In the decade of the 1960’s, two important revolutions intertwined: the sexual and contraceptive revolutions. The sexual revolution promised a more healthy, less inhibited sexual lifestyle, and the contraceptive revolution made possible, at least theoretically, its immediate delivery.  Together, this revolutionary tandem promised an attractive array of human improvements: less sexual frustration, better marriages, fewer divorces, better child spacing, fewer unwanted pregnancies, a higher percentage of wanted babies, fewer abortions, and an easing of the population crisis.

The Catholic Church’s acceptance of the rhythm method at that time had not been favorably received by the world at large. The “rhythm” or “calendar” method was mockingly derided as “Vatican Roulette,” and it was commonly joked that people who practised it were known as “parents.” Nor was the media cordial to the rhythm method. Journalist H.L. Mencken, for example, had derisively commented that “It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry.”

The Church’s opposition to contraception, however, had always been moral, not scientific. But even the out moded rhythm method presupposed specialized knowledge of physics and chemistry. The Church is most assuredly well disposed toward scientific disciplines. In fact, she draws upon the knowledge they provide in developing Natural Family Planning approaches that include such scientific paraphernalia as symptothermal detection instruments, ovulation measuring devices, and ultra-sound scanning machines.

Society’s criticisms of Church teaching on sexual matters only intensified, however, as the sexual and contraceptive revolutions gathered momentum. The Church was one of the few social forces that firmly opposed the tide of this joint revolution. As a consequence, it became an easy and frequent target of criticism. To an increasing number of people, the Church appeared more backward, medieval, anti-scientific, and Puritanical, than ever before. To cite by one representative example, Dr. Albert Ellis, a popular speaker and author of some 49 books on sex, advised the church to endorse premarital sex. “If it doesn’t,” he flatly predicted, it will “go out of business.”

At this time of fierce opposition between the church and the world, a scientist who identified himself as a devout Catholic entered the fray with the expressed hope of saving the Church form what he termed “medievalism.” Dr. John Rock a Harvard professor of gynecology, achieved national fame virtually overnight with his publication in 1963 of The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control.

Church urges to change

In this book, Dr. Rock advised his Church to accept the Pill. A large meausre of the doctor’s credibility lay in the fact that he was presumed to be, in all other respects, and orthodox Catholic. Nonetheless, having noted that the Church lost its fight on birth control, he predicted she would also lose the fight on sterilization and abortion. In 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, Dr. Rock stated that “given the reality of malnutrition in the world, efforts to prevent abortions were a “blasphemy.”

When Humanae Vitae appeared in 1968, the world had been conditioned to reject it. In the spring of 1967, Newsweek published the results of an extensive survey that claimed that the level of American Catholics who approved contraception had greatly increased, to 73 per cent. The survey also reported that more Catholics had come to accept abortion, divorce, and optional celibacy for priests.

One of the predictions Pope Paul VI made in Humanae Vitae was that the widespread use of contracpetion would lead to a general decline in morality. Given what has transpired over the past 30 years, it appears that the Holy father’s prediction was a prophecy. We have witnessed over the past three decades, a dramatic rise in the incidence of prematrital sexual activity, out-of-wedlock marriages, abortions, divorces, adultery, sexually transmitted diseases, and an unparalleled explosion of pornography. Some observers have labeled this virtual tidal wave of immorality a “sexual holocaust.”

The twin revolutions have proven to be a decisive fialure. The contracpetion revolution has also failed because of its unreliability in preventing pregnancies, and its numerous and serious side-effects.

Today, 30 years later, it is becoming increasingly clear that the real choice concerning birth regulation is not between contraception and sterilization or abortion, but between Natural Family Planning and sterilization or abortion. In other words, the choice from now and into the future, is more and more between Natural Family Planning and unnatural family planning.

The prevalence of abortion around the world, the growing acceptance of the RU 486 morning-after Pill (which is an abortifacient), and the increased use of permanent sterilization provide dramatically convincing evidence that the contraceptive revolution which Dr. Rock helped to inaugurate in the 1960s, has proved to be a failure.

The merging of the two failed revolutions and the fulfilled prophecy of Pope Paul VI has significance that goes far beyond that of an interesting, perhaps curious observation. It provides an excellent opportunity for explaining why the revolutions failed and for developing a deeper appreciation of human sexuality that is healthy, personal, integrated, and realistic.

Technology’s limits

It is not likely that sexual license, together with contraceptive technology could be relied upon to accomplish what only morality can. Our technological age has persisted for some time in dreaming of systems that are so efficient that no one needs to be morally good. The 30 years that have transpired since Humanae Vitae should make it abundantly clear that the morality of self-control is a lot more realistic in preserving the human quality of society than the ideology of technological control.

How easy it would be, Paul VI warned 30 years ago, for those who severed the procreative end of sexual union from the unitive dimension, to unleash a myriad of moral calamities. Among these calamities, he referred to the weakening of marriage, the justification of infidelity, the lessening of respect husbands would have for their wives, a general moral decline, and leaving the young without proper and adequate sexual guidance.  Reflecting on these misfortunes should inspire us not to repeat them.

One hopes that the failures of the sexual and contracpetive revolutions will occasion the birth of a new revolution, one that is personal, moral, and more hopeful in Divine Providence.

(Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome’s College, Waterloo, Ontario).