|Pope Paul VI (1977)|
Pope Paul VI gets a lot of grief from both conservative and liberal Catholics. His pontificate, which lasted from 1963 to 1978, was at a particularly tumultuous time in the Church and the world. But whatever else may be said of Pope Paul, his encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae, seems downright prophetic.
The encyclical is from 1968, the sixth year of his pontificate. Vatican II had concluded in 1965, and already, there were all sorts of innovations (both the pious and the bizarre) being defended as being in “the spirit of Vatican II.” The doors seemed open to Modernity, for the Church to become compatible with the world. And it’s here, at this point in history, that Catholics began really openly questioning the Church’s ban on contraception. It seemed so hopelessly archaic: what’s the moral danger of contraception, after all?
Pope Paul took his time deliberating on this question, but when an answer finally came down from the chair of Peter, it was a thing of beauty. The entire encyclical is worth a read, but we get the clearest glimpse of the Holy Spirit’s behind-the-scenes work in paragraph 17, in which Paul predicts the “consequences of artificial methods”:
Carlo Saraceni, Gregory the Great (1610)
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. 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. 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.
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 blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? 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. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
In other words, Paul was able to see everything from the loosening of societal morals and the increase in infidelity, to the “pornification” of culture (and objectification of women), to the risk of state–imposed contraception (including sterilization). And he saw all of these things in 1968, when perilously few others were sounding the alarm.
A few years ago, on the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Hoover Institute’s Mary Eberstadt wrote a piece for First Things demonstrating how each of the four predictions (which Eberstadt summarizes as “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”) had come true. In that piece, she notes an odd irony, that Humanae Vitae has been vindicated by the empirical data produced by secular social scientists:
Although it is largely Catholic thinkers who have connected the latest empirical evidence to the defense of Humanae Vitae’s predictions, during those same forty years most of the experts actually producing the empirical evidence have been social scientists operating in the secular realm. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox emphasized in a 2005 essay: “The leading scholars who have tackled these topics are not Christians, and most of them are not political or social conservatives. They are, rather, honest social scientists willing to follow the data wherever it may lead.”
Whatever else may be said for or against Paul VI’s pontificate, he tackled a thorny and unpopular moral issue in a pastoral way, and in a way that appears prophetic in hindsight. He saw, when so few could see it, how dangerous contraception was. The tragic irony is that even now, as we suffer from the social ills it helped herald, we’re largely too blind to make the connection.