In 1883, speaking not as a novelist but as a bystander describing a terrible scene of carnage, Leo Tolstoy observed of what he documented: “We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and we cannot believe that if we do not look, there will not be what we do not wish to see.”
Today’s Catholic Church appears split between those who follow Tolstoy, and those who follow ostriches. The division is nowhere more obvious than in the newly, albeit perennially, contested terrain of teachings concerning marriage and sex. True, Christians were warned from the earliest days that the rules governing this culture would be strict, and the disciples themselves complained that Jesus’s strictures were “hard.” But something new is afoot. Two thousand years later, not only do many Catholics and other Christians voice the same old complaint. Some also defiantly insist that “hard” teachings are ipso facto “wrong” teachings.
The problem for those sex rebels at this precise moment is the same problem identified by Tolstoy. Reality cannot be ignored. Though hope for theological change may spring eternal today, exactly as it did, say, in 1968, we can no longer pretend that this is 1968. Too much evidence has accumulated about what happened after Eve swallowed the Pill. And that evidence points to a lethal moral hazard ignored by today’s would-be Church-changers—specifically, by those who hope to use birth control as a camel’s nose that will someday loosen other parts of the tent.
The reality is that contraception does not reduce abortion. Contraception causes abortion. Contraception increases abortion.
When Humanae Vitae appeared in 1968, hopeful people believed the opposite. They believed, and wanted mightily to believe, that reliable birth control would reduce abortion. More than half a century of social science contradicts this wishful thinking. Just for starters: A seven-page, heavily footnoted document issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, available on their website, demonstrates at scholastic length that “greater access to contraception does not reduce abortions.”
On the contrary, the record shows that contraception increases abortion. This is not to say that all acts of contraception end in abortion, or that all people who contracept approve of abortion, or otherwise to reduce this critical point to absurdities. It is simply to note a fact that philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe explained almost fifty years ago, and that theologians following Janet Smith have developed in full over the decades since: Contraception radically changes intentionality. It is also to acknowledge another decisive fact that is as plain today as it was unknown in 1968. The de-stigmatization of abortion in country after country could not have been accomplished without the prior de-stigmatization of birth control technology. No widespread use of the Pill & Co., no widespread abortion.
Thus far, the fact that contraception increases abortion has been ignored by those taking new aim at Humanae Vitae, Casti Connubii (1930), and related reiterations of ancient teachings. Their silence needs to be called out. Those who seek to make contraception permissible must first explain something else: why contributing to more abortion is also permissible. They must address the fact that a changed Church would not be the same old real estate spiffed up with rainbows and unicorn stickers. A changed Church would have blood on her hands.
A second set of facts is also plain to those following Tolstoy rather than ostriches: Today’s rationalizations for changing the Church are embarrassingly out of step with post-revolutionary realities of another kind.
Pressure to capitulate to the sexual revolution flows from two directions. One is the wider secularist anti-culture in which a neo-pagan current antithetical to Christianity strengthens apace. The other, more dangerous pressure arises from within the Church itself. Watching as their neo-paganizing flocks are swept away, some shepherds lament that these core teachings of Christianity are not “well received”—code language for the campaign aimed at softening them, in the hope that they might someday be erased. The implied notion that the truth of dogma is not absolute, but relative to its popularity in the pews, raises other unavoidable questions whose answers are overdue.
First is the tired but true problem of the slippery slope. If teachings are to be jettisoned due to their unpopularity among Catholics, where will that exercise end? Measured by statistics, for example, the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days is emphatically also not “well received.” Judging by the conspicuous consumption on display every holiday season, and in every other season of the year, neither is the commandment against covetousness. Frequent confession, corporal works of mercy, the mortification of the flesh: more victims of faulty reception. In which cases does the neglect of Catholic practice mandate retooling the Catechism and the Ten Commandments, and in which cases does it not?
The incantation of “reception” fails for another reason: The most auspicious postrevolutionary reality today is not that people resent Church teaching about sex. That’s old news—two thousand years old. No, the most auspicious and under-attended reality is that skeptical reaction to the sexual revolution is growing both inside and outside the Church.
Those same unwanted teachings resonate among fallen souls as powerfully as ever, the more so as the stupendous wreckage of the sexual revolution piles up. By the first quarter of the twenty-first century, what is driving many Western converts into the Church is not resistance to Catholic teaching, but desired fidelity to it. They seek a way out of the low-down, dirty, neo-paganizing culture—especially its degraded sexuality. On a similar note, today’s extraordinary evangelization of Africa and Asia continues not despite the tough Christian rule book, but because those teachings about the sanctity of life and marriage shine out against the anti-Christian and non-Christian alternatives, including but not limited to polygamy.
This brings us to one final point, which should no longer be ignored by those dreaming and scheming about a hipper Catholic Church. The same teachings they hope to deep-six are gaining new and unexpected hearings outside the Church, in the same re-paganizing West. This is partly due to the energetic scholarship of religious traditionalists themselves—including an outpouring of work by female theologians and philosophers.
That growing body of scholarship is surely of interest, or ought to be, to those who wonder aloud where the Church’s women are. One answer is: defending the Barque of Peter. Consider a landmark symposium held in Washington, D.C., in 2018 on “Second Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution,” co-sponsored by the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, the Catholic Information Center, and the Archdiocese of Washington. It featured testimony by theologians, philosophers, and other academics, alongside attorneys, therapists, and journalists—nearly all of them women in positions of intellectual authority, wielding their collective might on behalf of traditionalism. To that example could be added many other revisitings that have arisen in solidarity, answering the aging sex rebels with new energy and new scholarship.
One more fact they can no longer pretend not to know: Partly in response to such work, writers from outside religious precincts are slowly but unmistakably coming to reckon anew with the sexual revolution—and they, too, are gaining traction. In the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, for example, three such skeptical books have broken through in the last few years alone, all objects of vigorous discussion, and all from beyond Planet Catholic. In secular media these days, questions that once were unthinkable now abound about the Pill, cohabitation, and divorce—just those things that the changers and rebels would countenance. Meanwhile, detractors of another phenomenon proscribed on account of the old Christian rule book—pornography—now include not only people within religious circles, but a lengthening list of celebrities and other secular witnesses. Six decades in, the fallout from the sexual revolution is too conspicuous to ignore, including for souls outside the Church.
These developments mark a transition in the postrevolutionary West. Today’s cutting-edge analyses, secular and religious, line up behind revisionism about the sexual revolution; they don’t surrender to it. Those who would dilute Catholic teaching could not have chosen a worse moment to press their case. Why on earth support the revolution’s infiltration of the Church, when so many people outside it are stumbling anew onto ancient truths, and so many on the inside defend the Magisterium with renewed vigor?
That, finally, is the ultimate evidence visible to those with heads above the ground. How grand that the Church has maintained unflinchingly its enduring teachings, no matter how irksome and unpopular, for so long. What a tragedy it would be for the world if, at this of all moments, Christians themselves were to miss in the postrevolutionary disorder an unfolding and profound vindication.
That evidence abounds. It points toward the preternatural wisdom of a longstanding rule book. And it cannot, in good faith, be ignored any longer.
Mary Eberstadt is the author of Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?