Today, July 25, marks the 45th anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. As many in the Catholic world had been expecting the Church to permit contraception under certain circumstances thanks to many perhaps well-meaning but shortsighted clergy and theologians, the encyclical met with hostility and has been widely ignored and explicitly rejected.
But the more time marches on, the more Humanae Vitae appears prophetic, for Paul VI voiced four concerns regarding artificial contraception that have largely become realities: a general lowering of moral standards; increased marital infidelity; the reduction of women to instruments for the fulfillment of male desire; and public authorities engaging in coercive population planning programs. Indeed, in an incisive article in First Things roughly five years ago, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” the redoubtable Mary Eberstadt demonstrated precisely how widespread contraception led to the fulfillment of Pope Paul VI’s fears. Eberstadt’s piece ought to be read both by those who reject Humanae Vitae or are disinclined to accept that contraception has led to such evils as well as by those who are inclined to accept it.
It’s also important to note that Humanae Vitae deals more with the personal and societal effects of contraception and roots its argumentation not so much in Christian revelation but in nature and reason. As most people operate with broad, ugly ditches between faith and reason, nature and grace, and the realms of the public and private, that fact is often missed. As I wrote some months ago:
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI dealt not so much with issues of particularly Catholic morality but with the profound issues of the human person and human culture, arguing—indeed, prophesying, as it turns out—that contraception would lead to a “general lowering of morality” and the treatment of women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment.” He warned, too, of “the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law” who “may even impose their use on everyone.” When dealing with sexuality, we are not merely in the realm of religion but the realm of reason. These are not matters of religious scruples, but matters of public concern concerning the common good. [...]
I further suggested that contraception does not serve the common good:
Research results have found the Pill to be carcinogenic, which may help explain the dramatic rise of breast cancer rates since the Pill’s introduction. There are also real ecological concerns, as European studies have found high levels of synthetic hormones (used in contraceptives) in fish, leading to their sterility. Edward Green, senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, defended Pope Benedict’s claim that saturating the African continent with condoms wasn’t helping in the fight against AIDS. And whereas Malthusian demographers once fired apocalyptic fears of a population bomb, many are now concerned with the social and economic upheaval involved in the demographic decline that most modernized nations face.
When it comes to contraception, we are not dealing with sound natural and social science geared toward the common good, but with the ideology of personal autonomy and utopian desires that ignore what those sciences would seem to teach us. Rooting his reasoning in nature, Pope Paul VI has been proven right.
Update: George Weigel examines Humanae Vitae on the occasion of its anniversary here. Excerpts:
Contrary to the myth-making (and, in some instances, prevarication) that has characterized a lot of commentary on Humanae Vitae since its publication on July 25, 1968, Paul VI’s letter to the Church and to “all men of good will” is, at bottom, a paean to responsible parenthood — a theme that recurs throughout the document. Humanae Vitae does not teach an ideology of procreation at all costs; quite the contrary. Pope Paul taught that married couples have a moral obligation to plan their families; further, he wrote, family planning is an exercise of vocational discernment that engages the mind, the heart, and the will, and each of those faculties should be informed by mutual respect and charity between spouses. The question Paul VI tried to put on the table of global discussion was not whether family planning was morally legitimate; the question he posed was: How can fertility be regulated in a truly humanistic and life-affirming way? How can the regulation of births cohere with the moral truths built into humanity, especially those moral truths that touch on the unique dignity of women?
…while Paul VI did write that it was his responsibility to sift the material he had been given by many advisers, including the papal commission on marriage and fertility that Pope John XXIII had established and that he, Paul, had expanded, he also made clear that the teaching of Humanae Vitae rested, not on the personal conscience of Giovanni Battista Montini, but on the mature conviction of Pope Paul VI as custodian and servant, not master, of the Catholic tradition. Moreover, it is demeaning to suggest that Paul VI affirmed the Church’s classic position on marital love and procreation (which had been held for centuries by virtually every Christian community until the Anglican Communion broke ranks at the 1930 Lambeth Conference) because he was afraid that changing the traditional position would unravel the entire body of Catholic moral teaching. Pope Paul had been quite willing to hit the development-of-doctrine accelerator in any number of cases at Vatican II (including the collegiality of bishops and religious freedom), and there is no reason to think that he was frightened by the idea of legitimate developments in Catholic self-understanding; he simply judged that the case for artificial contraception was not such a development.
Forty-five years after Humanae Vitae, it now seems clear that the invention of the oral contraceptive pill (to adopt one reference point for the broader contraceptive revolution) was one of the three achievements of 20th-century science with truly world-historical impact, the other two being the creation of the self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and the unraveling of the DNA double helix. What Fermi wrought in physics, and what Watson and Crick made possible in the new genetics, are accomplishments that most serious people recognize as having potential shadow-sides: nuclear warfare, in the one case; a brave new world of manufactured and stunted humanity in the other. Perhaps it is now time to recognize that the third world-changing scientific achievement of the last century is not the unmitigated good that much of Western culture claims it is — and that treating the sexual revolution as a unambiguous, indeed undeniable, boon to humanity can lead to a lot of personal unhappiness, homicidal ghouls like Kermit Gosnell, and the deployment of coercive state power in ways that threaten civil society and democracy.