The background

Pope Paul VI

      Pope Paul VI

There was a great deal of moral tumult in 1968. The sexual revolution was in full swing, with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner declaring the year before, “I am in the center of the world.” Canada legalized divorce and was on the verge of legalizing contraception and homosexual acts, and permitting abortion-on-demand. Three years earlier, in the Griswold decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled contraception bans unconstitutional; four years later, it would deliver its infamous decision in Roe v. Wade. There was widespread belief that being liberated from traditional strictures of sexual morality would lead to a freer, happier population. At the same time, there was growing concern about overpopulation; Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb was published in 1969 and World Bank President Robert McNamara declared at the spring annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group that countries permitting birth control practices would get preferential access to resources.

The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was financed by Planned Parenthood and approved in 1960 by the US Food and Drug Administration. In 1963, Pope John XXIII established a commission (of non-theologians) to study birth control and population. The pontiff died that year and later Pope Paul VI would enlarge the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control to 58 members, including theologians, bishops, and married couples. (He named Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyła – who later become Pope John Paul II – to the commission, but the communist government  would not permit him to travel to Rome.) The commission issued a report in 1966 that approved some forms of contraception for married couples, and Pope Paul VI ignored it. He continued to consult and study on the topic and on July 25,1968 issued an encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). John Paul II biographer George Weigel says Wojtyła’s 1960 book Love and Responsibility strongly influenced Paul VI’s encyclical.

Re-stating Christian truth

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI affirmed Catholic moral teaching – indeed, traditional Christian teaching – that, “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.” In light of changes technological (the Pill) and societal (the sexual revolution, new opportunities for women), Pope Paul VI knew it was necessary to re-examine Catholic moral teaching and after doing so, was compelled to restate (forgotten) moral truths.

Humanae Vitae states marital love is “total” and “faithful and exclusive” with marital fidelity “always honourable and meritorious.” Most importantly, “this love is fecund: It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.” The encyclical explains couples have a responsibility to keep “a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society,” and therefore, “they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow.” Indeed, “they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.” Finally, it states, “if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.”

For centuries, all Christian churches believed this. Obviously, then, Christian moral teaching proscribed artificial contraception and abortion as violations of the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means,” is illicit as Humanae Vitae clearly states, although Paul VI reinforced Catholic teaching that periods of sexual abstinence to space or delay children was morally permissible.

In the late 20th century, many Christians and some Catholic dissidents claimed the Humanae Vitae view of marital relationships was more of an ideal than a moral requirement, a sentiment Pope Paul VI specifically rejected in the encyclical.

What’s more, it is the prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae, which warned that acceptance of artificial birth control would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” It also warned that when couples use contraception, men “may forget the reverence due to a woman.” Finally, it raised concerns that contraception, sterilization, and abortion was too great a power to give to public authorities, a prognostication proven by China’s brutal one-child policy and United Nations-sponsored population control schemes throughout the developing world. Every one of these worries has come true in the half century since Humanae Vitae was released.

The wages of sin

By almost any measure, the signs of unfettered sexual license tell a disturbing tale. For most of the last three decades, Canada has killed about 100,000 preborn children annually; in the United States, the number is about a million annually. While the number of surgical abortions have decreased in recent years, there is an unknowable and dramatically rising number of chemical abortions.

According to the U.S. National Health Statistics Report, 99 per cent of American women aged 15-44 have used at least one contraceptive method in their lifetime, and 62 per cent of all women of reproductive age are currently using some contraceptive method; that number jumps to 77 per cent of married women. Even if those numbers are inaccurate, they paint a picture in which contraception is commonplace. In Canada, there are more than one million prescriptions for oral contraceptives dispensed every year. According to the market research firm, the global condom market is expected to reach US$11 billion by 2022.

Sexually transmitted infections have increased precipitously in recent years. In Canada in 1998, there were 39,372 new cases of chlamydia; in 2015, there were 116,499 new cases. Likewise, the number of gonorrhea infections increased from 5,076 to 19,845 over the same time frame. New cases of syphilis, thought to be on the verge of being eradicated in North America a decade ago, rose from 501 in 1998 to 4,551 in 2015. American numbers tell a similar story.

While generally trend lines show decreases in teenage pregnancy rates and divorce in recent years, that followed a boom in both phenomena in the 1970s.

The contraceptive mentality

Humanae Vitae was prophetic. Many of its critics were not. Proponents of contraception, even within the Christian churches, have promoted the idea that it prevents abortion; some went so far as to predict contraception would render abortion obsolete and some critics of the pro-life movement advise that it accept contraception as the lesser of two evils (with the prevention of children presumably less evil than the killing of them). But as Mary Eberstadt, a senior researcher at the Faith and Reason Institute, wrote in First Things in April, the “empirical reality” is that the easy availability of contraception led to more abortion. Eberstadt observed that, “rates of contraception usage, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births all exploded simultaneously.” Contraception leads to more pregnancy because it theoretically lowers the cost of having sex – the social and economic costs – through the perception that it will prevent pregnancy (and in the case of condoms, sexually transmitted diseases). The perception of lower risk of pregnancy and the responsibilities that come with it, researcher Scott Lloyd has pointed out in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, incentivizes sexual relationships that might not otherwise occur. Furthermore, as economists George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz, wrote in a 1996 Quarterly Journal of Economics article, “by making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother,” due to abortion, “the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.” That is, the expectation of women to forego children because of the possibility of abortion and contraception, has altered the expectations of men. Contraception and abortion are two sides of the same coin.

Furthermore, as Eberstadt writes, far from making women happier, the age of free love has gone hand-in-hand with higher rates of dissatisfaction with their intimate relationships (both those they have and those they cannot find), making special note of the degradation of women through pornography and popular entertainment. The #MeToo movement has shone a light on the problem of sexual harassment, and even if the phenomenon is exaggerated, very clearly the “sexual revolution licensed predation” in Eberstadt’s judgment.

Paradoxically, the freedom to engage in premarital sex with seemingly no consequences, may have made the choice to abstain from sex before marriage difficult. Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote in Crisis magazine in 2001, that “the possibilities seemingly open to young women in their ability to control their fertility have made deciding not to have sex before marriage look like an eccentric choice to most.” As the sociologist James Q. Wilson has observed, when many men can find sex outside of marriage with great ease, some girls feel it necessary to “put out” just to find or maintain a boyfriend. Contraception has therefore changed not only behaviour, but attitudes and expectations, and with a terrible toll. All of this was predicted by Pope Paul VI.

‘Clarifying’ document

But Janet Smith, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and the University Dallas, wrote during Humanae Vitae’s 25th anniversary, that “the encyclical was not written to be a prophetic document,” but rather a “clarifying” one. The encyclical was written to remind not only Catholics, but all Christians and people of goodwill, that not only is “contraception wrong, but that because contraception is wrong, it will have bad consequences.” Smith wrote that Humanae Vitae warned contraception would “lead man to think that he has unlimited dominion over his own body.” It would lead, Pope Paul VI predicted, to a host of transhuman phenomena such as in vitro fertilization, illicit organ transplants, euthanasia, and sterilization. “We seek to adjust the body to our desires and timetables,” Smith wrote, “rather than adjusting ourselves to its needs.”

Many Protestants initially rejected Humanae Vitae. Christianity Today wrote a series of scathing editorials and reports condemning the Catholic Church’s supposedly outdated reliance on Natural Law. Others eventually came to accept it. Again, all Christians used to condemn artificial contraception so for many it was just a matter of coming full circle. Allan Carlson, the author of Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973, wrote that all Protestants considered any form of birth control morally wrong, just like abortion, until the 1920s. Then, in 1930, the Anglican Church broke with tradition at the Lambeth Conference, permitting a limited license for married couples to use contraception under certain circumstances. But the damn broke, and the license broadened. However, other Christians have embraced Humanae Vitae. Evan Lenow of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary said, “Protestants have done themselves a disservice by ignoring Humanae Vitae’s substantial statement on human anthropology and sexuality” while others have couched their acceptance of Humanae Vitae’s teaching by rejecting the “contraceptive mentality” that leads to abortion.


Protestants were not the only ones to reject Humanae Vitae when it came out. Numerous Austrian, Dutch, and German Catholic bishops dissented from Humanae Vitae, at best holding it up as ideal that could not always realistically be lived up to in the modern world. But the most notorious dissent came from the Canadian bishops in the “Winnipeg Statement,” released two months after Humanae Vitae. The Statement conceded that individuals could, in good conscience, use contraception as long as they have first made an honest attempt to accept the difficult proscriptions of the encyclical: “they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” Bishop Alexander Carter, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) at the time, said the Catholic hierarchy in Canada “had to reckon with the fact of widespread dissent from some points of (Pope Paul VI’s) teaching.” But they did not merely reckon with the fact of dissent; they contributed to it.

Monsignor Vincent Foy, of the Archdiocese of Toronto, was a vociferous critic of the “Winnipeg Statement,” most notably in the pages of Fr. Alphonse de Valk’s Catholic Insight magazine. As Msgr. Foy wrote in 1998, “the rejection of Humanae Vitae brings with it a train of evils which destroy family life,” such as contraception, abortion, infidelity, divorce, a decline in religious vocations, and loss of faith. Msgr. Foy argued that the “Winnipeg Statement” was “a major factor” in Canadian Catholics rejecting Humanae Vitae. While few practicing Catholics are likely to read a decades-old statement from the CCCB – or an encyclical for that matter – the “Winnipeg Statement” influenced marriage preparation courses across the country. Msgr. Foy asserted that, “every attempt at family renewal” by the Catholic Church “will fail as long as the ‘Winnipeg Statement’ can be quoted or misquoted as justification for contraceptive use.” He repeatedly called upon the CCCB to revoke the “Winnipeg Statement,” and in a 2003 article listed 50 reasons to do so. Among them was that it normalized dissent (among congregants, theologians, and bishops), taught “an erroneous doctrine on conscience,” led to the killing of preborn children through the use of abortifacient contraceptives, and “deprived countless children of proper role models” because “contracepting parents cannot give their children a right example of chastity and self-giving.”

Cost of rejecting Humanae Vitae

Mary Eberstadt wrote that “the most globally reviled and widely misunderstood document of the the last half century is also the most prophetic and explanatory of our time.” It explains our time because Pope Paul VI saw how the sexual revolution, which is trending toward lifting all constraints on sexual relations, would lead to a set of social pathologies that undermined life and love. Rather than embrace the truth of Humanae Vitae, the culture seems to be doubling down on decadence. Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote 17 years ago in her Crisis article that despite a recognition of the terrible toll of the sexual revolution and ignoring Humanae Vitae, “the prevailing social attitude isn’t revisionism but resignation,” with “heartache and family disintegration” the “price to be paid for lifting traditional sexual restraints.” Nothing significant has changed since then to alter the veracity of the observation.

The West’s continued rejection of Humanae Vitae, and subsequent embrace of fruitless sexual relations, is not only a personal tragedy, but cultural suicide. The United States has one of the highest fertility rates in the western world at 1.80, which is still below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman of child-bearing age. Canada’s is 1.60. The European Union’s is 1.58. Were it not for massive numbers of immigrants, every western country would face the prospect of continued dwindling populations.

When one takes into account the costs associated with family breakdown, the stakes for society are every bit as disastrous for countries as for individuals when Humanae Vitae is rejected. One wonders why there are so few voices that heed the evidence of the harm that the contraceptive culture causes.