In the 1960s, the Church faced increasing pressure regarding the use of contraceptive means with the marketing of the anovulant pill. In response, Vatican Council II stated in Gaudium et Spes, “In questions of birth regulation, the sons and daughters of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law” (No.51).
However, Pope Paul VI had transferred the investigation of new questions concerning this matter to a special commission (originally established by Pope John XXIII in March, 1963) for the study of population, the family, and births. The Holy Father would then review their findings and render judgment. The commission included married couples and those of various competencies in this field. Select bishops were also asked for their views; other bishops voluntarily submitted them.
On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae which upheld the consistent teaching of the Church based on natural law as well as divine revelation: “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (No.11).
Our Holy Father has continually repeated the Church's teaching. In Familiaris Consortio, he lamented the signs of a “disturbing degradation of some fundamental values” evident in “the growing number of divorces, the scourge of abortion, the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization, the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality” (No.6).
Interestingly, Pope Paul VI prophesied grave consequences from contraception: increased marital infidelity and a lowering of moral standards; increased lack of respect for women, including seeing a woman as a sex object and as an instrument to satisfy sexual pleasures rather than seeing her as a partner in marriage; and the danger of empowering public authorities to regulate the lives of others. Thirty years later, these warnings have become realities: Statistics show the rapid increase of divorce, from a rate of 25 percent in 1965 to 50 percent in 1975 during the first five years of marriage. By the year 2000, 50 percent of American teenagers will have lived a significant part of their lives without a father figure. Moreover, Dr. Robert Michaels of Stanford University found a direct, positive correlation between the growing rate of divorce and the rate of contraception. (Interestingly, couples who use Natural Family Planning have a much lower divorce rate: 0.6 percent according to the Couple to Couple League, and 2-5 percent according to research conducted by California State University.)
Any person can attest to the deterioration of the moral quality of television and movies during this time, as evidenced by shows like “Friends” or “Sex in the City.” Pornography has become increasingly prevalent, with 630 million pornographic video rentals reported each year in the United States. The availability of pornography and sexual contacts through the internet is alarming.
The separation of the unitive from the procreative aspects of marital love, and the removal of marital love from marriage itself has made “sexual love” simply recreational and promiscuous. Many government-sponsored high schools in particular have inculcated the attitude among students that they can have “safe sex,” thereby obfuscating any responsibility for a child, or any thought of disease or any other consequence. In the United States, 100 high schools have clinics which distribute condoms, and 300 high schools without clinics make condoms available through counselors, nurses, teachers, vending machines, or baskets (2002 The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy). 50 percent of current high school teens will lose their virginity during high school (The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001). If statistics hold true, 840,000 teens will become pregnant this year (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997). In 1995, 32 percent of all newborns were born to unmarried mothers (1995: Monthly Vital Statistics Report). On the other hand, 98 percent of all abortions are performed for elective, non-medical reasons, i.e. “the unplanned pregnancy” (Abortion: Some Medical Facts). Do not all of these statistics correlated and together show the erosion of the sanctity of human sexuality, marriage, and marital love?
Crimes of rape continue to rise each year. The news is replete with cases alleging sexual harassment and sexual abuse, even among clergy. The rise of the “same sex marriage movement,” the adoption of children by homosexual couples, testifies to the loss of understanding of God’s design for marriage and the family.
Procedures involving in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and surrogate motherhood are increasingly available. Moreover, research for cloning, including the cloning of a human being, continues.
The intrusion of government into family planning has become more prevalent. Some municipal or state governments, as Maryland and Kansas have tried in the past, have attempted to begin programs which pay women to use Norplant (the five-year contraceptive implanted in a woman's arm) to control the pregnancies of teenagers and welfare recipients. Foreign countries like Peru have introduced sterilization programs and have compelled poor citizens to be sterilized. Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights on Dec. 16, 2002 lamented that health organizations in all 31 of that country’s states have imposed contraceptive devices on the native population and peasants. International policy set by the affluent Western nations to help developing Third World countries oftentimes include mandatory population control provisions, including artificial birth control and abortion.
Ironically, even the forecast of the future has changed. One generation ago, Paul Ehrlich in his book The Population Bomb warned that overpopulation would “kill the planet.” Contraceptives were hailed as the remedy for this pending doom, and Humanae Vitae was derided. Now we find ourselves in a different situation. The Population Division of the United Nations published its report “World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision,” projecting a decline in world population: two years ago, the Population Division projected a world population of 9.3 billion people in 2050; now it projects 8.9. It also projects that the fertility levels in most developing countries will fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 children during this century, and by 2050, population levels in more developed countries will have already been declining for 20 years. For instance, the Population Division forecasts by mid-century a 14 percent reduction in population in Japan, and 22 percent in Italy; moreover, the population in Europe will decline from 726 million people to 632 million. With forecasts of higher life expectancy, more elderly and less young, now the population planners are asking, “Who will take care of the elderly? Where will taxes come from to support social programs?” Now countries like France give tax incentives to families to have children to reverse their declining population.
Little wonder, Pope John Paul II declared Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae a “truly prophetic proclamation” (Familiaris Consortio, No.29). The time has come to return to the Lord and His truth regarding human sexuality, marriage, and marital love.
Interestingly, Dr. William May in 1968 signed a statement with numerous other theologians dissenting from Humane Vitae. He has long since recanted. In 1988, on the 20th anniversary of the encyclical, he said, “I was beginning to see that if contraception is justifiable, then perhaps artificial insemination, test-tube reproduction, and similar modes of generating life outside the marital embrace are morally justifiable too…. I began to realize that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed. I saw that it was a consequentialist, utilitarian kind of argument, that it was a theory which repudiated the notion of intrinsically evil acts. I began to realize how truly prophetic the Pope had been, and how providential it was that he had been given the strength to resist the tremendous pressures brought to bear upon him” (Columbia). Now fifteen years later, articles concerning in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and cloning appear regularly in the news media. One has to ask, “Where are we headed as a society?”
Pope Paul VI concluded Humanae Vitae with the statement that the Church is to be “a sign of contradiction.” So indeed she is in upholding the sanctity of marriage and the error of contraception. Yes, the Church is going against the popular culture of the age. Nevertheless, St. Paul's words originally addressed to the Romans should resound in our own ears: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God's will, what is good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)