On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, the epoch-making encyclical through which the Catholic Church affirmed her opposition to all forms of artificial contraception. Despite the widespread confusions wrought by the internal and external upheavals of the times, the Church did not compromise its moral teaching about the procreative dimension of the sexual act within marriage and, instead, drew on the authority of both revelation and the natural law to clarify her unchanged position. In revisiting this document with a half-century’s distance, we can now evaluate the meaning of its message with the aid of a third authority – history itself – which one of Paul VI’s predecessor called “the great teacher of life.”
Although, in hindsight, the Church’s reaffirmation of her stance on contraception seemed to be inevitable, what appeared to be impossible was a routine occurrence in the 1960s; the foment of a moment marked by the Sexual Revolution, Vatican II, and widespread unrest, was such that no one could count on the continuity of venerable traditions, even within the Catholic Church. Reading Humanae Vitaein 2018, then, one must recall the cultural trends that it countered. The core teachings of this document were a “sign of contradiction” even then, and they remain so now, despite the fact so many of its dire warnings about the practice of contraception proved to be prophetic.
The Pope cautioned that separating the unifying and fructifying functions of nuptial intimacy would have an array of harmful effects. Within marriage itself, it would cause a husband to view his wife “as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” It would also facilitate infidelity and lead to, as he put it, “a general lowering of moral standards.” All of these predictions, of course, have come to pass. Indeed, surveying our contemporary wasteland of casual couplings that have no relation to either the unitive or the procreative aspects of what can now only quaintly be called the “conjugal act,” the Pontiff’s words feel like an understatement. The highest meaning of sexual congress has been effaced and, once forgotten, it never recovers its rightful place. Instead, having debased the deepest form of intimacy, our culture, suffering from a loneliness it is unable to heal, seeks to slake its thirst with salt water: more of the same kind of counterfeit closeness which leads to more regret, isolation, and shame is the only aid it can offer.
The Pope also realized what a dangerous tool contraception would provide the coercive state. In making this prescient statement about what would now be called the “biopolitical” aspect of contraception, the Pontiff saw further than even the great prophet of 20th-century totalitarianism, George Orwell, a fierce and lifelong opponent of all forms of contraception, who saw the separation of pleasure from procreation that it produced primarily as a potential means of industrial exploitation. When man’s pleasure comes to occupy the same place that unbridled profit does in corrupted forms of capitalism, man quickly becomes enthralled to the despotism of his own desires. This is what the Christian tradition rightly calls “slavery to sin” – from which actually oppression soon follows.
This aspect of Humanae Vitaeremains, in our own moment, the most difficult to grasp. Indeed, having been suppressed for so long, the profound, procreative dimension of sex now strikes us as a burden from which we have been liberated; contraception appears to make us sexually, socially, and politically free. But, as one of Dostoevsky’s characters rightly observes, “starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism;” by setting aside even one of the Creator’s “wise restraints that make us free,” we incarcerate ourselves in a degrading illusion. Through our willful opposition to the full reality of the sexual act, we begin to fashion an artificial order which quickly becomes a prison.
True, the West, today, seems free: pluralist, secular democracies in Europe, North America, and elsewhere value individual rights and afford the exercise of freedoms that do not exist in countries like China, North Korea, and Iran. Yet, just as the internal economic contradictions of communism led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too the internal cultural contradictions of the West have created the conditions for a similar kind of crisis. Indeed, the slow-motion implosion of birth rates in the developed world has proved to be a kind of “population bomb,” but the very inverse of the one predicted by environmental alarmists.
The West has turned reproduction, that window which opens onto the future, into a blank, limiting, narcissistic mirror. Contraception has spawned a suicidal generation which ceases to anticipate, through the sexual act, the very posterity through which society is renewed. Instead, it finds in such contact only meaningless and transient pleasures. The pernicious effects of the demographic vacuum created by our elected sterility are various – the unsustainable inflation of prices in an economy without children, the long-term insolvency of our social programs, and the migrant crises which dwindling populations make inevitable – but they all have the same origin.
Reflecting on the origin of his own country’s misfortunes in the 20thcentury, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn concluded that the explanation which circulated among the elderly was, in fact, correct: “men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” The widespread practice of artificial contraception in our own culture has the same source – and will lead to the same end. Desiring only the “taste” of sexual pleasure, but not the real nourishment that it offers, we waste away, suffering from a form of self-imposed “reproductive bulimia.” Now, more than ever, we need to heed the lessons that Humanae Vitaeoffered five decades ago; having starved ourselves of sexuality’s greatest gift, we need now, with penitent obedience, to fulfill the Creator’s first injunction: “Go forth and multiply!”