Monday, January 23, 2012

Paul VI read the signs of the times prophetically

One of the hardest things for many people to understand is, “Why would the Catholic Church insist, after all these years, that contraception is wrong?  Moreover, why do they insist on resisting the tide?  After all, most Catholic women practice some form of it!  Can’t they tell that no one is listening to them anymore on birth control?”

Well, that’s not quite true.  While 98% of Catholic women have practiced birth control at some point in their lives, the most recent Guttmacher study only claims that nearly 70% currently practice birth control.  In this area, the Church is beginning to gain some traction.

Nevertheless, it is true that, when Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968, it caused a severe rift within the Church, as many Catholics of the time expected and hoped for a change in doctrine.  Since then, it’s been the one area in which otherwise-orthodox Catholics have entrusted themselves to God’s forgiveness even when they confess other sins … that is, when they agree that it is a sin, which many don’t.

Of course, many people understand that the Church shouldn’t change its teaching to match every whim and fad of the people.  But after fifty years, it’s not really a “fad” anymore, is it?  Can’t the Church recognize the signs of the times?


In fact, the Church can read the signs of the times (Mt 16:2-3).  And if you actually read Humanae Vitae, you begin to understand that it was a very wise and prophetic document:

Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control.  Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.  Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men [homines; i.e., people] — especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point — have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance.  It is also to be feared that the man [viri, “male”], growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.
Let it be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies [China, for instance].  Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem?  Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious?  In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family, or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.[1]

Papa Montini had no illusions about the likely reception of his encyclical: “Too numerous are those voices — amplified by the modern means of propaganda — which are contrary to the voice of the Church.  To tell the truth, the Church is not surprised to be made, like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction’ (cf. Lk 2:34),  yet she does not because of this cease to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”[2]

The Church’s understanding of sex and marriage is that it isn’t simply ordered toward love and companionship.  “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children.  Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”[3] 

This orientation is one of the oldest principles the Judeo-Christian tradition has received from God, from the punishment of Onan for committing coitus interruptus (Gen 38:6-10), through various proscriptions in Mosaic Law against infidelity (Ex 20:14), fornication (Ex 22:16-17), rape (Dt 22:25-29), incest (Lev 18:6-18), bestiality (Ex 22:19; Lev 18:23), and homosexual intercourse (Lev 18:22), to Christian proscriptions against divorce (Mk 10:11-12), pederasty (1 Cor 6:9) and abortion (Gal 5:20; Didache 2).[*]

Common to all these proscription is respect for the procreative aspect of sex and its primary role in marriage: 

… [The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.  And 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 [homo] is called.[4]

The “contraceptive mentality” is a mindset which has already done violence to the sex act — even before the person reaches for a contraceptive — by splitting it off from its biological imperative: Man’s participation in God’s creation is cut off, and the most powerful, meaningful act of which he is capable becomes a toy with which he can amuse himself and degrade or oppress others.

The Catholic Church wasn’t established to confirm the status quo in its foolishness but to teach the truths imparted to her by Christ, to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).  Paul VI read the signs of the times rightly; we chose to ignore him.  And the consequences are still multiplying because we persist in our foolishness.


[*] Saint Paul refers to malakoi (catamites) in 1 Corinthians 6:9; in Galatians 5:20, pharmakeia (from which we derive “pharmacy” and “pharmaceuticals” embraced both the administration of drugs and resort to “sorcerers”, who often dispensed abortifacient potions.  Pederasty is also referred to in the Didache, which is one of the oldest writings of the Church Fathers, dating back to the late first century.


[1] Humanae Vitae §17; bold font mine.
[2] HV §18.
[3] Gaudium et Spes §50; cit. in HV §9.
[4] HV §12.