Humanae Vitae: Predicting Our Current Crises

We began our reflection on Humanae vitae, which was signed 50 years ago today, by looking at the historical context of the encyclical; we then moved to identify the various questions Bl. Pope Paul VI sought to address in this important letter.  Now we turn our attention to one of the most crucial sections of the encyclical, paragraph 17, wherein Paul VI warns of the negative consequences if society ignores the Church’s teachings on life and sexuality.

While many dissenters scoffed at the Holy Father’s warnings in 1968, fifty years of history have shown that Paul VI’s predictions came true.  Just as personal sins negatively affect other aspects of our lives, so also social sins like the contraceptive culture damage human society.

Low Moral Standards

Paul VI begins by warning that a disregard for the Church’s teaching on contraception, “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”  This is not to say that marital infidelity did not occur prior to widespread contraceptive use, or that everyone was morally perfect before scientists invented “the pill.”  Rather, Paul VI here warns that moral issues like infidelity and unchastity would flourish in a culture that approves of contraception.  What was once the sad activity of depraved or desperate addicts, crouched in seamy cells of moral darkness, becomes not only accepted, but expected.  In a world that divorces life from intercourse, and love from lovemaking, what is left to stop a spouse from cheating?  If sex can be made “safe” from producing life, what is there to prohibit any and all sexual activity?  For that matter, why save sexual activity for adults; why not let minors “express themselves”?

It was the Pope’s fear that a contraceptive culture would corrupt the young, “who need incentives to keep the moral law.”  Without moral standards, such as those proposed by Humanae vitae, young people will not be able to form their consciences, and as a result will violate the moral law.  “It is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break the law,” Paul VI writes.  Scandal, after all, is a particularly nefarious evil (see Matthew 18:5-7).

Few would argue that moral standards have not lessened since 1968 (those that do doubt at least admit there has been a shift in moral values).  Recent statistics reveal that “In over 1/3 of marriages, one or both partners admit to cheating,” and that “People who have cheated before are 350% more likely to cheat again.” Another recent study shows that on average only 5% of women getting married today are virgins. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it is a real challenge to even watch television or movies without drowning in sexual jokes and material.

Regarding moral standards, the world has suffered more than Paul VI could have predicted.  Archbishop Chaput summarized this point well when he wrote, “The cultural revolution since 1968, driven at least in part by transformed attitudes toward sex, would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable contraception. In this, Paul VI was right.”

Pope Paul Predicted #MeToo

I don’t mean to say that Pope Paul VI predicted the social media phenomenon that is the #MeToo movement; rather, I refer to Pope Paul’s prediction of coming abuse, particularly of women, in the wake of the contraceptive culture.

He writes,

Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

This consequence is intimately tied to the aforementioned crisis in marital infidelity.  Note, again, that Pope Paul VI is not saying that if a woman avoids contraception, she will be safe from sexual abuse.  He is saying that men in the contraceptive culture will tend to disregard the dignity of women, treating them as objects for pleasure, rather than as persons.  As usual, what adult men do trickles down to the youth who look to their elders for an example.  The acceptance of contraception corrodes the conscience of the individual and of society.

Thus the need for the #MeToo movement, which rightly condemns those who sexually abuse others.  There may have been no need for the movement if the contraceptive culture had not erupted.  Likewise, one sees this abusive streak in pornography, where over 88% of the material contains physical abuse, and 48% verbal abuse, against women.  No one can claim pornography is as hidden as it was in decades past; average revenue is about $3000 per second.  Finally, disturbing statistics show that 74% of men “say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught.”

So much for “care and affection” for women.

Deceptive Contraceptive Control

“The family is the original cell of social life” (CCC 2207).  This means that what happens within and to families affects the wider society.  If contraception becomes a part of family life, Paul VI notes, it will become a part of life in the wider society.  The Holy Father warns,

Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

Paul VI speaks here of governments regulating the births of their citizens.  Such a prediction seemed preposterous in 1968.  Were not the Nazis and their forced sterilization procedures a thing of the past?  Had not the USA moved past the various eugenics programs entertained in the first half of the twentieth century?  Were not the communist countries moving away from their past abuses?  In light of those facts, Paul VI’s argument seemed like a textbook case of a slippery slope fallacy.

Yet it would not take long for his prediction to come true.  Within a decade, the communist government in China began its notorious One-Child Policy, through which hundreds of millions of women were sterilized in some fashion by the Chinese government.  Mexican immigrant women were forcibly sterilized in Los Angeles County, CA during the late 1960s and early 1970s; in the 1990s, in other parts of the USA, some judges gave convicted child abusing and drug addicted women the option of taking the Norplant contraceptive instead of going to jail.  Today, many western countries pressure developing countries to pass pro-contraception laws; Denmark admitted to sending contraception to Africa in order to limit the number of potential migrants.  Such actions are, again quoting Archbishop Chaput, “a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering.”

Hope for the Future

In this moral darkness, there is hope for the Church and society.

Pope Francis praised Paul VI as, “Courageous, a good pastor [who] warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching.”  Paul VI’s teaching paved the way for Pope St. John Paul II’s beautiful, radical teaching on human sexuality.  This “Theology of the Body” explored the moral lessons of Humanae vitae, applying John Paul’s personalist philosophy to Paul VI’s teaching.

From the “Theology of the Body” came a wave of resources, all of them teaching not only John Paul II’s work but also that of Paul VI and the entire Tradition on sexuality to a new generation.  Chastity and vocational speakers are now a mainstay of youth rallies in the USA and around the world, especially events like World Youth Day.  While studies show the increase in sexual issues in our society, these same studies also show the benefits of living a moral life in conformity to the Church’s teaching.  While history shows how governments use contraception against their citizens, recent international organizations have had great success in removing such laws.

Catholics who know about Humanae vitae have a special mission to be witnesses to the Church’s beautiful teaching on human sexuality.  As we strive to live this teaching in our marriages and in our daily lives, we will not only invite God into our own marriages, but we will also transform our culture, restoring a broken world in Christ.  In our work, we have a patron in Blessed, soon to be Saint, Paul VI.

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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