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Can the Relationship between Fact and Moral Norm, as indicated in Humanae Vitae be Further Explained?


(i) The focus of the question

A recurrent theme in the controversy which surrounds Humanae Vitae is the relationship of a bodily fact to a moral norm.  Even if the challenge of this question is not universally recognized, and indeed some authors think it an idiosyncratic preoccupation of English speaking theologians and philosophers, nevertheless, as this dissertation hopes to show, this is a question which takes us deep into human nature, the marital act, and the action of God.  So deep does this question go that we must examine, however briefly, the defining moment in which God acts to make a person exist.  For it is in this moment that He founds a unity of being which makes possible an analysis of the interrelationship between the diverse elements of bodily fact and moral norm.

We hope to show that there are two elements to this question: the relationship of fact to norm, as indicated in Humanae Vitae; and the relationship of fact and norm to an integral vision of man, as also indicated in Humanae Vitae.

The "fact" is the infertile time of the natural cycle immanent in the reproductive system3; and the "norm" is: 'If there are reasonable grounds for spacing births ... married people may ... use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile'4.  This investigation concentrates on the following aspects of the relationship of fact to norm: the natural time of infertility; the objective of avoiding the conception of a child; and the negative norm that it is 'absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life'5.

Pope Paul VI expresses this teaching of the Church6 in the context of an integral7 vision of man.  He says that married love 'is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit'8.  He directs us to a complex human totality of natural instinct, emotional drive, free will, growth in spousal unity, attaining fulfilment together and friendship.  He also says that we love because of what we receive and in order 'to enrich the other with the gift' of ourselves; and that this love, which is total, faithful, exclusive and creative of life, is 'ordained to the procreation and bringing up of children', who are the 'outstanding gift of marriage'9.

Pope Paul VI says many other things which can be summed up in his general understanding that 'one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by God'10.  In one place, however, he more than indicates a complexity to the fact-norm problem: "human life is sacred11 - all men must recognize that fact, Our Predecessor, Pope John XXIII, recalled, 'since from its first beginnings it calls for the creative action of God'"12.

This dissertation seeks to investigate the interrelationship of the 'sense and spirit' that is a part of the very design of the person and the action of procreation13; and, if this is the case, how this structures both human being14 and its manifestation in the action of procreation, in such a way that the fact of the bodily-person15 leads to the moral norm of Humanae Vitae.  Furthermore, if human life is sacred, then already the fact of human life is not simply a fact; and if it is sacred because of the action of God, then the action of God is fundamental to this investigation.

(ii) A note on the controversy surrounding Humanae Vitae

This dissertation does not seek to prove the doctrine of Humanae Vitae; it is taken as given.  Furthermore, even if it is pre-supposed that a rational explanation of the fact-norm relationship is possible16, it does not follow that this student will succeed in disclosing what it is.  Neither do we enter into the general controversy which surrounds this doctrine, except in so far as some of the arguments assist us to formulate the question in need of an answer; indeed, it is assumed that the objection that Humanae Vitae makes an illicit inference from a bodily fact to a moral norm is indicative of where to go in search of an answer.  In other words, what this dissertation does seek to discover is a positive explanation of this fact-norm relationship.

(iii) The relevance of St. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and Pope John Paul II

The Summa Theologiae, by St. Thomas Aquinas, was both a general and a particular help to this dissertation.  In general, his work helped to position this investigation in a coherent tradition of questions and answers.  In particular, two of his views decisively contributed to the recognition of the normative fact of created human being.  The first is that a divine 'idea' is instantiated as a type of truth in the being of a created object; and the second is the relationship between our two kinds of participation in the eternal law: our unconscious, bodily participation is a datum for our rational, conscious participation in the eternal law.

David Hume originated the observation, now known as the Naturalistic Fallacy, that an 'ought' cannot be derived from an 'is'.  The original language of this "observation" led to the realization that he had discovered a real question: what is the relationship of an 'is' to an 'ought'?  While Hume denied the possibility of an answer which preserved the difference between the terms, this dissertation takes up the search for an internal logic to the relationship between human being and human moral action.

The work of Pope John Paul II continued to furnish some of the basic concepts with which to think through the work as a whole.  In particular he helped to map out the relationship between the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and the creation of man, male and female, in the 'image' of Them; indeed, in his diverse formulations of the unity of the person, he assisted in taking this dissertation to the foundation of the person at conception, linking it with the mystery of the Incarnation, and articulating a theology of gift which contributed to the resolution of a problem basic to this work.  A theolgy of gift, in conjunction with reflection on the negative precept of Humanae Vitae, led to the realization that there is a positive precept, partly attitude, partly embodied in the natural physico-spiritual structure of the marital act, which manifests such an intricate interrelationship of body and soul that it compelled the investigation of the moment of our origin.

(iv) A general comment on producing this dissertation

In general there are three parts to this work because there were three stages to the whole investigation.

The first stage, which is now Part I, was characterized by trying to find a direct answer, in the metaphysical structure of human being, to the relationship of bodily fact to moral norm.  It eventually took the terms 'good, right and true' and tried to 'see' how, if it was the case that human being was an instantiation of an interrelationship of these three universals, then each moral action would manifest each basic characteristic of human being, and their interrelationship, so there would be no need to assert some extrinsic relationship of bodily fact to moral norm, for, on the contrary, the relationship of bodily fact to moral norm was ordered to this basic but 'complex' reality of being.  Fundamental to this stage of the investigation, however, was the constant recourse to Scripture or to ideas and principles which drew more or less explicitly on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity.  In other words, it became impossible to pursue this metaphysical type of investigation without returning to Revelation and to doctrine derived from or ordered to it.

The second stage, now Part II, was concerned with capturing the relationship of the fact-norm controversy to works of moral theology.  This drove the focus of this dissertation to the centrepoint, as it were, of the normative fact of the work of the Creator, man made male and female: a normative fact stable because of the stability of its spiritual significance and at the same time integrally ordered to informing reason what constitutes the morally right marital act which, for serious reason, entails the deliberate avoidance of the possibility of a child.

The third stage of this investigation culminated in Part III.  The defining theme of this stage came with the realization that it was about the relationship between human being as defined by the moment of origin, the 'imitation' of God entailed in the creation of man, and the manifestation of the mystery of the origin and nature of human being in the divine-human action of procreation.

(v) The language of the body: a point of departure

In the course of the transition from the different stages of this investigation and their respective pieces of work, to the final three part work of this dissertation, there was much that had to be summarised or excluded.  One chapter on the theology of the body has been reduced to a few comments in this section.  A vestige of it is retained for the simple reason that thinking through questions on the theme of the body assisted with arriving, in an almost direct way, at the answers entailed in the dissertation as a whole.

A theology of the body looks upon the bodily-person as a work of God; and as a work of God it embodies an 'idea' of the Creator.  This 'idea' of the Creator is fundamentally ordered to the mystery of His own reality (Gn 1: 27).  So we cannot approach a work of God without at the same time asking what it signifies for the 'craftsman' (Wis 13: 1); indeed, without at the same time praying to the craftsman (cf. Ps 95: 6).

The following are a few points that arise from this type of reflection.  The 'couple's openness to life in the conjugal act expresses a whole attitude of letting themselves be led according to God's providential plan'17 (cf. Mt 1: 18 and 25).  The influence of Scripture, the negative norm of Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II's Theology of the body, led to this change in our will as it conforms to the will of God, being called a Spirituality of being open to life18.  This is built on the perception that the negative moral norm of Humanae Vitae19 entails a positive precept: be open to the possibility of the gift of life.  Finally, if one follows through the theme of the bodily participation in human action, then as one writer has put it: the spousal self-gift is a 'christological abandonment to the Father'20; and 'the perfection of love means that husband and wife must find self-mastery only in the reckless abandonment of Christ's love on the Cross'21.

A particular contribution to this dissertation, therefore, is the finding that the very psycho-physical constitution of the marital act is at once replete with the significance of it being a 'christological abandonment to the Father'.  In other words, theological reflection on the language of the body constantly turns the angle of this investigation to the profound interrelationship of man made in the image of God.

(vi) The structure of the dissertation

Part 1, consisting of Chapter 1, seeks to show that a metaphysical analysis of human being and action into an interrelationship of the three constituent universals of good, right and true is ultimately dependent on teachings derived from the Revelation that God is the Blessed Trinity.

Part II, Chapter 2, deals with an origin to the fact-norm distinction in the work of David Hume, its citations among contemporary moral theologians and seeks to show the general tendency to the view that it is illicit to draw a norm from a fact.  Nevertheless, we also hope to show that some authors indicate a licit relationship of bodily fact to moral norm.  In Part II, Chapter 3 we hope to show that part of the problem of the fact-norm distinction is that it very often falls prey to a more or less unconscious dualism.  We seek to show how this fact-norm dualism both obstructs understanding of human nature and, by various implications to the contrary, directs us to investigate the nature of human origin.

Part III, Chapter 4, argues for the fundamental relationship of the unity of man, one in body and soul from conception, as an instance of the proposition that all being is a unity-in-diversity.  Part III, Chapter 5, seeks to demonstrate that there is a manifestation of this prior, ontological unity-in-diversity of human being, in the nature of the marital act: at once inseparably spiritual, physical and psychological.

The conclusion of the dissertation is in a number of stages, beginning with the findings by chapter, raising and refuting objections, it then goes on to a final conclusion and a brief word on the possibility of future research.

(vii) The limitations of this dissertation

This dissertation does not seek to argue through whether or not the body is evolved.  Nor is it particularly concerned with the varieties of evolutionary theory; indeed, it only examines these things in so far as a number of authors manifest, more or less unconsciously, a dependence of their moral theology on such a theory.  There is no detailed analysis of the origin of the principle: 'being is a unity-in-diversity'.  There is no discussion on methods of contraception, nor very much discussion of contraception itself, nor even the intricacies of natural family planning.  There is no detailed exegetical discussion of Scriptural texts; and no discussion of the text on Onan.  There is no single account of what constitutes a moral action, except in so far as it clarifies the action of procreation; and there is little discussion of the relationship of the virtues to the making of a moral action.  Neither does this dissertation deal with an historically chronological account of the teaching of the Church on these subjects.  Nor does it distinguish between a Christian and a non-Christian marriage; and, in so far as it assumes anything about such marrages, it is that they are valid22.23

3 HV no. 16.    Back
4 Ibid.    Back
5 HV no. 11.    Back
6 Ibid.    Back
7 Cf. HV no. 7.    Back
8 HV no. 9.    Back
9 Ibid.    Back
10 HV no. 13.    Back
11 Emphasis added.    Back
12 HV no. 13, foonote 13 to Mater et Magistra no. 194 (according to the text).    Back
13 Cf. Gaudium et Spes no. 51.    Back
14 'Human being' is referred to throughout as an abstract entity.  This is a means of referring to human being as a kind of being.    Back
15 Phrases such as 'the bodily-person' are used to draw attention to the view that man is an 'incarnate spirit' (FC no. 11), 'though made of body and soul is a unity' (Gaudium et Spes) no. 14.    Back
16 Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, (CTS with Veritas Publications, 1990) nos. 10-12.    Back
17 F. Etheredge, "A Reflection on the Language of the Body", Communio: International Catholic Review 24, No. 2 (Summer 1997) pp. 406-407.    Back
18 F. Etheredge, Each One of us is an Icon of the Beginning, unpublished manuscript, pp. 19-20.    Back
19 HV no. 11.    Back
20 David S. Crawford, "Humanae Vitae and the Perfection of Love", Communio: International Catholic Review 25 (Fall 1998) p. 426.    Back
21 Ibid. p. 438.    Back
22 Sentence re-written in response to G. Woodall's comment, 5/03/01 and that of Caroline Farey, 9/04/01.    Back
23 Revision of Introduction in response to R. Conrad's criticism, 4/07/01.    Back

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