Fr Neil Vaney, SM, is chaplain to the Catholic Enquiry
Centre. He wrote this article at NZ Catholic’s request.
The 1960’s were a decade of rising expectations. The optimism and energy of the youthful John F. Kennedy echoed these. Carried on a wave of growing prosperity and faith in the ability of emerging technologies to surmount all human problems, Western leaders believed that their resources and vision were capable of meeting the problems of the rising
populations of Africa and Asia — too little food for too many people.The new affluence also triggered a desire for change, for new freedoms. Even within the Catholic Church itself, the quest for aggiornamento (bringing up to date) was one of the driving forces of the Second Vatican Council. As knowledge and use of the new contraceptive pill grew, many turned towards a new hope, that it might also bring about the end of unwanted pregnancies.
Pope Paul VI’s Response
– Humanae Vitae
Paul VI came from a strong international background,having been Secretary of State for the Vatican from 1922-54. He was aware of the current of growing desire for the Church to change its stance on birth control. A commission set up by Pope John XXIII not too long before his death, had deliberated on this question. Its divided reports did nothing to resolve the debate.
The long delay for a papal response was a source of mounting frustration. Many supposed that the pope was agonising over whether the traditional teaching could be open to change. It seems more likely that there was still a lot of uncertainty precisely as to how the
contraceptive pill altered female fertility.
When Pope Paul finally responded to these questions with the publication of Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, he attempted to insert the decision on the morality of contraception within a wider vision of Christian marriage.
The Central Vision of Humanae Vitae
At the heart of this question, the pope affirms, is the very character of married love. He follows closely the central insight of Vatican II’s treatment of marriage in the document on the Church in the Modern World: the unbreakable bond between love and the possibility of
new life. Paul is at pains to assert that it is not biology that is the force that unites these two dimensions, but an echo of God’s love implanted in human nature by divine plan. This is God’s way to fulfilment and happiness.
The characteristics of married love flow from this: it is to be free, total, faithful, but also fruitful. The pope accepts that couples may need to plan the number and spacing of children; therefore selecting times when sexual intercourse will be infertile is perfectly acceptable. Deliberate acts to block such fertility, however, are wrong. It is not enough that the marriage as a whole is fertile, nor that often in human life we have to accept some evils simply to bring about greater goods.
Pope Paul acknowledges this will demand a lot of sometimes painful sacrifice and self-control by the couple. He points out that such control of instinctive desire is at the heart of being human and that it can foster greater respect and mutual support between the
partners. It will also require God’s grace.
Prophetic Words for the Future
In passing, the pope made four predictions about the effects of the widespread adoption of such contraceptive practices. They were:
• An increase in marital infidelity.
• A general lowering of moral standards.
• Loss of respect for women.
• Government coercion to force contraception, sterilisation and abortion.
It takes sophisticated sociological techniques to show direct causation between use of contraception and such wide-reaching cultural changes, but there is plenty of prima facie evidence available. The increase in the number of divorces, abortions, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and venereal diseases is very marked.
Mark Regnerus’s Cheap Sex offers a deeply researched sociological study of the impact of “hookup” culture in the USA, a culture that is fostered by the wide use of contraceptives. He notes how Internet dating services have brought about liaisons that end in sexual relations by the second date, almost invariably by the fourth.
The vast multi-billion dollar industry of pornography worldwide is built on depicting images of women to be used simply as vehicles to sexual release and pleasure, regardless of exploitation of the women involved. Marriage itself is in decline. Regnerus notes that given present trends only one person out of three now in their twenties will marry in their life-time.
The pope’s prediction about government pressure on reproduction is well illustrated by the one child policy in China. The selective abortion of female foetuses means that by 2020 there will be about 30 million more men than woman seeking marriage.
China, along with Japan and many European countries, is also facing serious issues caused by declining populations. Many post-industrial nations can already foresee declining work forces, needing heavy taxation to maintain a swelling population requiring ever growing
medical care and places to retire.
A Pastoral Approach for Today
We know that the great majority of Catholic couples use artificial contraception. Given Pope Francis’ emphasis on compassion and reaching out to those outside the pale does this mean that the insights and judgements put forward by Pope Paul have now outlived their usefulness. I do not believe so, but I am also convinced that we must work with the principle of graduality proposed by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical on marriage and family, Familiaris Consortio. This pastoral approach sees that conversion often comes about by small incremental steps over time.
Our primary goal must be the rehabilitation of marriage. This means understanding all the factors that make commitment to marriage so difficult for people, especially young adults, today.
We must offer catechesis and gatherings that present committed and faith-filled marriages as not only possible but also fun. We need to highlight the statistics that show clearly that committed marriages with religious bases are the most likely to endure, and that
very few unions using natural family planning end up in divorce.
NFP techniques have developed remarkably. The use of fit-bits that allow young women to follow and download maps of all their bodily cycles has come very close to predicting the very moment of ovulation, allowing control of fertility much closer.
Some Final Questions
Fifty years after Humanae Vitae, other theological and anthropological questions about human sexuality have emerged.
They include questions how men and women experience sexual fulfilment and parenthood differently; how pleasure, as well as love and fertility are dimensions of married life, and why God has made pleasure so much easier than the hard work of sustaining and
growing married love.
Humanae Vitae still has much to give us, but it is a foundation on which to build, not a completed building.