Ethics & Public Policy Center

Humanae Vitae at 45

Published in National Review Online on July 25, 2013


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


A few weeks ago, while pondering the upcoming sapphire anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) and the continuing controversy over the “birth control encyclical” throughout both Church and society, I came across the following, in an essay the Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote shortly before his death in 2004: “Increasingly the institution of marriage is being replaced by simply living together, which has followed upon the sundering of the link between sex and fertility. This is not just a revolution in the area of moral norms; it reaches much deeper, into the very definition of man. If the drive which is innate in man as a physiological being conflicts with the optimum condition that we call a human way of life (sufficient food, good living conditions, women’s rights), and therefore has to be cheated with the help of science, then the rest of our firmly held convictions about what is natural behavior and what is unnatural fall by the wayside.”

Miłosz — who is buried in the basilica at Skałka in Cracow, traditionally held to be the site of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus — had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church; he was not a man who automatically accepted ecclesiastical dicta on the basis of religious authority. Thus his insight into the cultural consequences of cheap, effective, and readily available contraception is all the more striking, in that it runs in close parallel to what Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae: an encyclical that was not so much rejected (pace the utterly predictable 45th-anniversary commentary) as it was unread, untaught, ill-considered — and thus unappreciated.

Contrary to the myth-making (and, in some instances, prevarication) that has characterized a lot of commentary on Humanae Vitae since its publication on July 25, 1968, Paul VI’s letter to the Church and to “all men of good will” is, at bottom, a paean to responsible parenthood — a theme that recurs throughout the document. Humanae Vitae does not teach an ideology of procreation at all costs; quite the contrary. Pope Paul taught that married couples have a moral obligation to plan their families; further, he wrote, family planning is an exercise of vocational discernment that engages the mind, the heart, and the will, and each of those faculties should be informed by mutual respect and charity between spouses. The question Paul VI tried to put on the table of global discussion was not whether family planning was morally legitimate; the question he posed was: How can fertility be regulated in a truly humanistic and life-affirming way? How can the regulation of births cohere with the moral truths built into humanity, especially those moral truths that touch on the unique dignity of women?

Needless to say, that serious moral conversation was never engaged. Indeed, it never began: in part, because 1968 was perhaps the worst year imaginable to try to kick-start a conversation about sex that went one millimeter beyond the pleasure principle; in part, because too many Catholic intellectuals, angry that their advice had not been taken by the pope, used Humanae Vitae as a punching bag in a more comprehensive assault on the Church’s teaching authority; and in part because many of the bishops to whom Pope Paul appealed for a compassionate and compelling presentation of his teaching ignored the papal plea for a variety of reasons, not excluding pusillanimity in the face of the sexual revolution.

Yet when one rereads Humanae Vitae today, absent the blinders imposed by four and a half decades of deprecation and mockery, it seems that Paul VI anticipated the cultural impacts of the contraceptive society with a clarity of foresight that is even more impressive than Czesław Miłosz’s clarity of hindsight.

Marital fidelity, Pope Paul warned, would be threatened by the contraceptive mentality. Divorce rates have since skyrocketed throughout the Western world, and while there are many reasons for that, the contraceptive mindset that reduced marriage to a legal contract for purposes of mutual (tax) convenience surely played its role.

A contraception-saturated society would be likely to witness a “general lowering of moral standards,” according to Humanae Vitae; would any serious observer of Western civilization suggest that we are running an overall virtue surplus these days, at any level of society from the interpersonal through the cultural and on to the economic and the political? Again, there is no monocausal explanation for today’s virtue deficit, which expresses itself in so many ways, including a general coarsening of life and culture. But surely it’s worth considering whether the post-Pill cheapening of sex into just another contact sport — cf. Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons — is one factor in the mix.

Derided for alleged misogyny, Paul VI in fact foresaw that the contraceptive society and the cast of mind it engendered (pun intended) would lead to disrespect for women, reduced as they would be to instruments for the pleasuring of men. Look at the plague of sexual abuse throughout society, the chronic inability of Gen X to make lifetime commitments, and the multibillion-dollar exploitation of women in “adult” films — and then ask yourself, Who are the misogynists here?

Humanae Vitae warned that, given a widespread culture of contraception, governments would inevitably decide that they had a role to play in the contraceptive society, even to the point of coercion. The Obama administration, in both domestic and foreign policy, vindicates that concern in spades.

And all that is before we get to the demographic winter that is spreading throughout the Western world — a self-induced population implosion that underlies many of the West’s public-policy and fiscal dilemmas — and the post-Pill decline of “culture as a school of discipline” of which Miłosz wrote in his essay.

According to the late Father Andrew Greeley (as relentlessly obsessive a critic of Humanae Vitae as one could find anywhere in the wide Catholic world), the great Protestant theologian and ecumenist Oscar Cullmann, on meeting Paul VI after Humanae Vitae, said that he had found what he had long sought: the pure Calvinist, the man who would, for the sake of his conscience, defy the whole world. It’s a dramatic image, but it misses several crucial points.

The first is that, while Paul VI did write that it was his responsibility to sift the material he had been given by many advisers, including the papal commission on marriage and fertility that Pope John XXIII had established and that he, Paul, had expanded, he also made clear that the teaching of Humanae Vitaerested, not on the personal conscience of Giovanni Battista Montini, but on the mature conviction of Pope Paul VI as custodian and servant, not master, of the Catholic tradition. Moreover, it is demeaning to suggest that Paul VI affirmed the Church’s classic position on marital love and procreation (which had been held for centuries by virtually every Christian community until the Anglican Communion broke ranks at the 1930 Lambeth Conference) because he was afraid that changing the traditional position would unravel the entire body of Catholic moral teaching. Pope Paul had been quite willing to hit the development-of-doctrine accelerator in any number of cases at Vatican II (including the collegiality of bishops and religious freedom), and there is no reason to think that he was frightened by the idea of legitimate developments in Catholic self-understanding; he simply judged that the case for artificial contraception was not such a development.

Moreover, Paul VI realized, as he made clear in the first sections of Humanae Vitae, that the papal “birth control” commission and the theologians’ guild were playing for much higher stakes than simply bringing the Rome of 1968 into line with the Canterbury of 1930. The commission theologians and their colleagues throughout much of Catholic academia wanted to enshrine as official Catholic moral methodology theories that held that the moral life is a matter of the totality of life choices, or a matter of one’s “fundamental option” for goodness, or both, not by the rightness or wrongness of particular choices or acts. But as John Paul II would explain decades later in the general-audience addresses that were gathered in The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, and in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), that way of thinking about morality drains the moral life of its human drama by emptying the specific choices we make of serious existential content. Paul VI didn’t put it that way — though he well might have, given the proposals made to him by Cracovian theologians under the leadership of the man who would become John Paul II, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła — but he surely grasped the essential point. And he has never been forgiven, down to today, by those Catholic theologians and their offspring whose revolutionary intellectual project he frustrated.

As Mary Eberstadt has demonstrated with penetrating insight in Adam and Eve After the Pill (Ignatius Press), Adam, Eve, and a lot of the rest of humanity don’t seem to be much happier because of the contraceptive revolution and the social culture it created. Eberstadt’s analysis of the cultural degradation, the sheer weirdness, that has followed the widespread acceptance of contraception as a way of life tracks closely with the rueful confession I once heard from a prominent Congregationalist minister in the Seattle area, a good friend, who, in his senior years, once reflected on his support of public policies that gave the sexual revolution legal daylight to run to. As a public figure, he mused, I can’t bring myself to say that I was wrong about all that; but as a pastor and counselor, I’ve got to admit that it sure doesn’t seem to have added anything to the sum total of human happiness.

My friend’s lament has been intuitively grasped by at least some brave souls, 45 years after Humanae Vitae. Groups dedicated to reading and discussing John Paul II’s writings on the theology of the body are widespread on American campuses, often initiated and led by young women who have decided that the sexual revolution is very bad news for them, and who want to explore alternatives that contribute to respect and fidelity, embodied in the kind of permanent commitment that yields true and lasting sexual satisfaction. Marriage-preparation programs led by couples living lives of conjugal love according to the teaching of Humanae Vitae, and aided by important developments in natural family planning, are doing, today, what should have been done in 1968 to make Humanae Vitae and its Christian humanism make sense. So are international NGOs like the World Youth Alliance, which is pioneering women’s-health programs in developing countries that reject the contraceptive premise that there is a technological fix for everything (even if that techno-fix demands that women deny what is uniquely theirs).

A younger generation of Catholic priests have rejected the anti–Humanae Vitae default position of their clerical elders and are bringing the theology of the body and other pastoral resources to bear in their preaching and their work in marriage preparation. Bishops have begun to understand that the failure of their predecessors 45 years ago opened the door to a host of demons; some will even defendHumanae Vitae publicly as a prophetic act that, as Miłosz tacitly admitted, was decades ahead of its time. And throughout evangelical Protestantism, there are stirrings of interest in the Catholic teaching on conjugal life and procreation, as the dots between the contraceptive society and today’s threats to marriage, the family, and religious freedom begin to get connected.

Forty-five years after Humanae Vitae, it now seems clear that the invention of the oral contraceptive pill (to adopt one reference point for the broader contraceptive revolution) was one of the three achievements of 20th-century science with truly world-historical impact, the other two being the creation of the self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and the unraveling of the DNA double helix. What Fermi wrought in physics, and what Watson and Crick made possible in the new genetics, are accomplishments that most serious people recognize as having potential shadow-sides: nuclear warfare, in the one case; a brave new world of manufactured and stunted humanity in the other. Perhaps it is now time to recognize that the third world-changing scientific achievement of the last century is not the unmitigated good that much of Western culture claims it is — and that treating the sexual revolution as a unambiguous, indeed undeniable, boon to humanity can lead to a lot of personal unhappiness, homicidal ghouls like Kermit Gosnell, and the deployment of coercive state power in ways that threaten civil society and democracy.

Perhaps it is time to recognize, with Czesław Miłosz, that Humanae Vitae identified important truths that humanity ignores at its peril.

Perhaps it is time to recognize that Pope Paul VI deserves credit and thanks, not ridicule, for having had the courage to teach what was true, not counting the cost.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books).

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