Fifty years ago this past Wednesday, Pope Paul VI issued a letter warning about how the sexual revolution was about to do grave damage to men and women and children and families. He said that the widespread use of artificial contraception — separating sex from the all-in generous love of marriage, united to the love of the Trinity — would lower our moral standards. Making it harder for young people to live love well — by not telling the truth and expecting more from them — he said was evil.
That’s a paraphrase, but you can read the relatively short Humanae Vitae for yourself here. He said most prophetically:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
And maybe especially read how he cared for women in it. He wrote:
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
We need this kind of fatherly leadership always. But what happened 50 years ago? Some people in the Catholic Church rejected it. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to convince the wider culture that there might be some wisdom here. And as if we aren’t all in danger of falling short — and falling — even with the best intentions. Perhaps the last thing anyone in the world needed was missing this wisdom — 50 years later, it sure seems that way.
And so it is a bit of a brutal anniversary. One that calls for all-hands-on-deck responses for renewal. The #MeToo movement was already an indictment of our lack of commitment to sharing the warning and the beauty of what Paul VI highlighted in the document.
About the beauty, consider its huge “yes”:
Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who “is love,” the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”
Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.
The marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church.
Imagine if we talked about, celebrated, witnessed, spotlighted, openly prioritized the daily walk of this more, instead of getting wrapped up in every kind of politicized controversy to the point of distraction. Participation in such amazement and co-creation is the stuff of joy and happiness and what our hearts long for and were made for.
But the story of Humanae Vitae over the last 50 years is not complete without even more reason for repentance and renewal: The June news that former Washington, D.C., cardinal archbishop Theodore McCarrick had credible allegations against him in his past and then some. Not only priests but a cardinal living such a double life, torturing seminarians and priests — and boys younger, along the way — according to what was revealed before and continues to be after the initial news finally broke; it all brings to the surface that “smoke of Satan” Pope Paul VI also warned about during his pontificate. Of course, the world wasn’t going to embrace Humanae Vitae, or the Good News of the Gospel it sought to further communicate, when such filth was amidst the sacred at the highest levels.
These headlines are cause for anger, disgust, and sorrow. In response we need truth, courage, justice, and healing. And they are an insistent clarion call for radical change in reparation, reform, and renewal — conversion to the Gospel to the depths which our entire lives are meant to be. There is no room for comfort. Really, truly: Repent and believe! And as the words of the rite of ordination go: “Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
There are so many priests who have surrendered to this life. Thanks be to God. May they only grow in holiness and courage.
I’ve been moved by a number of lay people writing in recent days, trying to keep their eyes and lives focused on Christ in the midst of such horrific headlines. Sohrab Ahmari calls for sackcloth and ashes. Ashley McGuire says Humanae Vitae saved her life. Jane Sloan Peters reminds us of the saints who can come to our aid. Mothers and fathers insisting on something better. This is a time for urgent commitment to transparency, housecleaning, and healing and true prayerful leadership. It’s an opportunity to start again as a church of sinners in need of a Savior with love and gratitude that our salvation depends on God, not men. We all have to strive for holiness together. We all have to encourage one another in courage and holiness. We all need to keep one another honest. We are all the Church. All together. This life is spiritual warfare and the Holy Spirit is leading us out of the grips of Hell even now — especially now, if we would only be inclined to follow. We must all be a part of the beginning again, truly embracing the beauty of Church teaching and offering it to the world — making it irresistible by the way we live our lives.
One media happening this past week was the FiveThirtyEight attack on Catholic hospitals that dare to be Catholic, providing care in rural areas that might otherwise be uncovered. (Alexandra DeSanctis and Stephanie Slade had good responses.) The fact of the matter is, as unfashionable as it may be, the world needs Catholics to be Catholic. It helps. And what Hell there is when we’re not. As we are seeing.
Here’s how St. Ignatius of Antioch — a bishop who was martyred — put it in a passage that appeared in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church, a few days ago:
Let us not be insensible of Christ’s loving kindness. For if he had acted as we do, we would have been lost indeed. Therefore, let us become his disciples and learn to live in the Christian way; those who are called by any other name are not of God. Cast out the evil leaven that has become old and sour, and replace it with the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. He must be the salt of your lives, so that none of you may become corrupt, since it is by your wholesomeness that you will be judged.
This past week was also the feast of St. James, and I can’t get a man named James out of my mind. He told his McCarrick story to the New York Times and then talked more with former NR-er Rod Dreher. Anyone who calls himself or herself Catholic has a role to play in leading a Gospel revolution of healing and confident joy in the life of the Beatitudes. We owe it to every victim of abuse. We owe it to every courageous soul who strives to live truthfully in his humanity. We owe it above all to the God who created us and strengthens us for love in the ruins of the last 50 years. Live love, not indifference, or cowardice, or evil.