Humanae Vitae at 45
Experience should compel a reconsideration of this maligned document

Pope Paul VI


George Weigel

A few weeks ago, while pondering the upcoming sapphire anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) and the continuing controversy over the “birth control encyclical” throughout both Church and society, I came across the following, in an essay the Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote shortly before his death in 2004: “Increasingly the institution of marriage is being replaced by simply living together, which has followed upon the sundering of the link between sex and fertility. This is not just a revolution in the area of moral norms; it reaches much deeper, into the very definition of man. If the drive which is innate in man as a physiological being conflicts with the optimum condition that we call a human way of life (sufficient food, good living conditions, women’s rights), and therefore has to be cheated with the help of science, then the rest of our firmly held convictions about what is natural behavior and what is unnatural fall by the wayside.”

Miłosz — who is buried in the basilica at Skałka in Cracow, traditionally held to be the site of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus — had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church; he was not a man who automatically accepted ecclesiastical dicta on the basis of religious authority. Thus his insight into the cultural consequences of cheap, effective, and readily available contraception is all the more striking, in that it runs in close parallel to what Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae: an encyclical that was not so much rejected (pace the utterly predictable 45th-anniversary commentary) as it was unread, untaught, ill-considered — and thus unappreciated.

Contrary to the myth-making (and, in some instances, prevarication) that has characterized a lot of commentary on Humanae Vitae since its publication on July 25, 1968, Paul VI’s letter to the Church and to “all men of good will” is, at bottom, a paean to responsible parenthood — a theme that recurs throughout the document. Humanae Vitae does not teach an ideology of procreation at all costs; quite the contrary. Pope Paul taught that married couples have a moral obligation to plan their families; further, he wrote, family planning is an exercise of vocational discernment that engages the mind, the heart, and the will, and each of those faculties should be informed by mutual respect and charity between spouses. The question Paul VI tried to put on the table of global discussion was not whether family planning was morally legitimate; the question he posed was: How can fertility be regulated in a truly humanistic and life-affirming way? How can the regulation of births cohere with the moral truths built into humanity, especially those moral truths that touch on the unique dignity of women?

Needless to say, that serious moral conversation was never engaged. Indeed, it never began: in part, because 1968 was perhaps the worst year imaginable to try to kick-start a conversation about sex that went one millimeter beyond the pleasure principle; in part, because too many Catholic intellectuals, angry that their advice had not been taken by the pope, used Humanae Vitae as a punching bag in a more comprehensive assault on the Church’s teaching authority; and in part because many of the bishops to whom Pope Paul appealed for a compassionate and compelling presentation of his teaching ignored the papal plea for a variety of reasons, not excluding pusillanimity in the face of the sexual revolution.

Yet when one rereads Humanae Vitae today, absent the blinders imposed by four and a half decades of deprecation and mockery, it seems that Paul VI anticipated the cultural impacts of the contraceptive society with a clarity of foresight that is even more impressive than Czesław Miłosz’s clarity of hindsight.

Marital fidelity, Pope Paul warned, would be threatened by the contraceptive mentality. Divorce rates have since skyrocketed throughout the Western world, and while there are many reasons for that, the contraceptive mindset that reduced marriage to a legal contract for purposes of mutual (tax) convenience surely played its role.

A contraception-saturated society would be likely to witness a “general lowering of moral standards,” according to Humanae Vitae; would any serious observer of Western civilization suggest that we are running an overall virtue surplus these days, at any level of society from the interpersonal through the cultural and on to the economic and the political? Again, there is no monocausal explanation for today’s virtue deficit, which expresses itself in so many ways, including a general coarsening of life and culture. But surely it’s worth considering whether the post-Pill cheapening of sex into just another contact sport — cf. Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons — is one factor in the mix.

Derided for alleged misogyny, Paul VI in fact foresaw that the contraceptive society and the cast of mind it engendered (pun intended) would lead to disrespect for women, reduced as they would be to instruments for the pleasuring of men. Look at the plague of sexual abuse throughout society, the chronic inability of Gen X to make lifetime commitments, and the multibillion-dollar exploitation of women in “adult” films — and then ask yourself, Who are the misogynists here?


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