What are you saying?

Andrew L. Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse NY

I want to ask you a question.

We know that life has been maintained on earth through millions of years among the many living things, in spite of the fact that the conditions of life were and are constantly changing. Some forms of life which could not keep up with the demands of changes disappeared, while others, the more adaptive ones, took their places. Most of those which are alive today are well adapted to their environments and are endowed with sufficient genetic variation to respond to the changing demands. The secret of this success of life’s continuity is the slight genetic bias that takes place at each generation in favor of those which respond best to what is given. Those which function well in a given situation have a better chance to have offspring than those which are dysfunctional. As Charles Darwin put it in the Origin: through this process of selective survival, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. This is the dynamism of God’s creation, about which God says: “It is good.” (Genesis 1:12)

In human affairs, parallel with the biological evolution runs a cultural evolutionary process. As conditions change, we are to take what is given and adjust it to the needs of the times, and so give it to the next generation, who will do the same. The importance of this process of continuous adjustments has been expressed by the Second Vatican Council in the idea of aggiornamento, the practical wisdom and grace of adaptability. Without this process of continuous adjustments, dysfunctionality in an ever changing world would be unavoidable. And here is the question I want to ask: How come then that many among us are hesitant or even unable to apply this well proven wisdom of nature to our own affairs? I believe the cause is the conflict between our respect for tradition and the need for change. The Lord Jesus put it very neatly when he said, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old." (Matthew 13:52)

Some people feel that they would betray the tradition if they were to adapt it to the needs of the time. They look upon changes as deviations from our inherited true values. Accordingly, the only acceptable response for them to changes is to abandon them and to return to the original. Needless to say, in the earth’s biosphere, such refusal to be adaptive would inevitably lead to dysfunctionality and to extinction. The same applies to our own cultural affairs. If we were living in a static world our negativity toward changes in our values and behaviors would be understandable. But just as life around us and within us is dynamic, so must be our responses to its ever new demands. To avoid confusion, we should be clear about the meaning of adaptive change. An adaptive change retains the original idea or principle but renders its practical application timely functional.

To see more clearly what is involved here, consider the following example of a custom that has no major significance in matters of faith and morals. I have chosen this rather neutral example in order to leave our minds free to see the meaning of changes which adjust us to present needs. In the prayer, the Our Father, we say: “Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Instead, we could say: “Our Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The reason for the change is simple. We are saying the same thing but the way we say it is the way we speak today. A small difference? Certainly. But it is the understanding behind this small change that is of greater significance. According to this insight, the world is not standing still because it does not, and we are to keep up with it, or else.

Let’s take this argument a little further. In the Jerusalem Bible, in John 12:25-26 we read: “If a man serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too. If anyone serves me, my Father will honor him.” Of course, these words have been translated from the ancient Greek text of long ago into words of modern English in the not so distant past. I believe an even better translation today would be to write: “If you serve me, you must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too. If you serve me, my Father will honor you.” The difference between the two renderings is simply that the latter is inclusive, while the former is not. Being inclusive heals the evils of the many centuries old injustice of sexual discrimination of which we have become more aware in our time. By making the translation inclusive, the content has not been changed. The way, however, the original statements have been expressed in modern terms, rendered them meaningful for us today. Without this change, the quoted passage would become offensive for many of us because of its exclusively male orientation, and I may safely assume, that such offensiveness was neither part of the original text, nor was it the intention of the writer. Being inclusive today is closer to the original meaning, and is, therefore, more literal than being exclusive.

But let us go even farther. When we make decisions about moral issues the contrast between the two approaches, that is between the static conservative, and the evolutionary dynamic ways of thinking, becomes painfully obvious. Take, for instance, the general principle of love and respect for life. The practical realization of this principle is not the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. Why? Because many conditions of human life have changed since. In a society, where death rate was high, it was necessary to maximize reproductive success just to survive. In practical terms this meant that in the name of love and respect for life everything sexual had to be geared toward procreation. Responsible reproduction required the proper settings assuring that children were born in a stable and nurturing family environment. Since in those days the number of children born to a family had to be high mostly because of high child mortality, and life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, marriage, which provided all the needed conditions for proper child care, had to be totally procreative and literally meant a lifetime. Because of the many new discoveries of the medical sciences during the twentieth century, including proper hygiene, immunization, antibiotics and the ever new medical technologies, death rate has been significantly reduced while birthrate, because of an unadjusted traditional sense of morality, has remained high. This created a demographic imbalance, which then resulted in an unprecedented four fold increase in world population to over six billion in a single century with a threateningly short doubling time. (A quick way to assess doubling time in our situation is to take the ratio of 70 divided by the percent of growth per year. If the growth rate is 2%, the doubling time is 35 years.)

In our present conditions of demographic imbalance, the idea of maximizing reproductive success has become destructive and can no longer be the proper expression of love and respect for life. That is why the practical meaning of this love and respect today must be in the form of reproductive restraint. There is no doubt that the family is the proper environment to have and to raise children. Neither is there any doubt that the sexual context of the family life is part of what provides this steady, nurturing and loving environment. Because of the need for reproductive restraint, it is obvious that the primary aim of any deeper sexual interaction of the spouses today should not be procreative most of the time but unitive, that is supportive of their loving relationship. This emphasis on relationship and the need for reproductive restraint would not be possible without the effective separation of the unitive and the procreative aspects of marriage most of the time, and that in turn is not possible without making use of the available and ever improving contraceptive technology.

In the 1960s the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, strongly reaffirmed the principle of the inseparability of the sexual and the procreative in marriage by stating that every act of intercourse must remain open to procreation. By doing so he rejected the findings and clear advise of the many experts in a papal commission who were invited to examine this matter. The same principle has been reaffirmed again in 1995 in the encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, by Pope John Paul II, but this time without the interference of any commission. Today, for the sake of the much needed reproductive restraint, we must make the adjustment, that it is the married lives of the spouses that is to be open to responsible procreation, and not every expression of their sexual relationship. Some would argue that, because it has never been otherwise, such separation of the sexual and the procreative in marriage would be unnatural. Karl Rahner’s warning comes to mind: Something that has been historically stable for a long time, does not necessarily mean that it is part of human nature. (Experiment: Man. Theology Digest. Sesquicentennial Issue 1968, page 63.)

In our situation where birthrate is much higher than death rate, creating a runaway population increase, as we have experienced in the twentieth century, it is imperative for the sake of love and respect for life to reestablish our demographic balance by equalizing death rate and birthrate through some effective means. But how can we do that? The demographic equation, which is quite simple in itself, gives us the available alternatives. We can control a run away population growth either by reducing birthrate, or by increasing death rate, or by doing both. To do nothing at this point is not an alternative.

Armed with traditional values, the situation is loaded with the ambiguities and discomforts of a dilemma. No wonder that some people try to deny the need for adjustment and change. Of course, such denial provides no solution. And yet, for reasons of momentary personal gain, or even for reasons that may sound noble, some will refuse to accept the real threat of demographic imbalance and go into a state of denial. They may try to refuse to consider it, or they may try to make little of it, or they may be hard at work to identify the problem with something else. In view of love and respect for life, this mentality of denial is totally unacceptable. It is blind, irresponsible, and suicidal.

What then? To achieve the much needed demographic balance, some would recommend the use of Natural Family Planning. It is, however, very clear from personal accounts, medical and biological studies, and cultural biases, especially in developing countries, that NFP is neither natural nor planning. To recommend it as the only available means to act responsibly today is simply misleading and dysfunctional. What else is there?

There is no doubt that the single major cause of the demographic imbalance of the twentieth century was the progress in our ability to control diseases through the discoveries in medical sciences. Should then our response to the demographic imbalance we ourselves created be an effort to return to the “good old times” of high infant mortality and short life expectancy by refusing the benefits of medicine? There are some people who propose just that. But in view of love and respect for life we should embrace all things that promote life, and we should reject any control measure that directly or indirectly causes an increase in death rate. In context, abortion is on the top of the list of death promoting control measures, and so is the rejection of the benefits of modern medicine.

If we should not attempt to balance the demographic equation by increasing death rate, which includes abortion, then the only other possible alternative is to decrease birthrate by preventing conception. This can be achieved in two ways, either through the use of effective contraceptives while remaining sexually active, or by abstaining from sexual activities, notably from intercourse. It is well known that, except in rare cases, the latter is a destroyer of marriage and should not be recommended as a normal course for family life. This is clearly stated by the second Vatican Council in paragraph 51 of the section, The Church Today saying where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for its faithfulness to be imperiled, and its quality of fruitfulness ruined.

The conclusion is very clear. The only available practical means of responsible parenting today is through the effective use of contraception. It is unfortunate that some people cannot separate in their minds contraception from abortion. For them, both represent a statement of a materialistic and hedonistic culture implying that contraceptive use opens the road to abortion and promiscuity. I am sure that this is true for some people. I am also sure that this fear has nothing to do with responsible parenting where couples make use of contraception in order to achieve the much needed reproductive restraint. Are they then open to procreation? Yes. From the point of view of their lifelong marriage they are open to have children, but not as many as it would be biologically possible. It would be irresponsible today to follow the way of thinking of the past and to maximize reproductive success by demanding everything sexual to be also procreative. Does making use of present day contraceptive technology eliminates all possibility of conception? Not completely. The ‘failure rate’ of contraceptives always leaves the door open, at least to some extent, to the possibility of conception. If that happens, the child should be lovingly accepted and not aborted. I believe, that following these insights is the correct way to act responsibly today in the spirit of the age old principle of love and respect for life.

And here is some practical advise. We should use discernment in our contraceptive choices. Some are more suitable for some people than for others. We should also remember that some contraceptives are actually abortive in the sense that they do not prevent conception but prevent the implantation of an already fertilized ovum. Some of the intrauterine devices, and morning after pills are of this kind. They are to be avoided in all circumstances. For those who prefer the methods of natural family planning, the use of some form of contraception that regulates the menstrual cycles may be of help.