Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae cuts across modernity’s default epicurean position by insisting that sexuality is a profound participation in hope, an affirmation that every God-given human life has inestimable worth, not a negotiable value…

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae. Like most of our sister institutions in the Cardinal Newman Guide, Wyoming Catholic College would probably not exist today without this encyclical’s courageous articulation of the position of the Church on crucial matters of sexuality. Most of our students come from families large and open to life. One of the joys my wife and I have being at Wyoming Catholic is seeing the burgeoning families of our young faculty members, since we live far from our own children and grandchildren. Several times a year, there is another baptism, another child to welcome into the Church and the community—most recently, Anastasia Perpetua Olsson last Sunday.

The fact that Humanae Vitae was controversial in 1968 and remains so today says more about the default Epicureanism of the modern world than it does about rights of private conscience or responsibility to the planet. Two questions, then, before I get back to Humanae Vitae: first, what is Epicureanism, and second, why is it the “default” philosophy of our age?

Epicureanism is not simply the pursuit of physical enjoyment—eat, drink, and be merry—but a deeper and more subtle attachment to pleasure. It is rooted in the belief that the whole complex universe came into being, not through the design of a Creator, but from the chance combination of atoms over unthinkably vast periods of time. Everything, including the soul and the phenomenon of life, is material in nature since it comes from these atoms. The soul dies with the body—but Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius taught that, instead of being a matter of dread, understanding death liberates man from fear of the gods or the afterlife. Life has no intrinsic meaning. The rational way to live, then, is to find the real pleasures that life offers; of these, the physical ones (including drugs) are a fairly minor subset, especially since excess always leads to miseries, whereas pleasures of the mind, from the highest art to popular entertainments of all sorts, have no such downside.

Something like this view pervades contemporary culture. When I say that most people in our culture are epicurean by default, I do not mean that they consciously adhere to this ancient philosophy but that they organize their lives—more or less effectively—around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Still, ancient Epicureanism is not far off, because everyone knows that the modern scientific view of our origins seems to affirm the chance combination of atoms over vast amounts of time. Against this backdrop of essential meaninglessness, rights are conceived as the free choice of personal pleasures.

If choosing pleasure means the avoidance of entangling involvements, then children are a major problem—at least children beyond the cute and cuddly stage, or exceeding in number the socially approved allotment, or unduly complicating matters, such as those with Down syndrome. Why not think in terms of comfort and money? It’s not that everyone can simply choose these things, but it’s endlessly diverting to be able to buy engaging new technology, to enjoy the best entertainment, to buy good books and pursue intellectual interests at leisure, to travel—to do all the things that make life easy and pleasant until death comes and puts an end to everything. One of the major advocates of contemporary Epicureanism, Stephen Greenblatt, finds this understanding already firmly in place in the 16th century French essayist Montaigne, who “clung to the importance of his own senses and the evidence of the material world, intensely disliked ascetic self-punishment and violence against the flesh, and treasured inward freedom and contentment.”

Humanae Vitae cuts across this default position (which might be understood spiritually as acedia and implicit despair) by insisting that sexuality is a profound participation in hope, an affirmation that every God-given human life has inestimable worth, not a negotiable value. Attempts to accommodate the teachings of the Church to modern understandings of sexuality always seem to end up losing church membership and making people wonder what the point is. If the church does not hold to a strong standard of inconvenient truths about what it means to honor human life, where else will the teaching come from? When Jesus asks if his disciples will leave Him over a hard teaching, Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Bishop Robert Barron, in one of the short essays in his book Vibrant Paradoxes, writes that if you want to master the perfect golf swing, you don’t want your teacher watering down what he knows is best just to flatter your own mediocrity. Why should it be any different with the most important things? The Faith asks much of the faithful, often against the dictates of what default epicureans consider common sense about, say, contraception. But what those others cannot see is not the pleasure, but the deeper joy of what it really means to be open to life and open to God’s action in the very heart of one’s most intimate sexuality. That great secret lies openly hidden in Humanae Vitae.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (April 2018).

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