The Pope Told Us What Would Transpire!
July 25, 1968, was a day that etched itself into my memory. That day, Pope Paul VI issued his prophetic document Humanae vitae (Of human life). I was in South Bend, Indiana, on that bright sunny day. I can clearly see myself returning to the campus of Notre Dame University, where I was studying that summer. As a fellow priest and I walked on to the campus, it seemed that the air was crackling with emotional electricity. We were soon told the reason why. The Pope had issued his long-awaited encyclical Of human life, and he had not approved the contraceptive Pill, as the world had expected. In fact, he had strengthened and deepened our understanding of the Church’s constant teaching that the contracepted act in conjugal love is intrinsically evil.
Among those who rejected the encyclical, many focused their ridicule on section 17 of the encyclical. In the three paragraphs of this section, Paul VI had prophetically spoken about some of the grave consequences that would follow from the approval of methods of artificial birth control. To help you in this, this article will present the text of section 17 and a brief commentary on it.
As an introduction to section 17, please keep in mind two elements.
First, the context of the text of the encyclical: in sections 7 through 16, Paul VI outlines and proclaims the beauty of God’s plan for conjugal love and responsible parenthood, as well as affirming and clarifying the moral meaning of contraception and natural family planning.
Second, the faith context: the encyclical was being received at a time when there was a growing crisis of faith. This crisis was draining many people of the courage needed to proclaim the beauty of God’s plan for marriage and family. The Pope responded to this crisis of faith by first, presenting the positive truths of God’s plan for conjugal love, responsible parenthood, and the dignity of husband and wife, which these truths celebrate and protect; secondly, he appealed to people of good will-many of whom were weak in their faith or lacked it altogether-to reflect on the inner logic of the consequences that would flow from the approval of contraception.
The opening sentence of section 17 tells us: “Responsible individuals will quickly see the truth of the Church’s teaching (about contraception), if they consider what consequences will follow from the methods of contraception and the reasons given for the use of contraception” (1)
Separate the unitive and procreative aspects
The Pope is saying that people of goodwill can see and understand the inner logic of what he will say about the grave consequences, which logically follow from separating the unitive and procreative dimensions of conjugal love. The contracepted act creates this separation by its very nature. These are theological terms, which speak of the special bonding that the complementary fertility of the husband and wife makes possible: between themselves, between them and their children, and as a marriage in Christ.
Dr. John Billings, a husband, father and a physician, expresses the truth of this special bonding with great clarity in his booklet The Gift of Life and Love: “We cannot command ourselves always to feel affection, but we can command our wills to love. When the husband and wife enter into marriage they take upon themselves two serious responsibilities- there is the responsibility involved in the gift of oneself to the spouse; and acceptance of the gift of the other is a separate responsibility, which helps to identify and at the same time enlarge the first. The responsibility of the married couple is to work in fidelity to the conjugal love in order to bring the other and oneself to perfection.
“Fertility is a vital element of the human organism. The biological differences which exist between male and female irrevocably determine their earthly roles within the whole of humanity, providing for a creative partnership between men and women which extends beyond genital communication into the whole meaning of their sexuality. A man is a man-person, and a woman is a woman-person. In marriage the fertility of the husband and the wife bind themselves to each other and to their children, and an intended removal of the fertility of one or both of them separates them from each other and from their children. It is the knowledge that they share, a power by which a new human life may be brought into existence, that establishes and perpetuates a special, exclusive bond, which gives meaning to the whole concept of the family. It is a tragedy of modern times that so many men and women have been willing, even eager, to destroy their fertility, that a husband or wife will not grant to the other, even to themselves, an acceptance that includes acceptance of their fertility. This moral attitude has produced in our own time an anti-child society” ( p. 9, 10).(2)
When that special bond which a married couple’s fertility brings to their marriage and family is intentionally broken, through contraception and/or sterilization, the following grave consequences can be expected.
Humanae vitae unfolds the inner logic of the consequences in the following way:
“They should first consider how easy it will be (for many) to justify behaviour leading to marital infidelity or to a gradual weakening in the discipline of morals. Not much experience is needed to understand human weakness and to comprehend that human beings, especially the young, are so susceptible to temptation that they need to be encouraged to keep the moral law. It is wrong to make it easy for them to violate this law”(3).
Many of us, in our own life times, have seen the increase in marital infidelity in our society since the contraceptive pill was accepted in the 1960s. Engaged couples who take my marriage and family preparation course are quite aware of the marital infidelity that takes place in their respective work places. Many have been targets of that activity. I myself was shocked some years ago when a sting operation in New Westminster, B.C., resulted in the arrest of a dozen men seeking the services of a prostitute: eleven were married.
We have also seen the gradual weakening of the discipline of morals, not only among adults, but also especially amongst the young. According to Stats Canada, already in 1981, 6% of all couples in Canada lived common-law that year. By 1996, the proportion had risen to 12%, or about one in 8 couples.(4)
Also, it is no longer assumed that a couple has to be married to have a child. In fact, 30% of Canadian children were born outside of marriage in 1993-1994.(5) All of this certainly indicates “a gradual weakening in the discipline of morals.”
Once society rejected Humanae vitae and accepted contraception, it did not take long for this prophetic statement to be fulfilled. It was fulfilled even in respect to teenagers.
Two articles appearing in the British medical journal, Linacre Quarterly in 1979 and 1982 document how quickly young people learned to violate the moral law. The first article entitled, “Birth Control for Teenagers-Diagram for Disaster”, was published in the February issue of 1979 and its follow-up was published in the May 1982 issue. On page 143 of the second article we read: “Abortions among teenagers increased fivefold in less than a decade from perhaps 90,000 in 1970 to almost half a million by 1978. The total number of premarital pregnancies more than doubled during this time span, from 300,000 to 700,000!”
Would it not be valid to say that this represents “a gradual weakening in the discipline of morals”, as the Pope warned in section 17?
On the other hand, when young people are encouraged to keep the moral law, many respond in a positive way, as illustrated by movements such as “Wait Until Marriage” or “Second Virginity”. Uganda provides a modern-day illustration of this positive response. In its fight against AIDS, Uganda has been promoting abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage for some years. Abstinence education encourages the young to keep the moral law, which protects them from harm. A Harvard study, published last year, found that this kind of education has shown significant effectiveness in reducing AIDS in Uganda, with the HIV infection rate dropping 50 percent between the years 1992 and 2000. Another point is that among women 15 and older, those reporting many sexual partners dropped from 19.4 percent in 1989 to 2.5 percent in 2000.(6) Pope Paul VI was right:
“The young do need to be encouraged to keep the moral law. It is wrong to make it easy for them to violate this law”.
The general acceptance of contraception, and also its promotion, has made it easy, especially for the young, to violate the moral law. How many young people today are living together in relationships of convenience? How many high-school students have been encouraged to become sexually active, because they have been told that using contraception will prevent pregnancy and in so doing they are being responsible?
Let us return to the encyclical:
“Indeed, it is to be feared that husbands who become accustomed to contraceptive practices will lose respect for their wives. They may come to disregard their wives’ psychological and physical equilibrium and use their wives as instruments for serving their own desires”.
As Dr. John Billings, the Australian champion of Natural Family Planning, has reminded us, when the special bond of fertility is intentionally denied or removed from the conjugal act, it removes “a vital element” of who the spouse is. It says, non-verbally, “I cannot accept, therefore respect, the total gift of who you are at this time, because to do so would interfere with my desire to relate to that part of you which provides sexual pleasure for me.” Such an attitude diminishes a man’s overall respect for his wife, and vice versa.
Adverse effects of the pill
It is well documented that the contraceptive pill has adverse physical and psychological effects on women. One need only read the report published by Health & Welfare Canada in 1978 to be aware of these effects. It is titled “Report 1978, Oral Contraceptives” and indicates over 40 adverse effects the pill has on women. How many husbands, as protectors of their wives and families, stepped forward to say NO to the Pill in their marriages? Many have disregarded these adverse effects because the Pill is convenient for serving their own sexual desires.
The ultimate adverse effect of the Pill on some women is death. The 1978 Report states, “There is also a small but significant increase in fatal risk of pulmonary embolism in women who use oral contraceptives” (p.7). How many there have been we do not know, but one indication is a study published in the British Medical Journal in January 1999 which looked at 945 “contraceptive pill-related deaths” occurring during a 25-year period from 1968 to 1993.(8)
“Consequently, they will no longer view their wives as companions who would be treated with attentiveness and love.”
It should be noted that contraception gives the impression that one’s spouse should always be available to the other for sexual intercourse. Physiologically, it means that one never has a reason to say “No”. An astute husband has observed, “To always have to say yes is never to be free.” Respect is enhanced when one is respected as a free agent, who is a gift, and who is loved and respected as a gift, and allowed to make a free gift of self to one’s spouse. Contraception strikes at the heart of married love.
The prophet continues:
“And then (let reasonable individuals) also carefully consider that a dangerous power will be put into the hands of rulers who care little about the moral law. “Would anyone blame those in the highest offices of the state for employing a solution (contraception) considered morally permissible for spouses seeking to solve a family difficulty, when they strive to solve certain difficulties affecting the whole nation? Who will prevent public authorities from favouring what they believe to be the most effective contraceptive method and from mandating that everyone must use them, whenever they consider it necessary?”
The Pope continues
“And clearly it will come about that men who desire to avoid the difficulties that are part of the divine law, difficulties that individuals, families, or society, may experience, will hand over to the will of the public authorities the power of interfering in the most exclusive and intimate mission of spouses. “Therefore, if we do not want the mission of procreating human life to be conceded to the arbitrary decisions of men, we need to recognize that there are some limits to the power of man over his own body and over the natural operations of the body, which ought not to be transgressed”(10).
Pope Paul VI was warning us that contraception would lead human beings into thinking that they had unlimited power over their own bodies. This false sense of freedom would lead them to do to his or her body whatever was thought convenient to accomplish their desired goals. In our day, this has gone even further into in-vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation, and embryonic stem cells for research. As Archbishop Chaput of Denver, CO, has observed, these “are all descendants of contraceptive technology.”(11)
We have observed that contraception separates sex from procreation. This in turn has opened the door for technology to bring children into existence apart from the conjugal embrace. Here again, the authenticity of the prophet’s words has been confirmed:
“No one, neither a private individual nor a public authority, ought to violate these limits. For these limits are derived from the reverence owned to the whole human body and its natural operations, according to the principles acknowledged above and according to a proper understanding of the so-called principle of totality, as explained by Our Predecessor, Pius XII”.(10)
In conclusion, these reflections are not meant to be a finger-pointing exercise. They are meant to encourage us to think. Paul VI was right in his prophetic service of warning us about the dangers of accepting contraception. Should we not, therefore, be even more willing to recognize how right he was in proclaiming the truth about God’s plan for conjugal love, responsible parenthood, and the moral meaning of contraception and natural family planning?
Set free by these truths, let us proclaim the good news which, all these years later, many still need to hear and to be helped to live. Where should we start? I would suggest that it be with that large group of good, kind, and well educated, but misinformed Catholic couples who are very opposed to abortion, but do not recognize that contraception and abortion are linked. Being morally misinformed, they are often comfortable with contraception in their marriages, and with small families. They consider themselves good Catholics, contribute to the Church’s charitable works, and go to Mass regularly, but they do not have an informed conscience that recognizes that contraception not only cuts off the flow of life in a marriage and family, but also the flow of grace from their Sacrament of Matrimony. This group of people needs to understand the point that Dr. Billings made that marriage is about growing in holiness, “in order to bring the other and oneself to perfection.” What a force for good they would be if they walked away from the contraceptive mentality, and fully embraced the teaching of Humanae vitae, so they could walk more closely with Christ on the path of holiness.
It is vitally important that we help them to do so. As Archbishop Chaput has observed, “The Church will not be renewed without the renewal of family life. And the family cannot be renewed without a return to the truth taught in Humanae vitae. Ignoring this issue cannot be an option. In the long run the cost is too high. Therefore we should make every effort to better understand the importance of Church teaching in this regard, and witness to it boldly and with confidence.”(11)