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You know the story. Forty years ago¯on July 25, 1968¯a tired, grumpy, and celibate old man in Rome issued an encyclical called Humanae Vitae , solemnly declaring that birth control is bad, and half the world responded with a shrug. The other half responded with a sneer.

It’s hard to imagine a worse moment for Pope Paul VI to denounce contraception. The Second Vatican Council had finished its great shake-up of Catholicism only three years before, and even the most serious Catholics were still picking themselves up off the ground and trying to figure out what had happened. As for non-Catholics, well, in the summer of 1968, across the civilized world, aroused young people were declaring their freedom from all the senseless old restrictions and chastities. Even if Paul VI was right, there was no one ready to listen to him.

But, of course, the pope wasn’t right. We all know that. Humanae Vitae was treated as a joke because it was a joke, wasn’t it? Vatican roulette, rhythm-method babies: The official Catholic view of sex was a gift to stand-up comedians around the world. A gift to politicians and public figures, for that matter. Want an easy stick with which to whack around, say, the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion? Point out that those nutty Catholics are against birth control, too. Whenever public Catholics need a quick way to ingratiate themselves with non-Catholics, they announce their dissent on the Church’s teaching about birth control. And why not? It costs nothing, and it lets them pose themselves as rebels and independent thinkers, under no one’s ecclesial thumb.

It’s hard to remember all the joys we were told that contraception would bring, back in the day. For generations, from Victoria Woodhull all the way down to Margaret Sanger, birth-control activists had insisted that abortion would cease if we allowed access to contraception. In the 1965 decision Griswold v. Connecticut , the U.S. Supreme Court placed decisions about birth control at the center of the marriage bond. The smutty theaters, the back-room racks of pornography, the venereal diseases, the crushing down of young women into a life of timidity, the out-of-wedlock births, the masturbatory shame¯all the sicknesses of a repressed culture would be swept away in the free love that contraception allows.

Free love ¯forty years on, the phrase has a marvelously musty sound to it, like the fragile violets of a Victorian spinster’s girlhood, pressed in the fading pages of her remembrance book. Things didn’t work out quite the way we were promised. In fact, the results were pretty much what the pope had said they would be. A funny thing happened on the way to the orgy, and¯as Mary Eberstadt notes in her superb essay in the current issue of First Things ¯if there’s a joke buried in Humanae Vitae , the joke is on us.

Simply as a piece of argumentative prose, the 1968 encyclical was badly constructed. It lacked the romantic elements that Pope John Paul II would later put in his far more persuasive Theology of the Body , and it appealed to the authority of Christian tradition at a moment in which hardly anyone was willing to listen to authority. Still, along the way, Paul VI issued four general prophecies in Humanae Vitae , and on about all four of them, he seems to have been right.

He said, for instance, that universal acceptance of contraception would have the social consequence of creating men who had lost all respect for women. No longer caring for “her physical and psychological equilibrium,” men will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” In any great social movement, what’s cause and what’s effect is always hard to figure out, but, at the very least, all you have to do is sign on to the Internet to see that this much is true: Widespread access to birth control certainly didn’t bring us the end of pornography and the objectification of women’s bodies.

Paul VI predicted, as well, that the institution of marriage would have trouble surviving “the conjugal infidelity” that contraception makes easy. Far from strengthening marriage as the Supreme Court seems to have imagined, the advent of birth control left marriage in tatters, as the sexual revolution roared through town. If many more people use contraception today than they used to¯and do so certainly with less shame¯then why have divorce, abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and venereal disease done nothing but increase since 1968?

Humanae Vitae added that the general acceptance of contraception would put a “dangerous weapon” in the hands of “those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” And, from forced abortions in China to involuntary sterilizations in Peru, non-democratic governments have seen that there aren’t many steps between allowing people to limit birth and forcing them to.

Finally, the pope warned that contraception would lead people to picture their bodies as somehow possessions, rather than as their actual being. If a woman can paint her house, then why shouldn’t she get her nose bobbed and her breasts blown up with silicon to the size of beachballs? It’s what men seem to like, after all, and the body is just a thing, isn’t it?

Well, no, the body isn’t just a thing. The universal acceptance of contraception changed not just our behavior but the way that we think. It created a chasm between sex and procreation, and into that chasm fell social good after social good. You can’t say Paul VI didn’t warn us.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .


The Vindication of Humanae Vitae ” by Mary Eberstadt ( First Things , August/September 2008)

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