DENVER. Although many people attribute Catholics’ widespread rejection of “Humanae Vitae” to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, one moral theologian said the Catholic Church needs to look elsewhere to discover the roots of the problem.
Michel Therrien, President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, spoke to more than 250 people at a conference on the 50th Anniversary of “Humanae Vitae” that was held on April 21 at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial. Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver also spoke at the event.
In his talk, “Conquering Nature: Liberalism, Sex and the Catholic Church,” he discussed how certain philosophical trends laid the groundwork for Catholics’ rejection of “Humanae Vitae” long before 1968.
“People often blame much on the 1960s but rarely ask why the social upheaval occurred in the first place. Today people can romanticize the Modern Period, with all its Elizabethan formality and sense of propriety. To say that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was a morally immature and adolescent rebellion against authority couldn’t be more accurate from a certain point of view, but think about what that suggests — why were people who were raised in such an apparently healthy Christian environment inclined to such rebellion? One theory is people just wish to embrace the licentious lifestyle because they had become weary of Christian morality, and modern progress afforded new opportunities to do so. They wanted freedom from traditional constraints.”
However, it is more likely that the rejection of “Humanae Vitae” mirrored a broader rejection of the legalistic mindset that characterized some Christian institutions, Therrien said.
“Perhaps the rebellion had something to do with the legal authoritarianism of the modern period,” he said. “It harmed people spiritually and psychologically while also cultivating spiritual immaturity through machinations of authority and shame. For those who did weather the turbulence of the 1960s and stuck with orthodox Christianity, it’s my deepest hunch that most of these people grew up in a wonderfully Christian loving home where the law of Christ was properly contextualized and informed by the spirit of the gospel in its most personal depths. That was my home.”
“Other households, I know, were very harsh, very strict, very rigid, with a lot of rebellion. I imagine some Catholics were thinking everything was great and then suddenly everything just came crashing down. It is more accurate to suggest that the track had been laid long before everything erupted. The invention of the pill, among other modern inventions, promised to improve our material existence, representing the dawn of a new age that had been emerging for a very long time. But to see this more clearly, we have to understand another part of the story — the rise of liberalism.
Liberalism did not emerge suddenly in the 1960s but came onto the philosophical scene gradually, he said.
“Scholars attribute the spirit of liberalism to the philosophy of voluntarism. The shorthand definition of voluntarism is the redefining of freedom as pure autonomy — the idea that freedom cannot exist if the will is subject to anything other than itself,” Therrien said. Voluntarism also states that God could at any time legislate something opposite what he previously commanded, he said.
“Isn’t it true that God can do anything? The answer is difficult to understand, but no — not in that way. God’s will doesn’t operate apart from the divine intellect. In fact, the true is always prior to the good, so every law of God that has any utterance in wisdom is perfectly rooted in being in what is. So, notice in the biblical narrative, God said ‘let there be’ . . . and then he spoke and then he created and then he looked on it and said, it is good. Jesus said, ‘you will know the truth and the truth shall will set you free.’ Notice the priority of truth over freedom or being over goodness.
“Freedom proceeds from truth. Willfulness is actually ignorance, because only the blind are willful and it always leads to servitude . . . so the blind do what they want and it always leads to sin — that’s the real psychology. But the modern says, ‘No, I have to be free from truth and do what I want in order to be truly free,’” Therrien said. “Voluntarism is a distortion of Christian truth and freedom. And it makes God a tyrant instead of a loving father.”
Many good things, such as the abolition of slavery, have come out of liberal thought, Therrien said. But with liberalism, the concept of hierarchy took on a negative connotation, even though hierarchy in and of itself is not incompatible with the will of God, Therrien said.
“The entire creation is a hierarchy of being,” Therrien said. “The Church is a hierarchy, the family life, political life . . . but he also commands that the greater serve the lesser, that the strong lift up the weak, that we humble ourselves if we have authority like Jesus did on the cross. (It is God’s will) that we depend on one another and we share our gifts with those that need them. God loves the complementarity of his gifts even more than he loves each particular gift on its own.”
“Unfortunately sin has given all of this plan an ugly face by human beings constructing hierarchies of oppression instead of service,” he said.
A complete recording of Therrien’s talk can be found at https://archden.org/humanae-vitae/.