40 Years since Humanae Vitae: Lonergan, conception, and contraception. Part 1.

by Dr. David Fleischacker

Since it is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae this year, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore one of the key issues linked to this encyclical, that of contraception. However, before such an issue is addressed, I thought it might be worthwhile to investigate the intelligibility of conception in order to provide a more adequate context for addressing contraception.

Part of what raises my own interest is a private letter written by Bernard Lonergan in September, 1968. It is a letter that has been in circulation in a variety of contexts, and subsequently, it needs to be carefully examined.

In this private letter to a priest, Lonergan is addressing the shifts in Catholic moral theology that he understands as taking place regarding the marital act. One of the shifts is a rejection of the Aristotelian understanding of the relationship between the marital act and conception. He is also highlighting the differentiated unity brought out in Vatican II and in Humanae Vitae between the procreative and the unitive (or mutual love) ends of the conjugal act.

Seemingly, the thrust of the private letter raises into serious question the position that the Church has taken against contraception. At least that is how I have seen some others make use of it. However, in the letter itself, there are no statements as far as I can tell that directly reject the Church teaching regarding contraception. There are statements in the letter that reject any positions based soley on the Aristotelain understanding of the relationship between the conjugal act and conception. However, it does not immediatelly follow that the position of the Church is wrong. Did Lonergan personally make this conclusion?

Whatever the case of Lonergan’s position in 1968, it would be worthwhile to remember a few points.

1. In 1968, there existed a great deal of confusion at that time regarding the issue. The new emphasis on the unitative end of the conjugal act and its relationship to the procreative end was not explanatorily clear to many people.

2. A private letter to a commrade that barely develops the issue historically, philosophically, and theologically should have virtually no weight of authority. Using this letter to justify any position without any real explanatory and scholarly support would border on a type of authoritarianism based on Lonergan’s name alone, something that I think would be a bit unsettling to him and should be to any of us.

So, what would I like to do? I would like to draw out further questions using the full weight of Lonergan’s philosophy, and some of the insights that would shed light upon the meaning of both conception and contraception. Already, I see many questions not raised in the letter which a more thorough treatment of the subject would demand. Here are just a few:

1. What precisely are the contributions of horizontal and vertical finality in understanding conception and contraception?

2. What does conception and what does contraception do to the relationship between the man and the woman psychologically, sociologically, spiritually, etc., etc., etc.?

3. The few references to the statistical relationship between the conjugal act and conception given in the letter need to be spelled out in far more detail. What could modern biology contribute to understanding this relationship?

4. In terms of the statistical relationship of conception, and its finality, what precisely at the level of decision is the liberty of the man and likewise, what is the liberty of the woman? As an observation, how natural family planning changes the statistical relationship is rather different than how a contraceptive changes that relationship, because the decisions involved are rather different. Hence, this has an existential ramification that needs to be explore.

So, in light of finding further questions, and exploring those questions, at least philosophically, I would like to proceed on a new set of blog questions starting with the intelligibility of conception and in this context, the meaning of contraception.