On July 25th of this year, one of the landmark Encyclicals of the modern papacy marked its 40th Anniversary. I'm referring, of course, to Humanae Vitae. After all the gushing optimism of the 1960s both in the world and in the Church, this was the moment when the successor of Peter stood athwart history and yelled Stop!
Of course, the world at large to the extent that it even bothered to listen to what Paul VI had to say, dismissed it out of hand. There is little doubt that Paul was right, however, and the evidence for this comes on two grounds. One is the natural moral law. If we take it (as Christians by and large do) that God created us with a definite nature and made that nature good, then anything which damages or frustrates an integral part of that nature is, ipso facto bad. Thus when Pope Paul said that the physical act of love between spouses should always be open to life, no Christian who trusts in the goodness of God's creation can ultimately have a problem with that. As soon as we make a simulacrum of the most intimate act of total commitment between spouses, we falsify human love. When that sort of act between husband and wife is meant by its very nature to entail total openness, complete vulnerability of the spouses to each other and an absolute, unconditional trust, contraception makes of it a lie. "Safe sex" as someone said is a bit like "safe love", a contradiction in terms. Of course, I am here perpetuating (albeit unavoidably) the myth that contraception has any intrinsic connection with marriage. For the most part, it doesn't; rather, it exists to allow men to exploit women sexually.
And this leads neatly to the second sort of evidence that Humanae Vitae was right. In the Encyclical, specifically no. 17, Pope Paul points out what he believed then would be the harmful consequences of widespread use of contraception. The earlier objections could be made on the basis of philosophical assumptions or arguments; these latter claims are actually verifiable or rather falsifiable. We can, forty years on, test them against the world as we experience it and see if they hold true.
... consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.Can anyone claim, in good faith, that marital fidelity has not taken a hammering in the last forty years? Have moral standards, especially in matters of sexual conduct become more strict or less so?
He goes on
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.That speaks for itself!
But he's not done yet! He points out that
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.The whole point about contraception is that it makes a woman sexually available to a man at any time. There is no period that is off limits for sexual intercourse if there are no "consequences" to that act.
(For "consequences" read "children"; if anyone reading this is naive or silly enough to believe that the most intimate physical contact of which adult human beings are capable won't leave a deep emotional and psychological impression, then he or she needs to stay in more. Yes, you read that right, not "get out more" but stay in more. Do some quiet reading and careful thinking. Try starting with Humanae Vitae or if that's a bit steep for starters, try this or this and then perhaps move on this.)
When you add to that the harmful effects of the pill itself (it being the most widespread form of contraception) in terms of increased menstrual bleeding, increased incidence of depression, weight gain, and possible permanent or long-lasting damage to fertility, it begins to show its true colours as a very bad deal for women.
OK, so we can see that Pope Paul is two for two, so far. What about his third prediction?
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law ... Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.I cite China and India, and rest my case! (Although as one commentator pointed out, in western democracies the people are the government, and the social pressure on parents of large families not to have any more children is extreme.)
Finally, if you want to read a much better researched and worked out analysis of the Humanae Vitae phenomenon then read Mary Eberstadt at FirstThings.com. It's the free article from this month's issue and is top class stuff. (So is the rest of FT and their blog isn't bad either.)
The most affecting and moving evocation of the value of Humanae Vitae I've heard though, on this 40th Anniversary, has been from this priest at this parish. You can download his 35 minute homily on HV from that site (about 5 minutes on broadband but maybe 30 minutes on dialup!). It's well thought out, personal without being idiosyncratic and straight from the pastoral heart of a priest who knows what he's supposed to be! Deo gratias!