanae Vitae rested on the foundations of a fragile anthropology, and that there was a certain ‘biologism’ in its argumentation.”

Which put me in mind of a document I discovered in 1997 in a dusty Cracovian library while ingesting copious amounts of antihistamines: “The Foundations of the Church’s Doctrine on the Principles of Conjugal Life.” Its somewhat academic title notwithstanding, that document represents one of the great “what if” moments in modern Catholic history.

The document was the final report of a theological commission established in 1966 by the archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, to help him in his work on the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate, inevitably dubbed the “Birth Control Commission” by the world media. According to one of the document’s authors, Father Andrzej Bardecki, the Polish theologians on Wojtyla’s commission had seen two drafts of an encyclical on conjugal morality and fertility regulation. One had been prepared by the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); it strung together various papal statements on the issue without even mentioning Pius XII’s endorsement of natural family planning. And that, Bardecki told me, struck the Cracow theologians as “stupid conservatism.” The other draft had been sponsored by German cardinal Julius Doepfner; it represented a grave misreading of what God had inscribed in human sexuality “in the beginning,” the Cracovians believed, and did so in a way that emptied individual choices and acts of their moral significance.

So: were the only options “stupid conservatism” or the deconstruction of Catholic moral theology?

The Cracovians didn’t think so. They thought the truth of the Church’s teaching about conjugal morality and fertility regulation could be presented in a humane and personalistic way: one that acknowledged both the moral duty to plan one’s family and the demands of self-sacrifice in conjugal life; one that affirmed methods of fertility-regulation that respected the body’s dignity and its built-in moral “grammar;” one that that recognized the moral equality and equal moral responsibility of men and women, rather than leaving the entire burden of fertility-regulation on the wife. In proposing this fresh presentation of classic moral truths in a delicate area of pastoral care, the Cracovian theologians drew on the pioneering work done by their archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, in Love and Responsibility – work that Wojtyla, as John Paul II, would later develop in the Theology of the Body.

And so, what if? What if Paul VI had adopted the Cracovian approach to presenting the truths he taught in Humanae Vitae? What if the encyclical had been built upon a less formalistic, even abstract, view of the human person and human sexuality? What if Humanae Vitae had deployed a richly-textured and humanistic anthropology that was not susceptible to the charge of “biologism”?

1968 being the year it was, and the theological politics of the moment being what they were, there would still have been an uproar, I expect. But had the Cracovian report provided the framework for Humanae Vitae, the Church would have been better positioned to respond to that uproar.

The Catholic Church now has ample materials with which to make sense of, teach, and apply its settled convictions on the morality of marital love and procreation: the Theology of the Body; John Paul II’s magnificent 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio; the pastorally sensitive 1997 Vademecum for Confessors on the Morality of Certain Aspects of Conjugal Life. And we have a brilliant analysis of the effects of a contraceptive culture in Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill (Ignatius Press), which is must-reading for every bishop attending the upcoming synods on the family.

Still, I wonder: what if?

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.