Posted by: littletoe | July 26, 2008

Reflections on Humanae Vitae

I received an e-mail from CatholiCity today that I almost deleted before I read because in the midst of moving I don’t have time for that stuff. Heck, Sister Mary Martha and the Caveman have gone unread for weeks I’m sorry to say. I realize that I am a failure as a blogger because I feel such a burden to come up with something brilliant before I write. Other people just read the news and write a few comments. Why can’t I do that? I always have an opinion—well thought out or not. But I digress…

In the e-mail was a link to the best article I’ve read about how our culture has been negatively affected by freely available birth control *gasp*. It is called “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae”, written by Mary Eberstadt. The article had a tremendous impact on me as these changes were largely wrought during my lifetime. I really want to reach the people my daughter’s age and up to the twenty-somethings in the hope that a personal story can help them see through the lies that surround them in our current culture.

On July 25, 1968 Pope Paul VI promulgated the infamous encyclical “Humanae Vitae”. I think I vaguely remember seeing his face on the cover of Newsweek sitting on an end table in my parents living room. I was about to turn eight. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, CA and was raised with no religion and agnostic parents. Back then we were somewhat unusual (though not unheard of) in that we did not attend church. Although my parents weren’t church-goers they were reasonably ethical people.

As a 5 year-old I remember my mother explaining to me that some day I would meet a very special man, fall in love and marry. By the time I was sixteen, I was introduced to our family’s first gay friend. My parents met him through some friends of theirs. When I was eighteen I was encouraged to get on the Pill because I would eventually need to anyway. I first heard of AIDS when I was in my mid-twenties. I am ashamed now to admit that I lived exactly as I was encouraged to by all the secular influences by which I was surrounded. I bought into the feminist movement hook, line and sinker.

As I reflect back, all it lead to was heartbreak. It was worse for others. I took friends to the abortion clinic thinking I was helping them. One of them I haven’t seen since high school. I wonder how she’s doing, if she’s even alive.

Mary Eberstadt writes:

To many people, both today and when the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968, the notion simply defies understanding. Consenting adults, told not to use birth control? Preposterous. Third World parents deprived access to contraception and abortion? Positively criminal. A ban on condoms when there’s a risk of contracting AIDS? Beneath contempt.

Everyone in my circle of influence thought these thoughts.

“The execration of the world,” in philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s phrase, was what Paul VI incurred with that document—to which the years since 1968 have added plenty of just plain ridicule. Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”

I laughed at those jokes!

Eberstadt observes:

And in just that apparent consensus about the ridiculousness of it all, amid all those ashes scattered over a Christian teaching stretching back two millennia, arises a fascinating and in fact exceedingly amusing modern morality tale—amusing, at least, to those who take their humor dark…Four decades later, not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratified in empirical force, but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.

Forty years later, there are more than enough ironies, both secular and religious, to make one swear there’s a humorist in heaven.

Paul VI

Pope Paul VI made four famous (among fans of Catholic teaching) predictions if birth control were to be considered “moral” and its use widespread: 1) a general lowering of moral standards throughout society, 2) a rise in infidelity, 3) a lessening of respect of women by men and 4) the coercive use of birth control technologies by governments who deemed it “necessary.” Most people would agree that these things have come to pass in spades in our culture.  Eberstadt cites many examples of secular social scientists who have written books and published studies of the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution on society in general and in particular, women and children.  She observes with irony how the evidence is often found in the most unlikely places:

Consider the work of maverick socio-biologist Lionel Tiger. Hardly a cat’s-paw of the pope—he describes religion as “a toxic issue”—Tiger has repeatedly emphasized the centrality of the sexual revolution to today’s unique problems. The Decline of Males, his 1999 book, was particularly controversial among feminists for its argument that female contraceptives had altered the balance between the sexes in disturbing new ways (especially by taking from men any say in whether they could have children).

Equally eyebrow-raising is his linking of contraception to the breakdown of families, female impoverishment, trouble in the relationship between the sexes, and single motherhood. Tiger has further argued—as Humanae Vitae did not explicitly, though other works of Catholic theology have—for a causal link between contraception and abortion, stating outright that “with effective contraception controlled by women, there are still more abortions than ever. . . . Contraception causes abortion.”

I can hear the air being sucked out of many rooms as the last sentence is read.

She goes on to explain how the more high-minded intellectual Catholics in 1968 surrounded themselves with the mantle of science. The Malthusian idea that we were going to over-populate ourselves and eventually all starve to death or else kill each other in pursuit of food was quite prevalent. I remember being taught all about that as a child. I can hear my daughter now, “Mom, that’s so 1968! *insert eye roll here*”

And then, irony of ironies, who but the feminists are vindicating Pope Paul VI!  The people who love to hate the old, celibate men telling them what to do with their bodies.  I used to be one of them.

…it would be hard to get more ironic than having these particular predictions of Humanae Vitae vindicated by perhaps the most unlikely—to say nothing of unwilling—witness of all: modern feminism.

Yet that is exactly what has happened since 1968. From Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer on up through Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, feminist literature has been a remarkably consistent and uninterrupted cacophony of grievance, recrimination, and sexual discontent. In that forty-year record, we find, as nowhere else, personal testimony of what the sexual revolution has done to womankind.

Consider just what we have been told by the endless books on the topic over the years. If feminists married and had children, they lamented it. If they failed to marry or have children, they lamented that, too. If they worked outside the home and also tended their children, they complained about how hard that was. If they worked outside the home and didn’t tend their children, they excoriated anyone who thought they should. And running through all this literature is a more or less constant invective about the unreliability and disrespect of men… Beneath all the pathos, the subtext remains the same: Woman’s chief adversary is Unreliable Man, who does not understand her sexual and romantic needs and who walks off time and again at the first sashay of a younger thing. What are all these but the generic cries of a woman who thinks that men are “disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium” and “no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection”?

Reference Prediction #3.

The adversaries of Humanae Vitae also could not have foreseen one important historical development that in retrospect would appear to undermine their demands that the Catholic Church change with the times: the widespread Protestant collapse, particularly the continuing implosion of the Episcopal Church and the other branches of Anglicanism.

Don’t get me started! All you need to do is watch the Eddie Izzard video I posted a few months ago and you’ll see what’s become of the Anglican Church.  And although the Anglican Church is imploding, the Evangelicals are rediscovering that purposefully sterile sex is immoral.   How funny is that?

The years since Humanae Vitae have seen something else that neither traditionalist nor dissenting Catholics could have seen coming, one other development shedding retrospective credit on the Church: a serious reappraisal of Christian sexuality from Protestants outside the liberal orbit.

Thus, for instance, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in First Things in 1998 that “in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation’s Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church’s teaching.” Later, when interviewed in a 2006 article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about current religious thinking on artificial contraception, Mohler elaborated: “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the Pill. . . . The entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there can be no question that the Pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”

Albert Mohler??!!  She goes on:

As with the other ironies, it helps here to have a soft spot for absurdity. In their simultaneous desire to jettison the distasteful parts of Catholicism and keep the more palatable ones, American Catholics have done something novel and truly amusing: They have created a specific catalogue of complaints that resembles nothing so much as a Catholic version of the orphan with chutzpah.

Thus many Catholics complain about the dearth of priests, all the while ignoring their own responsibility for that outcome—the fact that few have children in numbers large enough to send one son to the priesthood while the others marry and carry on the family name. They mourn the closing of Catholic churches and schools—never mind that whole parishes, claiming the rights of individual conscience, have contracepted themselves out of existence. They point to the priest sex scandals as proof positive that chastity is too much to ask of people—completely ignoring that it was the randy absence of chastity that created the scandals in the first place.

In fact, the disgrace of contemporary American Catholicism—the many recent scandals involving priests and underage boys—is traceable to the collusion between a large Catholic laity that wanted a different birth-control doctrine, on the one hand, and a new generation of priests cutting themselves a different kind of slack, on the other. “I won’t tattle on my gay priest if you’ll give me absolution for contraception” seems to have been the unspoken deal in many parishes since Humanae Vitae.

A more obedient laity might have wondered aloud about the fact that a significant number of priests post-Vatican II seemed more or less openly gay. A more obedient clergy might have noticed that plenty of Catholics using artificial contraception were also taking Communion. It is hard to believe that either new development—the widespread open rebellion against church sexual teachings by the laity, or the concomitant quiet rebellion against church sexual teachings by a significant number of priests—could have existed without the other.

That’s just sad.  And finally:

At the end of the day, though, it is hard to believe that the fundamental force behind the execration by the world amounts to a phrase here and there in Humanae Vitae—or in Augustine, or in Thomas Aquinas, or in anywhere else in the long history of Christian teaching on the subject. More likely, the fundamental issue is rather what Archbishop Chaput explained ten years ago: “If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”

…This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record…There is the ongoing empirical vindication in one arena after another of the most unwanted, ignored, and ubiquitously mocked global teaching of the past fifty years. There is the fact that the Pill, which was supposed to erase all consequences of sex once and for all, turned out to have huge consequences of its own. There is the way that so many Catholics, embarrassed by accusations of archaism and driven by their own desires to be as free for sex as everyone around them, went racing for the theological exit signs after Humanae Vitae—all this just as the world with its wicked old ways began stockpiling more evidence for the Church’s doctrine than anyone living in previous centuries could have imagined, and while still other people were actually being brought closer to the Church because she stood exactly as that “sign of contradiction” when so many in the world wanted otherwise.

Even when I was still using contraceptives, I admired the Catholic Church, from a distance of course, for standing up to the world in that regard.  When it finally dawned on me in my mid-forties that their teaching was right it was one of the things that actually eased my conversion to the Catholic Church.

I think the reason the teaching was so categorically rejected was because there was an attitude that grown people were being told what to do or what not to do.  Very few Catholics dive into an encyclical as soon as it comes out.  We sit around waiting for the media to interpret them for us.  I would encourage anyone reading this to read Humanae Vitae. Read Theology of the Body.  When you’re done, post a comment and let me know why we aren’t teaching this compassionate roadmap for happy marriages and families to our children.



  1. WOW, awesome and if I weren’t so late to teach my children, I’d comment more. As a child of the 60’s, I completely get what you’re saying, and I grew up in a Catholic household….the public schools are rather powerful in getting their message across, I viewed my parents as horribly outdated in their beliefs when I was a teen!

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