The Shocking Turnaround on Humanae Vitae

I doubt if more laughter has been expended on any point of Catholic teaching than on Pope Paul VI’s letter Humanae Vitae of late July 1968, exactly forty years ago. The much-mocked Pope Paul predicted that “artificial methods” of birth control would end up being personally corrupting and socially destructive.

But suddenly something right before our eyes began to be noticed. Mirabile dictu! A host of empirical findings has confirmed the predictions of Pope Paul VI. No one has brought these findings forward as systematically as Mary Eberstadt, in her powerful article “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” in the most recent First Things. But George Weigel’s book The Courage to be Catholic (2002) got the re-thinking going.

Pope Paul VI made three predictions in 1968: that artificial methods of birth control would make marital infidelity much easier, and steadily lower general moral standards. Further, “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (He did not predict that women might begin to respect themselves less, and to treat sex more cheaply.)

Third, the severing of sex from procreation would tempt governments to regulate childbearing, even through coercion: “Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” He implied that abortion itself would come to be regarded as the ultimate “contraceptive, and become increasingly common – even coerced.

In general, Pope Paul VI pictured sexuality in philosophical and ethical terms of a certain severity. Husband and wife should work toward “complete mastery” of their physical drives, in order to honor each other the more for doing so. Most couples can in fact do this some of the time, and some most of the time, but few can do it all the time. Looked at merely philosophically, it is a very hard teaching.

Nonetheless, the pope predicted that the lessening of self-control in marriage would spread outwards to the whole of society. Even political regimes would suffer. We would see a slowly growing inability of citizens to trust one another, let alone their government. (Recall Tocqueville’s contrast between the strong marriage bond in the United States and that in the licentious France of 1835.)

In the long years after 1968, many abuses took root in the church. Most of the Catholic West drifted away from Humanae Vitae. In all these years, I recall hearing only one sermon that presented a succinct argument against the corrosive effects of contraception, and offered a special vision of Catholic marital life.

Worse, far worse, many Catholic priests habituated themselves to rarely or never speaking of self-mastery. Most became reluctant to talk about sexuality at all, let alone chastity. In this darkness, a few granted themselves the same leniency their silence granted laymen. A few brought intense public shame on the Church.

Forty years after Humanae Vitae, Eberstadt and Weigel conclude that it is no longer as easy as it was in 1968 to say that Pope Paul VI was spreading unrealistic pessimism.

There are, to be sure, intrepid philosophers – among them the late G.E.M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe – who present strictly philosophical arguments for the Church’s most ridiculed and resisted teaching. But since human “nature” has lost its fine balance in matters of sexuality, the real muscle in this now unusual vision of marriage lies in prompting philosophy to seek support from theology.

Soon after John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, he stressed the unbreakable unity of body and soul in human persons. We do not merely “have” bodies, which “belong” to us. We are inspirited bodies – looked at the other way, embodied spirits. Body and spirit are perfectly one, not two.

In this way, John Paul II stepped up from philosophy into the horizon of faith: The body of each human person is a temple of the Holy Spirit – that is, of the triune God, the God Who reveals His own identity as a Community of divine Persons. One Communion, each Person distinct. Therefore, we ought to reverence our bodies as the dwelling place of this divine Communion.

That is why Christianity among all the world religions insists that our inspirited bodies, not merely our disembodied souls, shall rise and be with God after death. This is not a religion ashamed of the human body, but one which honors it as a fit dwelling place for God.

Another theological borrowing is that it is as man and woman together that human persons most vividly reflect the image of God – the image of that communion which is the inner life of God. It is not man alone; it is not woman alone; it is their communion as one. That is a major reason why monogamous marriage is honored above all other human friendships – the noblest of all friendships, as Thomas Aquinas once wrote. (Another reason is that in such a communion the two persons achieve equal respect, their differences intact.)

Obviously, the Catholic way of regarding sexuality is not attractive to everybody. Obviously, too, many Catholics are not living up to it.

Still, the sudden break-up of the ice blocking an honest reading of Paul VI, and the liberated flow of fresh critical thinking, offer grounds for believing that the disparagement of Humanae Vitae is beginning to diminish.

The God Who gave us our sexuality had a great sense of humor, Mary Eberstadt reminds us. To see all the delicious ironies, however, one must first grasp what the whole thing is aiming at. That’s the road Humanae Vitae put us on.

Michael Novak’s website is
Michael Novak (1933-2017)

Michael Novak was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.