D Vincent Twomey SVD

Published by Four Courts press

ISBN 978-1-84682-201-18

Review by by Dr Pravin Thevathasan (consultant psychiatrist)
This is a very important work on a very important subject. The author is a strong defender of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae – the encyclical that “shook the world to its core.” It certainly led to a widespread condemnation of Pope Paul VI by clergy and laity alike. The hostility of the western media was “almost palpable” and Pope Paul never published another encyclical. To this day the teaching is widely misunderstood and ignored.

The author notes that the supporters of the encyclical recognized that the teaching was in keeping with Tradition and the Natural Law while dissenters ended by denying that any human action could be intrinsically evil.  According to them, the morality of any action could only be decided by considering the circumstances or the motivation involved in the act.

The encyclical was published at a time when there was a rejection of traditional sexual morality, a time when the generative capacity was deemed an illness to be  treated with medication: hence the birth of the pill. In contrast, there was the consistent teaching of the Church that the unitive and procreative goods of the marriage act ought always be respected. St. Augustine, for example, wrote that the sexual appetite is as good and healthy as our appetite for eating. What is immoral is to separate the pleasure derived from satisfying one’s sexual appetite from the social purpose of sex: namely procreation.

The author notes that the teaching has been developed further by Pope John Paul in many works including Familiaris Consorttio , Evangelium Vitae  and Veritatis Splendor. Pope Benedict has elaborated on the teaching in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. There has therefore been a consistent and persuasive defence of the encyclical since its publication by the Papal Magisterium.

The author argues that, apart from the sexual revolution, there were other reasons why the encyclical was  rejected: a belief in an evolving concept of human nature by certain theologians, a belief that Scripture and Tradition are products of historically conditioned cultures, a widespread acceptance of relativism and a corresponding rejection of Natural Law. Accordingly, man must freely determine the means of his behaviour in whatever way he sees fit.

In contrast, argues  the author, there is indeed such a thing as the Natural Law and, for Christians, the understanding of  the Natural Law is deepened by that faith which recognizers the whole of creation as the work of the Logos, the Divine Reason. The moral order is thus something objective and universal, to be discovered by practical reason, to be illuminated by revelation and to be obeyed.

The author writes of the almost total amnesia among theologians and philosophers concerning the real nature of morality as virtue. Morality is instead seen as a mere sentiment. It is this recovery of morality as virtue that is at the heart of the author’s project and he is eminently successful in this.

There is an important chapter entitled “The Crisis in Moral Theology” in which the author argues that the root of the crisis goes back to the philosophy of Nominalism in the fourteenth century. From this, and via the Enlightenment, we develop a morality that is reduced to following one’s personal preferrences.  Ultimately it  all boils down to this: are there such things as intrinsically evil acts? The author convincingly demonstrates that there are indeed such things.

The author proceeds to discuss the most exciting discovery in the past two decades: the recovery of virtue not only as a concept but as providing the context for moral reflection. Morality is caught not taught.

There have been many fine works in defence of the encyclical Humanae Vitae and this is one of the very best.


Back to: Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life)