Leading natural law scholar explains the intellectual foundation of “Humanae Vitae”


Students gather in the Gentile Gallery for academic series on the Dual Foundation of Humanae Vitae
(Photo by: Audrey Battis).

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae,” leading natural law scholar John Finnis explained the intellectual foundation of the encyclical’s condemnation of contraception in his lecture on Sept. 14 in the Gentile Gallery.

Finnis, Professor Emeritus of law and legal lhilosophy at the University of Oxford and current professor of law at Notre Dame, opened the fall 2018 Academic Lecture Series with his presentation entitled “The Dual Foundation of Humanae Vitae.”

Finnis began his lecture with a look at the historical background of the encyclical and introduced his main topic: the titular “dual foundation” found in natural law and divine revelation.

To apply these two pillars to the Church’s teaching, Finnis turned to the eight meanings of “gift” in marriage and the conjugal act: “In considering these … we will be seeing ‘Humanae Vitae’ as Paul VI’s restatement … of the all-embracing Christian but also integrally human … judgement about the morally right use of our sexual capacities.”

As to the nature of their moral use, Finnis said, “They are rightly used only within authentic marriage and in a marital way, that is, to express and actualize and enable the spouses to experience their marriage.”

Based on this foundation, Finnis elaborated that for the conjugal act to be truly marital, it must be both unitive and procreative. Contraception, by denying one of these aspects, leaves the sexual act as fundamentally un-marital and therefore immoral.

Reflecting upon this doctrine’s natural law foundation, Finnis remarked that even Greco-Roman teachers “taught that marriage has two ends of inseparably equal primacy: unity of friendship and procreation.” Eliciting a laugh, Finnis commented, “The best recent study in English of Plato’s sexual morality … proves, with apparent regret, that Plato’s sexual ethics is, I quote, ‘like that to which Pope Paul VI in “Humane Vitae” adhered.’”

Finnis rounded out his lecture by drawing a moral distinction between natural family planning and contraception and commenting upon the ethical dissolution caused by society’s widespread acceptance of the latter.

Senior Brooklynne Schnurpel said that she “really liked how he talked about the particular gifts of marriage … of how it is gift in different ways.”

Julia Jiménez, senior, called the lecture “very insightful,” especially in “how he presented the … primary and secondary aspects of marriage in regard to procreation and union between men and women.”

“I appreciate how they clarified that marriage is understood by the Church as … equal in a sense, you know. One isn’t primary to the other one, and one isn’t secondary to the other, because I feel like a lot of people have this misconception,” said Jiménez.

The next talk in the Friday Academic Lecture Series is “Does God Kill People? Understanding God’s Actions in the Old Testament.” It will be held on Friday, Sept. 21 at 3 p.m. in the Gentile Gallery.

1 Comment

  1. It is highly implausible that God is at the centre of any marriage founded upon natural law. That is an intellectual and theological fraud that comes packaged with Christianity and other monotheisms. Biological carnality and it’s union existed long before any of the monotheisms ever appeared on earth. And the basics of biology haven’t and aren’t changed by some contrivance of language, ceremony, blessing or the most sincere aspirations of a man and woman. There is no ethical or moral content within this act! It may even be a corruption of the very ideal it pretends to represent. Or as William Shakespeare noted in his poem Venus and Adonus:

    Call it not love for love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurp’d His name.
    Under who simple semblance man hath fed
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    As caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain
    but lust effect is tempest after sun.
    Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain.
    Lust’s winter comes, ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.

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