This July 25th marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most controversial papal documents in history: Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching on the immorality of contraception. If you have wrestled with this teaching, believe me, I can relate. Years ago I almost left the Church over it. Forty years of perspective provide an opportunity to take another look. That’s what I’ll be doing in [the next] several columns.
You may have noticed above that I said “traditional Christian teaching” on contraception. Only in the last 50-70 years has this been viewed primarily as a “Catholic” issue. Until 1930, all Christian bodies stood together in their condemnation of any attempt to sterilize the marital act. That year, the Anglican Church broke with more than nineteen hundred years of uninterrupted Christian teaching. When the pill debuted in the early 1960′s, the Catholic Church alone was retaining what in 30 short years had come to be seen as an archaic, even absurd position.
One way to begin understanding the Church’s stance is by “judging the tree by its fruit.” This is what first made me realize that contraception was a much more important issue than I had realized.
When Margaret Sanger and her followers started pushing contraception in the early 1900′s, wise men and women — and certainly not just Catholics — predicted that severing sex from procreation would eventually lead to sexual and societal chaos. Today’s culture of adultery, divorce, premarital sex, STD’s, out-of-wedlock births, abortion, fatherless children, homosexuality, poverty, crime, drugs, and violence was all foreseen.
What’s the connection with contraception? While today’s societal chaos is certainly complex, the following demonstrates the “inner logic” of contraception’s contribution. People are often tempted to do things they shouldn’t do. Deterrents within nature itself and within society help to curb these temptations and maintain order. For example, what would happen to the crime rate in a given society if jail terms suddenly ceased?
Apply the same logic to sex. People throughout history have been tempted to commit adultery. It’s nothing new. However, one of the main deterrents from succumbing to the temptation has been the fear of pregnancy. What would happen if this natural deterrent were taken away? As history demonstrates, rates of adultery would skyrocket. What’s one of the main causes of divorce? Adultery. Apply the same logic to pre-marital sex. Such behavior has, indeed, skyrocketed. Premarital sex, as a kind of “adultery in advance,” is also a prime indicator of future marital breakdown.
It gets worse. Since no method of contraception is 100% effective, an increase in adultery and pre-marital sex will inevitably lead to an increase in “unwanted pregnancies.” What’s next? So many people think contraception is the solution to the abortion problem. Take a deeper look and you’ll see that that’s like throwing gasoline on a fire to try to put it out. In the final analysis, there is only one reason we have abortion — because men and women are having sex without being “open to life.” If this mentality is at the root of abortion, contraception does nothing but foster and afford this mentality.
Not everyone will resort to abortion of course. Some will choose adoption. Other mothers (most) will raise these children by themselves. Hence the number of children who grow up without a father (which has already been increased by the rise in divorce) will be compounded. And a culture of “fatherless” children inevitably becomes a culture of poverty, crime, drugs, and violence. All of these social ills compound exponentially from generation to generation since “fatherless” children are also much more likely to have out-of-wedlock births and, if they marry at all, divorce.
What about homosexuality? Our culture is impotent to resist the “gay agenda” because we have already accepted its basic premise with contraception — the reduction of sex to the exchange of pleasure. When openness to life is no longer an intrinsic part of the sexual equation, why does sexual behavior have to be with the opposite sex?
Forty years after the release of Humanae Vitae, many people are beginning to see that the Church might not be crazy after all.
[Editor's note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE's Theology of the Body channel.]
This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (www.christopherwest.com).