Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Twenty years ago this November, I was in Rome, where I had been invited to present a paper during the Second International Congress in Moral Theology. The event especially commemorated the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae; about a dozen Americans working in theology or philosophy were asked to take part.

The participants included scholars of the first magnitude; e.g., ethicist William E. May, philosopher Ralph McInerny, moral theologians Bishop James T. McHugh and Msgr. William Smith; theologian Janet E. Smith (her summation followed my own), famed geneticist Dr. Jerome Lejeune (denied a Nobel Prize, probably because of his refusal to validate the morality of abortion), and two of Pope John Paul II’s “closest collaborators” in ethics: Professors Andrzej Szostek and Tadeusz Styczen. (John Paul used the phrase “closest collaborators” of these two scholarly priests, who succeeded to the Chair of Ethics Professor Wojtyla held prior to becoming Pope.) I had already met Father Szostek in Baltimore, during the 1987 national convention of the American Catholic Philosophical Association; but I met Father Styczen for the first time in Rome. Both world-class theologians worked at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), where John Paul taught for so long.

The paper I presented was entitled, “Toward an Integral Presentation of ‘Humanae Vitae’ and ‘Familiaris Consortio’ in the Seminary Curriculum.” (See “Humanae Vitae”: 20 Anni Dopo, Milan: Edizioni Ares, 1988). In it I argued for a multifaceted approach to explain Paul VI’s masterful document, viewed as a unit alongside John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. (See lead Editorial on this page.) In my own words:

“Humanae Vitae must be taught, studied, and pondered in the seminary; no priest can be doctrinally in union with his bishop and the Roman Pontiff unless he is capable of, willing, and ready to teach and defend this doctrine in his preaching, in his catechesis, in his counsel within the sacramental forum of Penance and outside it, in his office as pastor or religious educator, and indeed, in his daily witness as a priest whose office cannot be clearly separated from his person. Such capability, willingness and readiness begin in seminary academics and formation.”

A certain and most helpful guide to implement such a task is through the doctrine of personalism, as set forth in Lublin Existentialism. In my own presentation, again: “Conjugal union is in Catholic doctrine a mystery entailing a communion of persons. Conjugal union is not merely a bodily union, much less the joining of gametes. Conjugal communion, which has a language given it by God, is expressed through the body in accordance with God the Creator’s will; John Paul II speaks of the ‘nuptial meaning’ of the body.

“Sexuality ultimately pertains to the person, therefore; masculinity and femininity go to the very soul of each man and woman. The human being must always be viewed in his totality, body and soul, soul and body. This is not to downgrade the body; the fact that Catholic theology considers the body so noble should not surprise anyone who reflects upon the meaning of the Incarnation. ‘Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh,’ declared Pope John Paul II in a General Audience, ‘the body entered theology – that is, the science, the subject of which is divinity, I would say – through the main door. The Incarnation – and the Redemption that springs from it – became also the definitive source of the sacramentality of marriage…’

“Sexuality, thus, does not pertain to the body alone, but to the total person, body-spirit composite. Marriage is a union of persons united in life-giving fidelity. When, therefore, it is taught that the life-giving (procreative) meaning of the conjugal act cannot morally be separated from the love-giving (unitive) meaning, the discussion proceeds from this personalistic basis, and not that of physicalism.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prior to becoming Pope, magnificently emphasized this very doctrine in a press conference on Donum Vitae (1987).

Incidentally, I was privileged to be invited to another outstanding meeting marking the 20th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, in August 1988. That one took place at Princeton University, and it was also most memorable. About that, I shall share some thoughts on another occasion.

As for the Roman event in 1988, it closed with a special audience with Pope John Paul II in the Clementine Hall. That was an experience which everyone on hand is sure to keep in his or her memory forever.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.