The HHS mandate on sterilization, abortifacients, and birth control, and the strong reaction of the U.S. Catholic bishops, has challenged many Catholics to examine whether they agree with the bishops. This controversy has become for many a moment of grace, and many Catholics have been reexamining whether they can commit to accepting and defending Church teaching on life, birth control, and abortion.
Catholic progressives who support access to abortion and artificial contraception are caught in a hard place, because of the growing unanimity among not only the bishops themselves, but pastors and other persons heading Church institutions that such pro-abortion or pro-choice positions are difficult to recognize as authentically Catholic.
Some prominent Catholics who would have previously given “cover” to pro-choice politicians have ceased doing so. Some progressive pastors, who could always be relied upon to wink and nod to pro-choice and artificially contracepting Catholics, have stopped doing so, and some such pastors have even openly spoken out against abortion for the first time in their priesthood. These pastors themselves have had to wrestle with reading aloud their bishop’s letter on the HHS mandate. Very few have refused to do so. How can I read this letter, they may ask themselves, and continue to remain on the fence? Those pastors who have refused to read or publish their bishop’s letter or the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ bulletin insert have now been forced to reveal their position publicly.
It is therefore becoming much harder with any credibility to claim that one can support Planned Parenthood or the anti-life positions taken by Planned Parenthood and remain authentically Catholic in any sense of the word.
Not only is this a moment of grace for some, but it is also a moment of decision. This moment of decision has led some Catholics to revisit official Church teaching, with the question, Can I accept what the Church teaches?
When some Catholics begin to reexamine the pro-life and anti-abortion, anti-artificial birth control teaching in the 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, they immediately face a problem: the translation is dated, in that the meaning of certain English words in the encyclical have already shifted in meaning since 1968, principally the word “responsible,” as in the encyclical’s phrase, “responsible parenthood.”
“Responsible parenthood” unfortunately today almost evokes “Planned Parenthood,” and also now may carry with it environmental overtones following the mistaken but popular fears against overpopulating the planet.
Like any translation, dimensions of the language of the official Latin text of Humanae Vitae are not completely conveyed by the 1968 English translation.
The noted Australian philosopher, legal scholar, Oxford and Notre Dame Professor John M. Finnis in recent years has thus worked on a new translation of Humanae Vitae, as mentioned in this scholarly article and in this talk.
Here is a link for videos of Prof. Finnis’s talk at Notre Dame University’s Center for Ethics and Culture in 2008, along with a related talk by moral philosopher Prof. Janet E. Smith on “conscious parenthood.”
The earliest English translations of Humanae Vitae translate “paternitas conscia” in its section ten as “responsible parenthood,” despite the fact that such a translation is not listed in many Latin dictionaries. Roy J. Defarrari’s Latin-English Dictionary of St. Thomas Aquinas translates “conscius” as “knowing or conscious of something with another” taking the genitive, with a second meaning of “knowing something in oneself,” taking the word sibi. Neither usage quite matches the Latin of Humanae Vitae.
The Latin word “conscius” is rich in meaning. It could mean knowing together as if in a conspiracy. It could also mean shared knowing as in shared intimacy, or in shared consciousness. The meaning may be closer to “intimate knowledge.” While a fuller translation of “paternitas conscia” might be cast as “conscious parenthood” or “intentional parenthood” rather than “responsible parenthood,” much work remains to be done to effectively translate and convey the full richness of the meaning. What is missing in the “responsible parenthood” translation is the mutual and intimate knowledge shared by the married couple, evocative of the Old Testament meaning of knowledge, meaning an act of knowing including sexual intimacy.
The Rev. Know-It-All and I discussed this point on a Go Ask Your Father radio segment on 2/15/12. He reflected upon a possible vocational meaning in the “conscia” of number 10 in Humanae Vitae.
Why is all this attention to the translation of a single word so important? Because meanings unfold from the translation of a single word.
The Church appears to lack good, commonsense arguments in favor of its teaching against artificial contraception. But by focusing on “paternitas conscia” as shared, intimate self knowledge flowing from the sacramental meaning of marriage itself, a powerful revelation of both the meaning and responsibility of marriage can unfold.
By the way, Prof. Finnis made a very important point in his Notre Dame talk of 2008 that the noted legal scholar John Noonan completely misunderstood St. Thomas Aquinas on the meaning of faith in his 1965 book, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, which was very influential in how Humanae Vitae was originally received in 1968.
Perhaps the title of Blessed John Paul II’s book Love and Responsibility, comes as close as any to more fully translating “paternitas conscia,” implying a knowing and intimate sharing of the responsibilities of the vocation chosen through the Sacrament of Marriage.
© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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