Holloway on Humanae Vitae
flickr / Tom Mrazek
Holloway on Humanae Vitae

Holloway on Humanae Vitae

Edward Holloway FAITH MAGAZINE September - October 2015

Fr Edward Holloway, the founder of the Faith Movement and Editor of Faith Magazine, marked the twentieth anniversary of  Pope Paul VI’s encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ by reflecting on the underlying principles of Catholic teaching on sex and love. This is an edited version of his editorial from July 1988.


The Church has to form the consciousness of her young people in what is the true and the beautiful in their loving. What she teaches must echo the music of the most inner and sincere depths of their own souls — “everyone who is of the truth, listens to my voice” — is the witness of the crucified King of Truth. (John 18:37.) The Church must “get it right” concerning the use and seeking of erotic pleasure not only in marriage, but in the formative friendships of puberty, and through the teens to the early twenties. Indeed, if the Church can get it right for the years before marriage, then the truth of her teaching for life in marriage will inevitably follow. Abstract arguments from Natural Law even when they are true, and in fact they are true, will be dismissed impatiently unless they can be related to, and reflected in a living law found within the mind and heart.

The Glory of Youth

The years of youth are confused, headstrong, but beautiful years of life. There is an urge to good in the soul of man; an urge to find the true and the good proper to the sort of creatures we are. When we find it, we enjoy peace, and find inner joy. Everything in nature has this urge to good. As the plant leans out or pushes up to the sunshine, so do we seek the Principle of our light and our life, the sunshine of the soul. This urge is found in the body too, for the flesh was part of nature before ever man was made. The urge to good in the body echoes the seeking of the spirit, and only through the soul can the body find and obey the orientation and seeking of the whole human person. [ . . . ] The spontaneous response of the sensitive young to the sense of the true and the good, as the pastoral priest finds it in youth who trust him, has a vital witness in matter of purity.[ . . . ] The youngsters [ . . . ] who talk to one about their sexual affairs have made a discovery which was found also by St. Augustine, in the Confessions, and by St. Paul, to the Romans. Incidentally, one truly good young man who spoke to me of his falls with a truly good girl, whom he eventually married said: “the first time we did it, we both knew we had been thoroughly selfish, and we always felt it was wrong, but it was the pleasure . . .” St. Paul spoke of the living experience of self-division and anguish this way:- 

“I will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I will, but the evil that I would not, — that I do! Now if I do what I would not, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? The grace of God, — through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Romans. 7: 18-24.)

This is also a picture in which we see, every one of us if we are truly sincere, the mirror-image of ourselves. For yes, —there are two laws, one the law of God’s wisdom, truth, order, and due proportion in the pleasures of nature and the ministry they inserve. What St. Paul speaks of is the existential, the living experience of what in a more abstract way is called the Natural Law. It applies to many things besides sex and is the basis of natural and of grace-developed conscience. The other is also truly a law, and has become through generation a pseudo-law of nature as well. It is the law of greed, drive, addiction, and “sin”, which the will of the all-powerful soul in man has imposed upon the flesh. It is known in the theological abstract as concupiscence, the disordered desire and addictive craving which Original Sin first brought into man's being, and the gross misuse of poor Brother Ass has deepened through time, and does deepen sadly in so many of us through ingrained habit. [ . . . ]

Man not “Natural” as we find him

The schools of sexual dissent, — and permissiveness — rest upon the presumption that the present state of human nature is natural to man, and therefore good. They do not see the two laws of St. Paul. They do not accept that uncontrolled libidinous urge, lust, is unnatural to man, and a fact of the legacy of the Fall. If the surging desire is natural and good, not of itself an aberration from any inbuilt physical law . . . then it may be naturally indulged from boyhood masturbation onwards. Once this principle is accepted, the world eagerly draws all the consequences, brushing aside impatiently any gossamer-webbed restrictions based upon “only in a permanent relationship of loving care etc”. The world at large will grant this Freudian principle as justifying permanent homo-sexual “marriages”, but not as restraining anybody’s right to love. The very justification of masturbation and adolescent sex-play is itself inconsistent with any arbitrary barriers. The denial that distinct physical pleasures are related to distinct offices and ministries of nature, under a natural order and law, which the soul in man recognises as the order of God’s wisdom is contrary to the moral sense of all cultures and all folklore. It is also contrary to commonsense and sincerity. Take away the rubber goods and all the technology, and the unlimited indulgence of “tender loving sexual personal relationship” means an indefinite number of conceptions. Apparently God inspired his prophets to offer proposals for a new sexual ethic, and correct the waywardness of repressive Christianity, only from the age of rubber goods and great technological power over the bodily functions of man — which was very convenient. [ . . . ]

Most of the philosophers and theologians of the new ethic do not believe in the nature of the soul as an order of energy distinct from matter, and as the specific control and direction of the flesh. This tends to obfuscate the teaching of the Church on disordered desire as a consequence of Original Sin, and also to relate all physical feelings to one generalised order of libido. [ . . .] Again, the same thinkers either implicitly or sometimes explicitly, do not accept the existence of a personal and transcendent God, truly distinct from the contingent creation. This also, must mean in the order of life, and logic, the absence of any objective order of truth and morality. Everything is a matter of the present state of the historical process. It is always quite impossible to separate out what is right and wrong in ordinary life, from our basic beliefs concerning God, matter, the soul, and the interpretation of equational law, and order in the creation itself. [ . . . ]

God’s Wisdom: Man’s Law of Life

The ascent of the universe is the ascent of Creation through an ordered, equational law of being. In the science of life the same process holds. The animal flesh is not a frenzy of libido with no tendency to obey an interior law. All things are governed by times and seasons, just as, in the order of reality below life, the book of Wisdom assures us that all things are ordered “in measure, number, and weight” (Wis. 7:11 — 20.). The principle of this seeking and finding its life-law, in the living creature below the human order, is in the interplay between the brain and the environment around. The flesh is made for law, as much as physics is made for law. The body of man is made for law, like all other flesh. If man is made, according to the flesh (for the soul cannot evolve in man) by a process of ordered evolution, the soul in man inherited a body made subject to the law of seeking control and direction, seeking the wisdom of its life-law. [ . . . ] The animal life seeks the full unfolding of its life-law, in times and seasons by the interplay of its being with the environment in which it lives, and moves and has its whole limited being. For man, through the soul, God is the Environment unto which we live and move, and have our being, as St. Paul taught the Athenians (a very sophisticated society) long ago (Acts 17: 28.). To the interior seeking of our personality, or psyche if you will, God the Environer, the life-determiner of man, provides also by the interior life of grace, and the complementary word of priest and prophet, culminating in The Word made Flesh through the history of mankind. [ . . . ] There is only one human holiness, man does not make it: God is it.

“Adam: Where are You?”

The Fall of Man is the heart of the matter. The soul in man can recognize that no pleasure however intense is the be all and end of all of human life. Indeed, much of the intensity of the sexual drive is, beyond the pleasure, the frenzy of addiction and total centredness of the human response in so many, although not all human beings. The soul in man can, and does even now, recognize that pleasures minister to offices and functions of nature, are proper to them, and in the simple animal life prompt the ministry concerned according to needs, times and seasons. In man, the spiritual soul recognises this order and, apart from sin and its effects, would indulge all the pleasures natural to us with the centred peace and joy of the presence of God; and in that peace and joy, all pleasures of the flesh would find their right subordination, and proportion. In mankind, the basic human joy is a happiness of the spiritual order: the soul has its own proper powers. That happiness of truth in God can develop from a generalized peace, and the joy of purpose in life and its meaning, into a permanent knowledge of God possessed in a peace that “passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). The simple pages of Genesis reveal in sheer majesty both the original plan of God, and the qualities of human nature in that beginning, and what could, and did befall if man ate of the tree of the experience of sin: the harmony with God is destroyed, and the tyrannical power of the soul in man, if man adores himself as his sole centre of life and meaning, is to bring into the flesh a storm of unruly desire and addictive greed. Sexual lust is not the only manifestation of it, but it is a fundamental one. It is not an accident of the teaching [ . . .] of the Holy Spirit, that the contrast is shown in that before this spiritual disobedience which brings in the law of sin “they were naked indeed, the man and his wife, but not ashamed before each other” . . . whereas after the sin which breaches the total order to good of the creation before man, their first instinct is to “make for themselves coverings of fig-leaves”. A simple folk would understand, at all epochs of history. The point is beautifully made, and it argues revelation from its simplicity with truth. [ . . . ]

Christian love does not lust.

[T]he sexual act is a communion in a sacred relationship of love and of office to life, which embraces time, and in the child’s birth is a ministry into eternity. Its pleasure is not an end in itself, even as pleasure. The pleasure, to be as God intended it, is linked to a spiritual joy and peace in mutual possession, in which the spiritual joy of loving each other in God is the determinant and ruling joy of the bodily communion. There are not, in true Christian love, “great romps in bed”, as a certain Catholic pamphlet once expressed. St. Augustine knew a lot about “great romps in bed” before his conversion, which is why he is supremely sensitive and accurate in his evaluation of Christian love. [ . . . ] Man is indeed much higher than the animals: in us the bond of sexual union is part of the communion of the soul. The spiritual ministry between man and wife, parents and children, yes and grandparents, binds them in one providence till death does them part. Therefore in married love the physical in human loving must always be open to the truth of God, which binds the wholeness of their experience in just one fulness of meaning. We know, or can know, what God through the Church can bless and what He cannot. Human history today is strongly supporting the witness of the Church, and the honest young especially see the truth with simple, clean eyes.

Love and its good order

The young can enjoy in each other a spiritual happiness, based on mutual recognition of goodness; they can seek a physical tenderness in which their sexual complementariness is a natural joy. They must separate out, and refuse consent to erotic urge when it flares within them. They can help each other in this matter with love and respect. Then they will find a great peace with liberty of heart. Where sexual union is not relevant in them to a life-long and consecrated communion of love and life with openness to the ministry of creation, then the genital does not belong to them, is not honest love in them, and if indulged, restricts the liberty by which out of marriage, we can love widely, freely, but spiritually and with honesty. There is no greater slavery than the addiction to sexual lust, drink lust, or drugs lust, and in the name of “love” to muddy every relationship with erotic frenzy. We see the end: — the lecher and the paedophile, the homosexual, the many parents who cannot fondle the bodies of their little children without lust, because from childhood masturbation any tender touch has been for them a sexual frenzy. They have been assured it was alright, or was good for them. Youth who know the truth and live the truth find that by warning and restraining each other they come to possess a clear vision of the meaning of sex, and peace of soul. Spouses living within the guidelines of the Church's inspired teaching will find it the same. The celibate priest too, who lives his vocation within the honesty of his “honouring the flesh of Christ” will find, even to old years, an endless relationship, especially with the young, of sheer love, sheer joy, and peace with God.

The flaw that is now in man. 

Yes, the laws of God in this matter of sex fall hard on fallen man. It is better to rest on God’s mercy than make Him a liar. There is no fault in God, nor in his Church. There is a great and terrible flaw in the nature and personality of man. The Church would be better served if her theologians worked out anew and developed the insights of the Fathers, concerning the psychological consequences of the Fall in the psyche of man. But, to rub the sore to gangrene is no way to heal it, and that the Western world has done. Healing — at first fitful and slow — lies in the reforming grace of God, within the wisdom of the Church. This healing grace matures the experience of perfect married love, its sweet consideration, mutual help, and subordination of pleasure to love with peace. We could do with less rather than more sex in the modern world, less rather than more in the average marriage. The erotic has done nothing to enhance marriage and family life: sex has replaced God as our basic joy. Again, that which perfects man in a nobler sexual ethic must come from within a man, by the powers of his personal spiritual being. Is nature and loving perfected in order by the endless sterile couplings, the fornications, infidelities, masturbations, by the lustful parties, the coarse utterly irreverent treatment of the sexual in the papers and on the TV? Is this the freedom of “The New Morality” made by “the consent of mankind”? Is nature and love more perfect for the careful condoms, the artefacts, pills and sprays, the injections and the sterilisations? Does mutilation prove a new and nobler order of love? Then, there are abortions, the babies carried, sometimes with a cry, in plastic bags to the dustbins . . . new sexual ethic indeed!

Men and women are dignified in their love and sexual communion by a control and order that comes from within by grace, not from without by mutilation. Sexual union should be, is meant to be always part of a living communion with God’s will, and God’s law, lived in the possession of God's love. And this makes sense, and perfects them both . . .

“Unhappy man that I am: I find a law in my members contradicting the law of my mind . . . who will deliver me from this body of death? The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Romans 7:24). Taste and see; when the Lord is loved, his yoke is sweet, and former burdens become light. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” (John 14:27.).

Faith Magazine

September - October 2015