Paul VI versus Playboy
By Donald DeMarco
In 1986, Brother Don Fleischhacker of the University of Notre Dame wrote a letter to Playboy protesting that magazine’s fragmented view of human sexuality.
Citing “Humanae Vitae,” this intrepid Holy Cross religious reasoned that once “the contraceptive mentality is accepted, there can be no coherent objective ground for opposition to homosexual activity.” If the unitive aspect of sex becomes an end in itself, he went on to explain, “There is no essential reason why sex should be restricted to couples of different sexes.”
Recent events have proven that Brother Don was as prophetic as was Pope Paul VI when he penned “Humane Vitae” back in 1968. For Playboy, however, the letter was treated as an object of ridicule and its content irreverently dismissed: “Brother, you sound like St. Thomas’ lawyer,” wrote the Playboy editor, who went on to bless “both kinds” of sexual relations.
This holier-than-thou posture of Playboy explains why its founder, Hugh Hefner, has declared that he is the most moral human being he has ever met. From the perspective of Playboy, it is far ahead of the church in the sheer number of wonderful things it deems good, including marriage for same-sex partners. Playboy has surpassed Genesis in its generosity, and outdistanced mother church in its magnanimity.
Why is the church apparently so stingy in its blessings, so confused about good and evil? And how did Hefner get to be so much wiser and more beneficent than anyone in the long Judeo-Christian tradition?
Two problems here warrant attention. One is the difficulty in recognizing evil. The second is the assumption that more is better.
The main problem in identifying the essence of evil is precisely that it does not have an essence, anything solid or substantial that would reveal its malefic nature to an empirical examiner. Hence, evil is not an object at which anyone can point. Evil lies in what is missing.
In order to know what is missing, one must first know what should be there in the first place. Ten football players on the field may look perfectly fine to the casual observer, but to the referee, it constitutes an infraction that warrants a penalty. There is nothing wrong with any of the 10 men on the field. It is the one who is missing that creates the problem.
The realistic basis of “Humanae Vitae” is what Paul VI refers to as a “total” or “integral vision of man.” Two people who are having sex with each other apart from marriage may believe that they are behaving very morally. But if they have willfully excluded love, any concern for conception or any responsibility for the consequences their act might have on themselves and others, it becomes clear that what they are doing is deprived of the very factors that are needed to realize this “total vision” of the human being. Moral good does not exist in isolation.
The God of Genesis, after proclaiming that everything he created is good, declared that “it is not good for man to be alone.” The reason “it is not good for man to be alone” is that he cannot be good unless he has love for other human beings. Man’s nature demands a communal existence. Hell is where man is truly and finally alone, deprived of love, hope and happiness.
For the same reason, it is not good for sex to be alone.
The key to moral goodness is that it not be isolated from the factors that give it its wholeness and therefore its total good. Moral goods are always organic. Moral evils are always deprived.
The second problem is associated with the assumption that restricting sex to married couples deprives others of meaningful sexual experiences. Or, in the words of a popular comedian, “Restricting sex to one married spouse is like buying a cable package that provides just one channel.”
“Humanae Vitae” urges a certain “asceticism” in order to “dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will.” Sex must pass from instinct to institution so that it can conform to the “total vision of man.”
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2002 work, “On the Way to Jesus Christ,” draws important insights from a passage in the Book of Amos, where the eponymous prophet refers to himself as “a dresser of sycamore trees.”
Citing a number of scholars, the Holy Father explains that the abundant fruit of the sycamore tree is tasteless until it is cut to let the sap run out, whereby it becomes flavorful. This image can be taken to symbolize the transition from the pagan world of excess to the Christian world of purification and moderation.
The Holy Father writes: “Ultimately only the Logos himself can guide our cultures to their purity and maturity, but the Logos makes us his servants, the ‘dresser of sycamore trees.'”
The application to human sexuality here is easy enough to see. Because Hefner and his playboys see all forms of sex in the flat perspective of equality, they see no one particular form of sex in its sublimity. They promote the tasteless fruit of unseasoned, indiscriminate sex, while criticizing those who understand something about its purity and passion.
“Humanae Vitae” reminds us that our true destiny is to be whole persons, and that we must discipline ourselves in order to reach that end.
The humanitarian claims of Hefner are bogus since they are based neither on a proper understanding of the human person nor on a recognition of the practical necessity for virtue.
Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.