Humanae Vitae, the controversial letter on men and women and ethics, was issued by Pope Paul VI issued a half-century ago this summer. It has much to offer our #MeToo culture, which is inundated with such confusion about relationships and identity and power.
At a speech to the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., yesterday, Mary Eberstadt, author of “The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae,” a new article in First Things, talked about the power play that not being honest about science and sociology in the wake of the sexual revolution has wreaked on lives and about the dangers it continues to invite.
She said in part: “Contraceptive technology, as Paul VI foresaw, opens a Pandora’s box of mischief in which the stronger have the advantage. This is, to repeat, a fundamental question of social justice. Imagine you live in a world where the powerful believe it would be a better place without more people like you in it.”
You don’t have to imagine if you’re, say, in Iceland, where the government has recently bragged about its near-elimination of people with Down syndrome, she went on to say. It is no secret that Planned Parenthood has had its roots in eugenics and that abortion rates in poorer black and Hispanic communities should be a cause for alarm and reflection, especially on whether women are feeling supported in the choices they want to make about their health and their children’s lives.
Eberstadt talks about some of the significance of the Humanae Vitae message today.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is revisiting the prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae important?
Mary Eberstadt: One of the most reviled documents of modern times is also the most explanatory. This is a fantastic, ongoing irony not only in the United States but around the world.
Everybody knows that Church teaching on sex is flouted, mocked, and ignored — including by many Catholics. What does it tell us, then, that Humanae Vitae, the most famous reiteration of that teaching, explains the depredations of today’s post-revolutionary order better than any other single source?
For starters, it means that the faithful can take solace in knowing that the Catholic Church, with all its human faults, has nevertheless gotten a big thing right. It also suggests that dissenters within the Church, and detractors outside it, should themselves abjure ideology and instead grapple with that same record of reality.
Lopez: Humanae Vitae is probably most often associated with contraception. Should it be even more associated with abortion?
Eberstadt: The fact that these two phenomena are joined at the root is one of the under-attended realities of the post-revolutionary world.
For all its predictive power, Humanae Vitae did not assert that mass contraception would increase abortion. Fifty years later, though, it’s become impossible to ignore the fact that these social phenomena are twinned. Widespread contraception leads to more abortion, for reasons that scholars far removed from St. Peter’s Square have been analyzing for decades now.
As economists and others have shown, contraception acts as a game-changer in the sexual marketplace. The facts of history also confirm that the practices are connected. The liberalization of abortion laws around the world doesn’t begin until contraceptive devices enter wider circulation in the 20th century. Roe v. Wade comes after the approval of the Pill, not before, for a reason.
What do those facts tell us? In part, that yesterday’s well-intentioned efforts to draw a clear line between the two have failed. Remember that we are talking here not of individual intentions but of historical fact. The desire to have sex without babies calls forth demand for a backstop, and the backstop is abortion. Again, it isn’t theologians who’ve produced proofs to that effect, but economists and other social scientists.
Lopez: Why should people who use or have used contraception or who consider it a good or necessary practice not be afraid to talk about Humanae Vitae? Is there a way to do this in a nonjudgmental kind of way?
Eberstadt: The only judgment readers are asked to make is about empirical truth. We’re talking here not about individual souls but about facts that everyone can see, and about what those facts indicate. We can use simple logic to assess current reality, and we don’t need advanced degrees to do it. Fifty years have produced a ledger that bears patently on the question of what the sexual revolution has wrought.
Readers, whether religious or otherwise, are asked to consider that record in good faith — and to entertain the possibility of transgressive conclusions, including the conclusion that Humanae Vitae was right.
Humanae Vitae subverts every standard that a consumerist, secular culture holds dearest: convenience, personal license, instant gratification, me-first.
Lopez: Most people, including Catholics, probably don’t give a lot of thought to papal encyclicals. Why should this 50-year-old one be different, if that assumption is true?
Eberstadt: Humanae Vitae is not just counter-cultural. It’s profoundly so — perhaps the most counter-cultural document of modern times. It subverts every standard that a consumerist, secular culture holds dearest: convenience, personal license, instant gratification, me-first.
For that reason alone, the encyclical would seem to be of interest to anyone seeking an account of life outside those parameters. There’s hunger, notably though not only among the Millennial generation, for an authenticity that many find lacking today. The teachings embodied in the document are a radical challenge — an invitation to consider what a real alternative to the dominant culture looks like.
On the wider plane, Humanae Vitae also makes a point to everyone. A lot of the revolution’s workings are inimical to our very well-being, including our flourishing as humanity. Many people know in their hearts that there’s something unnatural and industrial about life after the revolution. The teaching of Humanae Vitae and related documents is in part a call to be truer to ourselves, to live in harmony with our nature as human beings.
Lopez: Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, you wrote a piece for First Things called “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae.” How much has changed since then? How much of it has surprised you?
Eberstadt: Ten years ago, I outlined a number of the themes we’re talking about: the rise in disrespect for women, in romantic trouble, in communal and family breakup, in coercive population control — all of which the document predicted.
A decade later, the most surprising and poignant entry to the ledger is what the revolution looks like from the other end of time’s telescope — the elderly end. Who knew that by 2018 one of the hottest subjects in sociology would be “loneliness studies”? As detailed in the new essay, this is true not only in the United States but in Japan, Portugal, Germany, France, and other advanced nations: in short, everywhere that the Pill has been emptying cradles for five-plus decades now.
That’s an affecting reality. It’s traceable directly to the sexual revolution, which has privileged short-term pleasure over long-term happiness and companionship. The stories now emerging about what life without family looks like in old age are in a haunting class all their own.