The Prophetic Insight of Pope Paul VI (Unhappy Anniversary: Humanae Vitae at 30)

by Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, the author of; among other books, Agenda for the Sexual Revolution: Abortion, Contraception, Sex Education and Related Evils (1981)

July 25, 1998, marked 30 years since the issuance of one of the most controverted and controversial documents of our time, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on the transmission of human life, Humanae Vitae, the famous “anti-birth-control” encyclical. It was criticized and disdained in 1968 as a prime example of the Catholic Church’s failure to keep up with the times and with the world. The world was convincing itself that artificial contraception would be an unalloyed benefit to sexual intimacy and the solution to the perceived social problems of unwanted pregnancies and overpopulation; yet here was the Pope in the name of the Church blindly and stubbornly insisting that artificial interruption of the human generative process is morally wrong.

After 30 years we can see that Pope Paul’s “blindness” was prophetic insight, and his “stubbornness” was pastoral fortitude. Humanae Vitae (HV) predicted that the acceptance of contraception by society would lead to “conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”; would lead to lessened respect for the woman, reducing her to a “mere instrument for the satisfaction” of male desires; would put undue power in the hands of public authorities caring “little for the precepts of the moral law”; and would create the illusion that “procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decisions of men” (HV #17). All of these predictions have come true.

The principal teaching of Humanae Vitae is that in the marriage act there is “an inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV #12). This “inseparable connection” means that “in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life” (HV #11).

This teaching was addressed to a world freshly confident that mankind at last had the scientific and technical means to control human fertility; that is, to separate the procreative potential of sexual intercourse from its unitive, or lovemaking, aspects; henceforth lovemaking could be engaged in without fear of pregnancy. This was perceived as a self-evident good. The moral condemnation of contraception in HV was surely nothing but an authoritarian and irrational holdover from earlier, more ignorant times. HV’s warning against separating the “inseparable” in sex was brushed aside with incredulity and even scorn.

So persuasive was the modem gospel of controlling fertility by artificial means that large numbers of Catholics abandoned the teaching of the Church almost from one day to the next (although sentiment against the teaching among Catholics, as well as the actual use of contraceptives, had undoubtedly been growing). Public dissent by Catholics against the Pope’s encyclical was massive, both on the part of married couples and on the part of theologians and professionals who were expected to uphold the teaching and provide reasoned justifications for what the Church had always taught.

What the Church had always taught had been succinctly and correctly summarized by John T. Noonan Jr., today a federal judge, in his authoritative 1965 study entitled Contraception. Noonan wrote:

The propositions constituting a condemnation of contraception are, it will be seen, recurrent. Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian... the articulated argument has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Cesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick, and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, “Contraception is a good act.” The teaching on contraception [was] clear and apparently fixed forever.

This conclusion did not prevent Noonan himself from joining the ranks of the dissenters after the appearance of HV. His judgment as a historian, however, had been absolutely correct: The Church in her long history has never deviated in her condemnation of contraception as a moral evil. (Ten years after HV in a widely noticed article in the journal Theological Studies, John C. Ford, SJ., and Germain Grisez argued cogently that HV’s central teaching meets the conditions for an infallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church, conditions set forth by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium [# 25].)

It is important to remember that the moral condemnation of contraception was not a peculiarity of the Catholic Church. The entire Christian tradition had held the same negative view of contraception - until the Church of England at its Lambeth Conference in 1930 decided to allow the practice in the case of married couples faced with particularly difficult marital conditions. Pope Pius XI proved himself to be prophetic at that time by issuing the powerful 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, reaffirming the traditional teaching and declaring that it was willed by God and pertained to salvation; this was the specific magisterial teaching that Paul VI expressly upheld a generation later.

Thus, the contrast could not have been greater between what the Church had always taught - and still taught according to Pope Paul VI - and what large numbers of Catholics (in tune with the philosophy and practice of the modern world) now decided they believed. Very soon studies would show that the use of artificial contraception by Catholics had become virtually indistinguishable from that of others. That is roughly where we still find ourselves today: The Church goes on teaching one thing officially, while large numbers of the “faithful” apparently go on believing and practicing something quite different.

What was little noted at the time was that certain things necessarily follow from assuming this new license to contracept. If there is not an inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of marital intercourse; if lovemaking can rightly and morally be separated from possible baby making; if lovemaking is really a separate and discrete activity with no necessary meaning beyond the closeness, pleasure, and satisfaction it can afford then several things follow.

First, lovemaking can no longer be necessarily related to the married state, to the binding agreement of a man and a woman to form a family within which children who may issue from their mutual love will be welcomed and cared for. If their marital intercourse has no necessary relation to these possible future children, then it bears no necessary relation to their marriage either; the mere satisfaction and pleasure of lovemaking may as easily be realized outside of the marriage bond as within it.

The Catholic theologians who publicly dissented from HV argued at the time that married couples needed to be able to avail themselves of contraception precisely in order to enhance the unitive, or lovemaking, aspects of their marriage. There was almost no discussion of the freedom from marriage that widespread recourse to contraception would provide; this only became evident with the spectacular rise from about 1970 on of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, shacking-up, and divorce.

Another consequence of separating the unitive from the procreative is that sex can no longer be cogently limited to a man and a woman employing their natural genital faculties (themselves ordered to possible procreation). If there is no natural and necessary connection between sex and procreation, then it is no longer possible to condemn on moral grounds sexual acts that may yield intimacy, pleasure, or satisfaction: masturbation, oral sex, homosexual acts, or even bestiality.

Many people - not only Catholics - have been surprised at the ease with which things that yesterday were considered unnatural and shameful have today come to be tolerated, approved, or even encouraged as “alternative lifestyles.” Yet many people who are uneasy about these practices find themselves unable to articulate compelling reasons why they should not be allowed or encouraged.

Many Protestants (Evangelicals come to mind) accept artificial contraception in marriage yet insist that unmarried sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and bestiality are wrong because they are condemned in Scripture. But even while they believe that these particular vices are forbidden by command of God, they do not grasp that these immoral uses of sexuality stem from a violation of the inner logic of human sexuality, and that contraception is a more subtle and therefore more dangerously seductive violation of this inner logic, if this inner logic is not grasped, the scriptural condemnations of these vices may come to appear quite arbitrary, and the desire to re-”interpret” them (explain them away) may become quite powerful, which is what we are seeing in the Protestant world.

Those who would try to have the unitive without the procreative are complemented by those who would have the procreative without the unitive. Again, modem technology displays its array of wonder-working apparatuses and promises that it can satisfy our needs and make us masters of our fate. We can make and unmake human life, with artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, fetal and embryonic experimentation, and even possible cloning. People may obscurely sense that something is amiss, but in the absence of any continuing, clear understanding of the truth that procreation and sex necessarily go together in the original scheme of things as established by God, most people are unable to say exactly what is wrong with these new practices and procedures.

Currently our society is suffering virtual epidemics of divorce, fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, pornography, and degraded and obscene music and entertainment. Half of all marriages are failing (two-thirds of all remarriages); over a third of all births and over half of all births to teenagers now come out of wedlock; and well over half of all girls now experience intercourse outside of marriage by the age of 19 (the percentage is even higher for boys). Five of the 10 most infectious diseases at epidemic levels today are sexually transmitted, and about 12 million new cases of these STDs, three million of them among teenagers, are registered each year. And, of course, everybody knows about the AIDS epidemic.

No doubt the causes of all these sex-related social pathologies are complex and various, but it cannot be denied that society’s decisive rejection of the connection between lovemaking and baby-making - its laughing to scorn Pope Paul’s encyclical back in 1968 - has played a significant role.

There is yet another unhappy consequence of insisting that lovemaking and baby-making are separate and not necessarily related things. That is our current plague of legalized abortion. We have registered around 1,500,000 legal abortions a year since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. By the beginning of the millennium, this will have amounted to more than 40 million American deaths by abortion.

Many people expressly deny that the use of contraception has anything to do with the incidence of abortion. Contraception, they say, merely prevents the conception of a child; this is obviously very different from killing a child already conceived. But the distance between contraception and abortion is short and easily traveled.

Modern contraceptives seem a world in which sexual activity will not mean unwanted pregnancy. But every type of contraceptive­ works only some of the time. The failure rate for the Pill, for example, is around six percent; it is 12 percent for the condom, 18 percent for the diaphragm or cervical cap, and 30 percent or higher for foams or gels. Even in achieving these levels of infertility, these techniques all have undesirable side effects – evidence for the harm done by the Pill and other contraceptives is abundant – and a couple may abandon its preferred technique without, of course, surrendering its conviction that pregnancies must be “planned” and children “wanted.” Hence many are ready for a “method” that actually does achieve the “control” that they have come to regard as not only their privilege but their right.

The final - and surest - “method” is the post-conception contraception called abortion. Are users of contraception a group distinguishable from users of abortion? Studies have shown that over half of all women undergoing abortion were practicing birth control in the month in which they became pregnant.

This dramatic connection between contraceptive use and the incidence of surgical abortion still understates the case. For it does not take into account those methods marketed as “contraception” which are actually abortifacient in their action: In­stead of - or in addition to - preventing ovulation or fertilization, they prevent the implantation in the uterus of an embryo already conceived. These methods include some of the pills, implants, and injections in common use today, as well as the intrauterine device (IUD), still used by two percent of American women in spite of the considerable harm and injuries to women verifiably associated with its use. These methods of so-called contraception are actually methods of very early abortion - yet this fact is little known.

The link between contraception and abortion is evident in the controlling legal reasoning on these matters. In a 1965 case involving contraception, Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court identified a constitutional “right to privacy” in the use of means to prevent pregnancy; this supposed right was extended in Roe v. Wade to allow a woman to terminate, not just to prevent, a pregnancy. In 1992, in its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upholding the legality of abortion in the U.S., the Supreme Court expressly ruled that abortion had to be kept legal in order to provide the remedy “in case contraception should fail” - those are the words of our Supreme Court.

To deny a link between the acceptance and use of contraception and the acceptance and use of abortion is to ignore the evidence. There is a very real sense in which today’s plague of abortions is a consequence of the rejection of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of marital intercourse.

As for those Protestants who regard abortion as sinful but accept contraception on the grounds that contraception is not condemned in Scripture, they overlook the fact that the Protestant Reformers did regard it as condemned by Scripture (the sin of Onanism - Gen.38:7-10). They also put themselves on a very slippery slope, because abortion is not condemned as such in Scripture.

Because our society’s embrace of contraception has contributed mightily to our current epidemics of promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortions - as well as the legitimizing of homosexual activity - the Catholic theologians who dissented from HV’s, and who have effectively continued to make dissent thinkable and possible for Catholics since, bear a heavy responsibility. They have, moreover, undermined the Church’s authentic teaching at the very moment when the world needs the Church’s teaching and witness more than ever before. The Church has found herself weakened internally - almost paralyzed - by dissent. The contraceptive culture, which was very soon to usher in the abortion culture, was able to establish itself solidly, with only feeble opposition from Catholics and the Church - opposition that continues to be feeble today in practice.

Pope Paul VI did his duty as the earthly head of the Church by issuing HV. Most of the bishops’ conferences around the world issued statements in support of the encyclical. But many of these statements, particularly in western Europe, were so ambivalent as almost to damn the encyclical with faint praise. Once the bishops had issued their obligatory statements in favor of the Pope’s teaching, almost nothing further was said about the encyclical. The world did not fail to get the message that Catholics were not going to constitute the obstacle to fertility manipulation that had been feared.

The bishops of the U.S., while paying lip service to HV, effectively undermined it by issuing a pastoral letter in November 1968 entitled Human Life in Our Day, in which they laid out what they called “Norms of Licit Dissent.” Although these norms were presumably intended to limit dissent by laying down strict conditions for it, in fact no dissenting theologian has ever really complied with these norms. It was only in 1990 that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith got around to issuing its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, which in effect sets aside the 1968 “norms” of the American bishops. Meanwhile, the dissent the norms had permitted in practice for many years had become virtually institutionalized in the U.S.

From 1968 on, dissent has been a fact of life in the Church, not only in the U.S. but in most of the Western world. Open dissenters have rarely been corrected or disciplined. Many have gone on tranquilly espousing their views in books, journals, classrooms, and even pulpits (and also - we may assume - in confessionals). Bishops and pastors have generally been no more willing to require adherence to HV as a “litmus test” for those who teach and preach Catholicism than our “prolife” Republican presidents have been willing to require opposition to Roe v. Wade in appointees to the federal judiciary.

Apparently the practical decision was effectively made back in 1968 that the Church’s official condemnation of contraception is not an “essential” of the faith, and hence rejection or non­observance of it by Catholics does not affect their “good standing” in the Church. The practical consequence has been that the poisons of the contraceptive mentality have been allowed to circulate within the Church as they circulate in the culture at large. And just as contraception brings other evils in its train, so tolerated dissent from HV has invited even more dissent. Dissenters have gone on to identify other areas where they believe the Magisterium has erred.

One of the leaders of the dissent against HV in 1968, Fr. Charles E. Curran, in an essay in Commonwealth in 1978 entitled “Ten Years Later,” declared that the Pope’s teaching condemning contraception was flatly mistaken; the Pope was in error. Curran went on to propound a theory of dissent that would allow Catholics to disagree with the Church’s teaching on a host of other issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, re­marriage after divorce, and sterilization.

Curran in the end was disciplined and removed from his position on the faculty of the Catholic University of America, but his case did not constitute a real exception to the usual toleration of dissenters. For one thing, it was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in far­away Rome that insisted on the disciplining. For another thing, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger publicly stated at one point, Curran was disciplined primarily as a theoretician of dissent, not for his dissent as such. Few of the other 600-odd signers of the anti-Humanae Vitae statement that Curran helped to craft in 1968 were ever disciplined in any way.

Meanwhile the teaching and preaching of the truths of authentic married love restated in HV have been neglected in practice. It is almost as if bishops - and especially average parish priests - are somehow ashamed of this teaching. Few of them have demonstrated that they want to de­fend the teaching actively, or even that they know how to do so. Similarly, active clerical support of morally licit Natural Family Planning has been far from universal and assiduous.

Thirty years after the issuance of HV, are we any closer to recognizing the wisdom of the Vicar of Christ who wrote it?

Maybe. There are some signs of a reaction against the “culture of death” in which we live. One such sign is the growing strength of the prolife movement. There is also a lively public debate about divorce, and political move­ments are trying to rewrite divorce laws so Another is the widespread re­alization that we have gone astray in the areas of sex and marriage (as the current anxiety about “family values” indicates) that they support marriage.

Then there is the capital fact that the teach­ing of HV remains intact. It has not been quietly set aside by the Church’s Magisterium; indeed, it has been pointedly reaffirmed by the Magisterium in such documents as Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic constitution Familiaris Consortio and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor has upheld the truth that there exist absolute negative moral norms - a fact taken for granted by HV. Some acts may never morally be performed, whatever the circumstances.

Dissenters have made many arguments against the principal teaching of HV: that it depends upon a no longer defensible natural-law tradition; that it is unduly “physicalist”; that it fails to take personalist values into account; that it ignores family economic problems and world population pressures; that it neglects women’s health questions; that it is not supported by Scripture. All of these arguments and others besides have been cogently and decisively answered by writers who include, in the English-speaking world alone, Bishop Austin Vaughn, G.E.M. Ariscombe, Joseph M. Boyle, the late L. Brent Bozell, Donald DeMarco, Christopher Derrick, John M. Finnis, Germain Grisez, John M. Haas, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., John and Sheila Kippley, Fr. Paul Marx, William E. May, and the late Fr. Paul Quay. Especially notable is Janet E. Smith, author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 1991) and editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993). She had an article on the subject in the January 1998 NOR.

Pope John Paul II has developed a remarkable “theology of the body” that still remains to be properly assimilated by the Church. He holds that the use of contraception not only violates the procreative meaning of marital intercourse but also violates the unitive meaning, since it constitutes a false or dishonest use of “the language of the body” in what is supposed to be a communion of persons. The Wednesday audiences in which the Pope developed his thought have been published in book form by the Daughters of St. Paul in Boston: Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis and the Book of Genesis, 1981; Blessed Are the Pure in Heart, 1983; Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality and Spirituality, 1984; and The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy, 1986. The highly original theology of life contained in these volumes would perhaps never have come into being if it had not been for the dissent against HV, in that sense we may consider the dissent to have been some kind of felix culpa, a “happy fault.”

In Evangelium Vitae (EV), John Paul II argues, as I have here, that a society’s determination to control fertility without regard to the moral law leads to the acceptance and use of abortion by that society: “Indeed the pro-abortion culture is strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.” The Pope also warns that “contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree” (EV #13). The truth of what the Pontiff says has been verified by our experience in the U.S.

Although the grave consequences of contraception remain only too dismayingly present today, one thing definitely has not happened: The Gates of Hell have not prevailed; Peter remains at his post, confirming his brethren (Mt. 16:18; Lk. 22:32; Jn. 21:17). Pope Paul VI demonstrated this abundantly when he issued Humanae Vitae, and Pope John Paul II has confirmed it resoundingly in his outstanding defense of the teaching. In this we may surely find some consolation and cause for hope as we continue with the arduous task of converting the culture of death into the culture of love.

2001 Catholics Against Contraception