©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

PERSONALIST RESPONDS TO CRITIC OF PAUL VI

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

Pro Ecclesia

2002

John Galvin's article (The Latin Mass magazine, spring 2002) is bound to baffle many faithful Catholics who view Humanae Vitae as the most glorious accomplishment of Paul VI's pontificate. This encyclical was an ace of courage because the zeitgeist had already won the assent of all those wishing that the Church would relax the "severity" of Casti Connubii.

 

Galvin is clearly not aware of the fact that Paul VI was stabbed in the back by Leo Cardinal Suenens (Primate of Belgium: a Catholic country) who declared that: "The Church must not have another Galileo case" (obituary in The New York Times, May 7, 1996). The Pope expressed his "grieved astonishment" at those who criticized papal declarations, but no censure followed. The import of this is that a prince of the Church was officially challenging the teaching Peter. Moreover, Suenens was confusing a scientific issue, in which the Church is not infallible, with a moral issue where she is.

 

Galvin's claim that Humanae Vitae did not convince the faithful because of the weakness of its arguments can be doubly challenged . First of all, if Casti Connubii was not officially challenged it was not because its arguments were convincing, but because Pius XI knew how to assert the authority he had received from God. From the very beginning of his pontificate, Paul VI made it clear that it would be characterized by "compassion.''

 

When Paul VI died (August 6, 1978), I was in southern Germany (a few miles from the Austrian border). A couple of days later, an Austrian priest visited the friend with whom I was staying. He told us that Franz Cardinal Koenig, upon hearing that Paul VI had died, went on the Austrian radio and highly commended his pontificate (Vatican II, opening of windows, the new liturgy). But, he added , it had one great weakness: Humanae Vitae.

 

Catholics whose faith had been undermined by theologians whose writings were constantly acclaimed by the news media but whose thought was of doubtful quality, drew the welcome conclusion that Humanae Vitae was a personal opinion of His Holiness and that, consequently, they did not have to pay attention to a document which obviously was not to their taste. If cardinals of the Church officially disagreed with the Vicar of Christ and were not called to task, then it appeared to the man in the pew that it was legitimate to "follow his conscience" without being bothered by guilt. Both in Belgium and in Austria, the pill "conquered": It offered an ideal solution to those who wanted to follow their wishes with a good conscience.

 

This could not have happened under Pius XI. Having received authority from above, he never hesitated to use it. He knew how to assert it. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had any cardinal dared to challenge Casti Connubii. The next day, he would have lost his "red hat," and the cardinals knew it. However , the Belgian cardinal (who played a key role in the election of Montini to the papacy) knew that under Paul VI, an open challenge to the papal teaching would not be censured. Hans Kung used to brag that as long as Paul VI lived , he was "safe.'' He was. We had to wait until John Paul II ascended on the pontifical throne to hear that the Swiss theologian's ideas were not in harmony with the teaching of the Catholic Church (December 1979). Humanae Vitae was challenged not because it was unconvincing but because its unpopular teaching一undermined by secularism一could be challenged with impunity.

 

Galvin is mistaken in asserting that had Humanae Vitae been flawless (as he claimed that Casti Connubii was), Catholics would have obeyed. Thirty-seven years of teaching have taught me that convincing arguments will only carry the assent toof those willing to accept the conclusion drawn. Numerous are those who will never be convinced because their will stands in the way: The conclusion is not to their taste. It was Nietzsche who wrote "my will said to my intellect: this cannot be, and my intellect yielded." It is sadly true that false arguments will "convince" those who welcome their conclusion. The most flawless argument in favor of God's existence will not convince a Nietzsche who wrote: "... If gods existed how could I stand not to be god." And he draws the welcome conclusion that therefore God does not exist, triggering the enthusiastic endorsement of those for whom atheism is a welcome dogma.
 

This leads me to the core of my criticism. Galvin accuses Paul VI of introducing a "new and untried philosophy" by making a distinction between the "meaning" of marriage and its "end." According to him, the traditional teaching of the Church was clear and univocal: Procreation was the end of marriage. Period.

 

I challenge this. As my husband happens to be the "culprit," as it was he who initially introduced a distinction between "meaning" and "end" in marriage, it is incumbent upon me to defend his views . These views were discussed with Nuncio Pacelli when the latter was in Germany in the 1920s, who not only endorsed them fully, but encouraged the young philosopher to publish them. (See The Soul of a Lion ). Dietrich von Hildebrand was an ardent convert whose great concern was never to say or write anything which was not in full harmony with the teaching of the Church. Shortly before his death when he confided his literary bequest to me, he said emphatically, "If you find anything in my writing which in any way deviates from the Magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, do not hesitate: Destroy it.''

 

My task is to clarify his views, something which Humanae Vitae has failed to do. The "meaning " of marriage, far from eliminating its "end," reinforces it and deepens it. I challenge Galvin to find a contemporary thinker who has defended the objectivity of moral values more ardently thanas Dietrich von Hildebrand. I challenge him to find someone who has opposed artificial birth control as he has. Already in 1930, he was the first (I do not say the only) Catholic thinker who, horrified by the conclusions drawn by the Lambeth Conference, wrote—within days—an article tearing it to pieces. (See Die Menschheit am Scheideweg, Josef Habbel Verlag, Regensburg, pp.146-158). What DvH did do was to shed light on a distinction that the Church has always tacitly made, i.e., the one between two different types of relationships: a purely instrumental causality characterized by the fact that the means exist exclusively in order to serve an end. It is its raison d'etre. When this end ceases to exist—for example when a machine that the tool served is no longer in use—the tool is discarded. It has become meaningless. A comb is a means to groom one's hair. If all human beings were bald, combs would lose their justification.

 

According to Luther, the meaning of a woman's life is to procreate: "... The work and word of God tell us clearly that women must be used for marriage or for prostitution. If women get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that; let them die so long as they bear; they are made for that" (Werke 12.94 and 20.84 Germany, Weimer Press 1883).

 

Do these words reflect Catholic ethos? Far from it. This is what my late husband has illumined. Purely instrumental causality is essentially different from what he calls "superabundance."

 

In this case, we are dealing with a value which happens to be "instrumental" for the realization of another value: For example, a noble friendship can deepen the spiritual life of the friends. In this case, we are no longer dealing with a purely instrumental finality: A noble friendship should not be viewed as a "sheer means" for one's spiritual development. The relationship between the two is a "superabundant" one: The friend is to be loved for his own sake, (St. Augustine, Confessions) as opposed to a "business" friendship or a "political" one which terminates the very moment that it no longer serves the interest of one or both parties. But as love is essentially fruitful, it produces an effect which is not its exclusive "purpose," but is essentially related to it: for "it flows over" from it.

 

God should be loved for His own sake "quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus," but this due response benefits immensely the religious and spiritual life of the one giving it. This response, which is due to the divinity, flows over and brings beatitude. But it would obviously be a terrible distortion to instrumentalize our love for God "in order to be happy." Once again, this is the teaching of Holy Church: The glorification of God is man's primary end and beatitude is the secondary one, but both are essentially linked. The same meaning is expressed in the words: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and the rest will be added unto you." The reign of God should be our primary concern. Why do atheistic Communists often brag that they work "selflessly" for the good of humanity, whereas Christians work for a reward?

 

The primary end should be sought for its own sake, not as a means for the realization of the second. As a matter of fact, the second can only be validly realized if the first is responded to Selflessly—for its own sake.

 

This is the sublime meaning that my husband had in mind: The marital embrace—a sacrament—has its own value, but to choose to sever it from the fruitfulness that God has linked to it, is a grave sin which inevitably saps the beauty of the mutual self-donation of the spouses—that is their well deserved punishment. Therefore, the union attained in the conjugal embrace is the meaning of marriage and far from eroding its relationship to procreation highlights it.

 

I dare make the assertion that the marital embrace of two spouses whose love is transformed by Christ (even though it cannot possibly result in conception), praises God much more than the one of spouses whose love for each other is less pure and less ardent, but who have a large progeny. The marital embrace is the sacrament, not procreation.

 

Philosophical progress can never consist in eliminating truths perceived by past thinkers, but in deepening them by introducing new distinctions that shed a fresh light on the gems of tradition. In other words, what Dietrich von Hildebrand did do (and this is what is meant by development of doctrine) was to highlight a facet of the Church teaching often cast into the shade in formalistic textbooks—even though the practice of the Church has always defended it. What are the proofs?

 

The Church grants the holy Sacrament of Matrimony to couples who love one another but who, alas, either because of a quirk of nature or because of age, cannot have any progeny. (There are not very many Sarahs and Elizabeths!) Their marriage is just as much of a sacrament as the marriage of those blessed by many children. They can become saints—just as much as those favored by a large family. They benefit from the graces of this great sacrament just as much as the fruitful couples. Their marriage is as valid and as indissoluble as the fruitful ones. They are not "conditional" marriages: The Church does not say to such couples: "We shall marry you if you commit yourself to abstain from the marital embrace." No, the Church does not ask a husband and wife to give up this expression of their mutual tenderness because the latter is no longer capable or even incapable of leading to a conception.

 

Or does Galvin imply that a husband should no longer embrace his wife as soon as he is informed that she has conceived? This would be a logical conclusion from his reasoning, for the end of marriage having been reached, the marital embrace loses it "purpose."

 

To this objection, he is likely to say that marriage has a double end: the primary one being procreation, the secondary one, a "remedy to concupiscence." It is true indeed that the sexual sphere is one in which lust has a field day. This is why St. Paul tells us that it is better to get married than to burn. But, through God's infinite mercy, this mysterious domain, so threatened by moral dangers, has become a sacrament. Through God's grace, it can be sanctified and purified. The more love and tenderness become predominant, the more concupiscence will recede into the background. When a wife can no longer conceive, the end of marriage is eliminated; not its meaning. Love craves for union and the amazing thing about marriage is that it enables the spouses to achieve a form of union which is unique on this earth: They become one flesh. In Heaven the union between those who love will be so perfect that it will no longer need this privileged conjugal expression. Elkanah: the father of Samuel, says to his sterile wife: "Hannah, why do you weep ... Am I not more to you than ten sons?" (Samuel 1 :8). The Song of Songs, this greatest of all love poems, repeatedly mentions union, but not progeny.

 

Nature, as created by God, is a book which—as St. Bonaventure writes—we should learn to read. Why is it that the male animal is attracted by the female only when she is in heat? They have no interest in each other except at a time when the female can conceive. Is it not deeply meaningful that this does not apply to man and woman? Is this not indicative of the fact that the marital embrace has "meaning" even when fecundation is out of the question? Has the Church ever taught that the husband should approach his wife only when she can conceive?

 

The Church is the "mother of love" and has always shown—in her practice—how she protects the most Godlike of all feelings, love. The Church teaches us further that a purely human love, beautiful as it is, is unbaptized, and invites all her children to strive for supernatural love which Christ revealed at the last supper when He said· "Love one another as I have loved you" (no longer, as you love yourself). Supernatural love—far from being less ardent, less tender than purely human love—is a greater love, a love purified of elements which have crept into it because of original sin, a love in which concupiscence has been choked and replaced by tenderness. Supernatural love—love rooted in Christ—a love in which lust recedes more and more into the background. There are even situations, as in the case of certain saints, in which grace has overcome all concupiscence. The marital embrace is then fully baptized by the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage. I like to think that in the case of two saints, tenderness has achieved a complete victory. ls it daring to suggest that when Louis Martin embraced his wife—both of them close to sanctity—the reward of this tender and chaste embrace was a lily of unparalleled splendor: the Little Flower. Granted that very few couples will achieve this degree of purity, all couples should strive for it, and beg God for the grace of purifying a sphere so sadly affected by original sin. The natural craving is then substituted by the burning desire to give expression to one's tenderness for the loved one and to become one with him or her in conspectus Dei. We cannot endorse Galvin's conclusion that because the "meaning" of marriage is highlighted, this cancels its great and noble purpose: children.

 

The sexual sphere is a great mystery—it is a sphere in which the mystery of iniquity has a field day. It is also a sphere in which God can be greatly glorified, that is, when, purified by grace from unchaste desires (a curse of original sin), husband and wife become gratefully one and are open to procreation. Of course, there are abuses and self-deception, that always lurk in the background. How many are the husbands who will not refrain from using "their marital privilege" when there is a clear call to do so, convincing themselves that they are being "obedient" to the words of Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply," when in fact they have never learned the meaning of sacrifice for the sake of charity. Omnis homo mendax: Every man is a liar. There are wives who gently plead with their husband, to abstain from the marital embrace for a time because—exhausted by numerous pregnancies and being frail of health—they crave a moment of respite. Many of them have too little help or none at all, and their wish is legitimate. And yet confessors know (and people who attract the confidence of others are apprised) that many a husband justifies his selfishness by using holy titles. Men do not go through the difficult months of pregnancy; they are not grieved "because their hour has come." It is high time that husbands should remember that selfishness is so deeply embedded in our fallen nature that, in refusing to abstain from their "marital privilege," they can sin severely against charity through their thoughtless and selfish demands. Since when is " love" self-centered? This is also something that Christ must have had in mind when He said that Moses allowed divorce "because of the hardness of man's heart."

 

God—in His infinite goodness and mercy—knows all this, and has so engineered the female biological nature that there are days when conception cannot take place. This is not something that man has artificially contrived. God has decided it. Hence the legitimacy of natural family planning using these infertile periods when charity calls for it—while keeping alive the profound meaning of the marital embrace.

 

Let us not be "more Catholic than the Pope." The Church allows NFP even though in her knowledge of human nature, she also knows that it can be abused and is most probably being abused. But none of us should place himself in the seat of judgment and tell others what they should do and not do. It is always wise to ask for advice from a wise and supernaturally motivated confessor. There are legitimate reasons for distancing pregnancies. Today, we are told ad nauseam that we should not be judgmental. Let us therefore abstain from judging how many children other couples should have. Let us thank God who has made marriage a sacrament of love, and through His grace has given weak men the means of overcoming the devil of concupiscence and give expression to the marital embrace the way God conceived it to be before original sin.