On Human Life – 40 Years Later


Perhaps no single teaching of the Catholic Church has ever evoked such uniform ridicule, laughter, vindictive taunts, as well as just plain old simple opposition as the famous Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), in which Pope Paul VI restated, despite enormous opposition from both within and outside of the church, the Church’s continual opposition to artificial contraception.

Now you may be tempted right now to simply stop reading, for any of a million reasons. I understand, because for much of my life I’d probably have had a similar reaction. But I’m going to ask you to be patient and at least read to the end. Perhaps, like me, you’ll find that the overwhelming weight of evidence might lead you to some, perhaps even shocking, new thoughts on the topic. I know that is exactly what happened to me over the past 30 years.

The encyclical itself was issued on July 25th, 1968, and to put it colloquially, all sorts of “stuff” hit the fan. Paul VI anticipated this, in fact, but was willing to do what he had to do. From Humane Vitae:

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church … But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law …

In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization.

Outside the Church Humanae Vitae was taken as proof that the Catholic Church was doomed, clueless, flopping on the floor like one giant dying fish out of water, while inside the Church it was even worse – dissidents held up a desecrated Humanae Vitae as a sort of Confederate Flag, their own symbol of rebellion from a dying Union.

I grew up (particularly upon a radical re-conversion back to the faith in college in 1975) in the wake of Humanae Vitae, in the supposed bliss of the sexual revolution, when humanity would use it’s new scientific knowledge to finally fix all of the world’s suffering and give us all we could ever want.

Stuff like theology and dogma, the actual teachings of the Church? Well despite my new-found zeal for the faith I suppose that I really regarded this kind of stuff as really only suitable for zealots, for the really crazy ones. And Humanae Vitae? Well, it was sort of like peculiar behavior from a crazy older relative – if somebody pressed me on it, I’d try my best to smile, shrug my shoulders, maybe mumble and definitely try to change the subject.

One Crazy Thing and a Big Irony
Except here’s the really peculiar, almost funny (except for the disastrous consequences), and definitely crazy thing about Humanae Vitae, particularly when viewed with 40 years of history behind us: Pope Paul VI was right.

Not just a little bit right, but walk-off-grand-slam right.

The ironic part? Most of the real proof is coming from outside of the church, sometimes by genuinely curious social scientists simply doing their work, sometimes from rabid opponents inadvertently confirming the predictions.

What were some of these consequences? Well, to give you a basic idea I’m simply going to quote from a brilliant analysis by Mary Eberstadt in the current issue of First Things:

The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

Take a few moments to reflect on those points, and see whether the world we inhabit in 2008 exhibits any of these characterstics, at least more so than 1968.

Pretty hard to argue with it, I think. In fact, I’d argue (and I think not only the objective numbers but subjective personal experience supports this simple, but pointed observation: the world we inhabit today bears almost no resemblence to what the proponents of the sexual revolution promised.

In any case, continuing with her article:

… most of the experts actually producing the empirical evidence (that Humanae Vitae predictions were right) have been social scientists operating in the secular realm.

“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, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The entire analysis is well worth the read and careful reflection, but more on that later.

In the Long History of Christianity
Perhaps the most striking fact about the acceptance of artificial contraception itself is simply that it flies in the face of an essentially unbroken line of Christian tradition, both Protestant and Catholic alike. Again from the same article:

Of course, all that Paul VI did … was reiterate what just about everyone in the history of Christendom had ever said on the subject … It was, in a word, No.

… Martin Luther in a commentary on Genesis declared contraception to be worse than incest or adultery. John Calvin called it an “unforgivable crime.” This unanimity was not abandoned until the year 1930, when the Anglicans voted to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases, and one denomination after another over the years came to follow suit.

Seen in the light of actual Christian tradition, the question is not after all why the Catholic Church refused to collapse on the point. It is rather why just about everyone else in the Judeo-Christian tradition did. Whatever the answer, the Catholic Church took, and continues to take, the public fall for causing a collapse—when actually it was the only one not collapsing.

A careful look at the now historical record of the past 40 years really makes the case far more eloquently than I ever could – Paul VI was right about the consequences that would result.

What then?

Personal Effects
Our own lives, mostly unintentionally, have mirrored both the good effects that resulted from obeying the dictates of Humanae Vitae, and some of the tragic consequences from straying outside. That story has some very painful aspects to it and is not really ready (and may never be, at least not this side of the veil) to fully see the light of day.

Yet there have been some enormously grace-filled, beautful moments that we still enjoy today. In a later post I’ll mention a few vignettes from our personal life, particularly where they may be helpful for those making their minds up on these things.

A Crazy Idea?
This may seem like a completely crazy idea or it may make a lot of sense to you, but either way about ten years ago Archbishop Chaput put into words what so many of us have had trouble even admitting might be true, much less actually articulating in public:

“If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”

– Arch Chaput of Denver, on the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae

So perhaps it comes down to just this. Taking the emotion out of the argument, just look at the facts. Read the encyclical (it’s short – I read it in about one or two hours), look at some of the articles analyzing the evidence of the past 40 years, perhaps dive into some of that evidence itself.

And then see where that evidence and simple logic takes you … perhaps even questioning assumptions and conclusions that we’ve taken as simply “givens” for must (if not all) of our lives.

Stuff to Ponder
This is a very rich, very deep topic and it’s almost hard to know where to stop. But maybe simpler is “where to begin”?

Personally, I think it’s worth starting by reading Humanae Vitae itself. I sat down to read the famous encyclical for the first time in my life yesterday, and finished it in an hour and a half to two hours (with distractions). While it may not be soaring poetry, it is a compact, sincere, well-grounded, loving presentation of what needed to be said in 1968 … and what needs to be understood in 2008.

So I’ve included a link to it here (in two forms), as well as a host of other materials, including:

This is obviously a topic which remains ever-current, and as Fr. Corapi notes actually gains in significance with each passing day. For those who care we are definitely in the throes of some real struggle.

Catholic or not, Christian or not, or simply not sure where you stand … this is worth a serious look. The evidence is real, the record is clear, the questions lie before us even now.

Two More Things
First of all, 40 years after Humanae Vitae the Catholic Church is in no way “doomed”. In fact, despite seemingly overwhelming odds, many self-inflicted injuries, and the predictions of many opponents, despite all that there are increasingly visible signs of fundamental renewal everywhere.

Much of that renewal is being led by the youth, whether it’s at these really stunning World Youth Day events (there were 500,000 people for the closing Mass at the WYD that just ended in Sydney, Australia), or regional events like Youth 2000 or the Steubenville Conferences there’s energy and real lives changing everywhere. Seminaries are filling back up, vocations to renewed religious orders are increasing, Catholic media (EWTN etc.) not only exists but is having growing impact everywhere, conversions into the Church are steadily increasing, innovative “new evangelization” efforts such as Catholics Come Home are showing real results, and much, much more.

Are there problems? Of course, and there will undoubtedly be many more. This is a battle after all. But there is hope, much hope all around.

Secondly, I want to thank Pope Paul VI for having the courage to take this stand when the whole world was sliding headlong in the opposite direction.

It’s almost as if our society was tumbling down the mountain on which it was perched, and in the middle of the chaos Paul VI planted a solid pole of truth to hold onto.

Perhaps overly dramatic? Maybe. But the stakes are that high, to be sure.

Muchas gracias, Papa.

On Human Life – 40 Years Later

4 thoughts on “On Human Life – 40 Years Later

  1. Arlo says:

    I have to disagree. I don’t have any problem with contraception and I honestly feel sorry for young married people who are agonizing over the issue. Life is too short and contraception makes marriage a lot richer and less complicated. Some of the reasoning behind it reminds me of the faith healing arguments against modern medicine. An unplanned pregnancy even within a marriage can be a very big deal.

    So is artificial contraception immoral?

    What we’re really talking about here is marital sex. The Church would say any other sex with or without contraception is outside of God’s will and immoral. So what’s the problem with contraception within a marriage? Where do you draw the line between your will and God’s? The Church chose artificial contraception as being against God’s will. Why? Why not aspirin or other advancements in medicine. Why use a doctor during childbirth? Why use our own technology, skills, imagination to do anything at all for fear of crossing God’s will? God did not create the internet, for example. We did using our gifts and abilities. Should we be using it to have this conversation?

    The idea that sex is great as long as it’s during a certain part of the month, but if we have unfettered access to it (as a married couple), we might enjoy it too much and it will deteriorate, is problematic (like the punctuation in this sentence). There are plenty of dogmatic church teachings that create a repressive attitude about sex and I think this is one of them. How will artificial contraception make a husband view his wife with less respect? Because sex is more dangerous and complicated without contraception, so we’re not so blase about it? I don’t see the connection between the danger of ‘you might get pregnant’ and respect for that person and reverence for the act. I do understand (but don’t agree with the conclusions) that the danger of pregnancy reinforces the significance of the act, but then natural family planning is a problem, because it’s used as a means for recreational sex. Well if you’re going down that path, then go all the way. Sex is fantastic and should happen all the time in a marriage. It’s free, it’s awesome and is great for the relationship. I can’t think of very many other things that accomplish these things. The more the better (says the man).

    Regarding natural family planning (which requires proactive acts on your part), maybe it is your will and not God’s. If we can avoid pregnancy through timing and education, isn’t that the same as avoiding it by blocking contraception? I understand there’s a loophole, that nature provides for a safe harbor period, but honestly, that’s feeling really technical and an unnecessary exercise in trying to be compliant on a stance that the Church settled on 40 years ago. A different pope might have reached a different conclusion. Moreover, we interfere with natural law pretty much every minute of the day. Otherwise we’d be naked in the sun waiting to die.

    So I’m not trying to be flip and I understand the arguments, but since there are young married people on this list and the issue got thrown out there, I’m throwing my thoughts into the ring.

  2. Cindy says:

    Please consider that not all contraception is created equal. Many methods of contraception allow conception to occur and life to begin – but prevent implantation, and the new life is ended. I’m not sure people chosing these methods of contraception always fully understand this.

  3. Arlo says:

    That’s a valid issue. Some can cause an abortion and the morning after pill does every time. However, I don’t think the Church delineates between them.

  4. Cindy says:

    Not only the morning after pill, but this can also happen with the commonly-used pill intended to prevent ovulation (http://www.pfli.org/faq_oc.html), not to mention any type of intra-uterine device.

    I agree that an unintentional pregnancy can be stressful on a marriage. I had one, and it was quite stressful at first. But God knew what he was doing, and I would not have had it any other way.

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