July 25 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical outlined Catholic Church teaching on artificial contraception, the marital relationship, family planning, the sex act itself, and warned of the dangers of widespread artificial contraceptive use throughout a culture. The encyclical was not well-received in 1968, even in Catholic circles, and has been considered controversial by many in those same circles ever since.
At the time, many thought that the Catholic Church, noticing the sexual revolution happening throughout the western world, would change Her stance and adopt a more lenient attitude toward contraceptive use. To their surprise, the pope actually doubled down on Church teaching regarding the use of contraception.
While Humanae Vitae offers a succinct summation of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, perhaps the most notable section of the document is one in which Pope Paul VI makes a series of four predictions regarding what would happen with a large-scale acceptance of contraception. These predictions apply, of course, not only to those within the Catholic Church, but to any country or culture that accepts large-scale contraceptive use as a legitimate form of family planning.
Many scoffed at these predictions during the late ’60s, and many more have scoffed at them ever since. Even today, with fifty years of evidence in the books and the predictions looking more and more like prophecies, many do not want to acknowledge just how accurate the predictions were.
For the unfamiliar, the four predictions made by Blessed Pope Paul VI of what would happen to a culture with widespread acceptance of contraception are: 1) an increase in marital infidelity, 2) an objectification of or general loss of reverence and respect for women, 3) the forced use of contraceptives by coercive governments looking to solve other economic or social problems, and 4) people would begin to believe they have total dominion over their bodies.
There’s little question that these predictions have come to pass in spades. Not only is marital infidelity high, but the number of people choosing to marry is down. Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm, pornography and promiscuous sexual activity is rampant, forced sterilization and one-child policies have been enacted in different regions around the world, abortion rates have skyrocketed, and “my body, my choice” is the rallying cry of those who defend the abominable practice.
There is an obvious correlation between each of these phenomena and the widespread acceptance of contraceptive use. Yet many still don’t want to acknowledge the cultural fallout that, at the very least, coincided directly with this widespread acceptance.
While none of these correlations is especially difficult to understand, perhaps the most perplexing is the connection between contraception and abortion. Fifty years ago, increased contraception was touted as the end of the need for abortion. But instead of ending the need for abortion, the opposite has happened. Even today, pro-life advocates are often told that if they want to decrease the number of abortions, they should be lobbying for increased access to contraception. But artificial contraception is more easily accessible now than it has ever been, and the United States still aborts over one million unborn babies every year.
While this theory sounds logical, it has not worked in practice. And the truth is that it couldn’t work, because underlying widespread contraceptive use is a lie that strikes at the foundation of everything we know about human sexuality and procreation. That lie is that the sex act itself can be separated from its natural end — the procreation of children.
Contraception is deceiving in that it diminishes the power of the sex act in the eyes of those who use it. It leads them into believing that they can engage in sexual activity without the danger of becoming pregnant. No doubt this deception is enticing for those who do not wish for their sex life to be hindered by the uncertainty surrounding a possible pregnancy.
But diminishing or removing the procreative power of human sexuality, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, has some unintended consequences. By removing the perceived possibility of children from human sexuality, contraception removed the incentive to respect the sex act as well as the incentive to keep it within the bounds of marriage.
With no danger of procreation, individuals were free to engage in more sexual activity with more partners without fear of repercussions. But the lie is nevertheless a damaging one, not only because contraception can easily fail, but because it strikes at the natural order of things and creates a culture where the natural order is subverted in the name of freedom and liberation. This lie spread like wildfire and is now virtually unquestioned by a culture that regards sex as a largely recreational activity ordered toward meeting base biological needs.
The widespread acceptance of the lie explains the cultural shift that ended with the almost-universal, even if unacknowledged, acceptance of the attitude that women are almost always available for sexual activity. While the problem of sexual assault is as old as the world itself, the culture-wide spike almost assuredly began with this idea, and the subsequent #MeToo movement represents women fighting back against the objectification that came from it.
Indeed, for all the predictions made by Pope Paul VI regarding contraception, and all the evidence that has mounted over the years to prove him right, perhaps the biggest fallout of the sexual revolution was that this lie of contraception struck at the foundation of the natural order and of truth itself. Until 50 years ago, every generation of humankind has understood the connection between sex and procreation. Now it’s in dispute because of artificial contraception.
Fearing a lost understanding of the natural order, Pope Paul VI reminded us in Humanae Vitae that the sex act was designed to be both unitive and procreative. It is unitive in the sense that it unites husband and wife and creates a bond between them. It is procreative in that it is ordered toward the creation of children.
This does not mean that every sex act is or must be with the purpose or intention of conceiving a child, but rather that the act itself is naturally ordered toward that end and must be open to it. Both the unitive and procreative aspect of the sex act are vital to our understanding of human sexuality, and to diminish one of these aspects is to diminish the act itself.
The aim of contraception is to remove the procreative aspect of the sex act so that only the unitive is left. For those using contraception, the purpose of the sex act is to generate pleasure and to bring two people closer together (and sometimes the latter is not important either). It no longer needs to have anything to do with procreation and bringing new life into the world. With contraception, the procreative aspect of the sex act is squashed, and the unitive aspect is all that remains.
I was reminded of this over the weekend when a pro-abortion individual pointed out that “99.9 percent of people have sex because it feels good, not because they want to have children.”
Contraception has allowed our culture to subvert the purpose of human sexuality and take up residence in a fantasyland where sex and procreation are not connected. It’s a world where even a suggestion that the purpose of human sexuality is to create children and prolong the species serves as an invitation for mockery and ridicule.
As Pope Paul VI alluded to, the lie of contraception is that we can have sex without consequences, and while this may be true in some sense for many couples who contracept, on a macro scale it has indeed proven to be a lie. This is demonstrated by research showing that over half of women seeking abortions report having used some form of contraception to avoid pregnancy. Clearly, contraception is neither foolproof nor one hundred percent effective, and those who believe the lie are oftentimes the ones who end up facing unintended pregnancies.
But our culture has so bought into this lie that many individuals consider sex without consequences to be an entitlement. And an entitlement held long enough comes to be seen as a human right. And if sex without consequences is a human right, then the removal of any consequences must also be a human right. And if a person engages in sexual activity with no intention of creating a child, then the child becomes the consequence, and then the destruction of the child becomes a human right.
So while not every couple using contraception would consider abortion as an option, the fact is that the legitimizing of abortion coincided directly with the legitimizing and wide-scale acceptance of contraceptive use. But even in 2018, contraception fails and sex is still inherently connected to procreation. The natural order is really still intact. It cannot be any other way.
Recognizing the lie and what it has done to the framework of our understanding of human sexuality is of tantamount importance to those working to end abortion and build a culture of life in our country. Truly, it forces us to acknowledge that we can never understand our culture’s attitude toward abortion unless we understand its attitude toward sex. Further, we will never be able to change our culture’s attitude toward abortion or build a culture of life unless we can undo the lie.
After all, the goal of the pro-life movement is not just to make abortion illegal, but to make it unthinkable. Chipping away at abortion laws is good, noble work. There is little doubt that at some point in the future, our country will more fully recognize the injustice of abortion and reject it at the legal level. But if the goal really is to make abortion unthinkable, that cannot and will not happen without a large-scale shift in our cultural attitude toward human sexuality and contraception.
Fifty years of evidence has more than demonstrated how accurate and insightful Pope Paul VI’s predictions were, but it’s possible that even he would be surprised by the world as it is now. Not even he could have predicted such a widespread separation of humanity from reality, of actions from natural consequences, or the degree to which our culture has bought the lie of contraception.