Friday, July 25, 2008

The Wisdom of Humanae Vitae

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical written in 1968 to reiterate the Catholic Church's teaching on sexual morality in light of the growing social acceptance of artificial contraception, even among Catholics. The title in English is On Human Life, and the subtitle is often rendered, On the Regulation of Birth. The subtitle in Latin is a bit more to the point: de propagatione humanae prolis recte ordinanda. That is, "on the correct regulation of human birth."

Given the timing of it's publication, especially in the era of greater and greater availability of "the Pill," not to mention a host of other monumental social shifts, it is no exaggeration to say, as does Janet E. Smith, that "it went off like a bomb." Especially among dissenting Catholics, it was met with howls of derision; yet subsequent events have shown it to be positively prophetic. I am very grateful to Pope Paul VI for this encyclical that his successor, Pope Benedict, has called "a significant show of courage." Perhaps more than any other single thing, the consistency of the Catholic Church's teaching on this issue persuaded me that perhaps, after all, the Church was right about a lot of other things. As I said in my conversion story,

Long before I became a Catholic I was persuaded that the Catholic Church has been right all along about the relationship between artificial contraception and abortion—that divorcing sex from procreation would devalue both marriage and the fruits of marriage. The consequences are there for all the world to see. Once life is devalued on one end of the continuum it becomes expendable on the other end—or at any point. And now we have the Brave New World of designer babies and sex-selection abortion and all the rest of it. Not to mention the weakening of the institution of marriage.

In the process of mulling over what to say on this occasion, I ran across an article by Elizabeth Foss, entitled "I Get to Have a Baby." She recounts a chance encounter with a girlfriend at a party. Having admitted to the friend that she is tired, in part because she is 42 and expecting another baby, she finds herself bombarded by suggestions from her friend that she either take the Pill or, if she won't do that, tell her husband to stay away from her. Too shocked to respond at the time, she considers later what she should have said: I will not do any of those things, because they are against the Church's teachings, and besides, "I get to have a baby." She goes on to list all the other joys in store for her. Among them:

- I get to plot and plan and dream up the perfect way to tell my husband.

- I get to tell my children they are expecting a sibling and watch the ensuing happy dances and hear the shouts of glee.

- I get to see my belly swell and not be bothered by “weight gain.” I’m gaining a baby.

- I get to hear my children bless this baby every day and pray for her safe arrival.

- I get to lie in a darkened room, my husband nearby, and get a glimpse of our baby on a screen. I get to watch him fall in love with the baby of the grainy image. I get to see a tenderness reserved especially for moments like these.

What have we come to, I thought, when the prospect of a woman expecting a baby would elicit such abject scorn? We have come to just the sort of situation envisioned by Pope Paul VI in 1968, in which one of God's greatest gifts – the privilege of being co-creators with him in the transmission of human life – is considered something we must guard ourselves against, with only the occasional exception.

Mrs. Foss concludes her article with this: "Isn’t God good and aren’t I blessed to know a Church that has led me to this precious time in my life?"

Indeed it is a blessing.

I consider it evidence of God’s grace in my life that, even as a child I winced at the occasional unguarded remarks of adults to the effect that some couple had “too many children.” I knew it didn’t quite square with the notion that children are a gift from God, and it always disturbed me. Not that my own thinking on this subject was always consistent. It took me much longer than it should have to fully appreciate the wisdom of the Church’s teaching. For a long time I saw nothing wrong with artificial contraception, as long as it wasn’t abortifacient and it was restricted to married couples. I began to see the problem with this position once I saw the damage done to marriage by the “contraceptive mentality.”

Here’s an excerpt from Paragraph 17 of Humanae vitae:

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.

Is it any wonder that divorce rates remain stubbornly high, despite a growing body of social science evidence that it is at the root of so many other social ills? For an excellent summary of the many ways in which the truths of Humanae vitae have been demonstrated, see Mary Eberstadt's essay in the Aug./Sept. issue of First Things magazine, "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae."

My purpose is not to point fingers at anyone. It took me many years to reach the conclusion that this is the missing piece of the puzzle of family breakdown, a puzzle I have been attempting to piece together for many years, including much of my career (see here and here, for example). My purpose is to draw attention to something that should be a matter of concern to all Christians who desire to be unstintingly "pro-life." In fact, many of my evangelical Protestant brethren have been rethinking this issue in recent years, and they are also seeing the wisdom of this teaching. (See Mary Eberstadt’s essay for examples.) This is encouraging, and I hope to see even more discussion of this issue. Certainly I intend to write more on the subject. Stay tuned.

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