Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, closes a body of work that’s occupied a lot of my attention for the past fifteen years. I don’t mean that the last word has been said – far from it. New voices are emerging, including from non-religious circles, that are also newly skeptical of the post-1960s status quo. I mean instead that an idea that started percolating fifteen years ago has now received the systematic treatment first envisioned for it.
For six decades, a secularizing Western society has been telling itself a falsely happy story about the outcomes of the sexual revolution. To counter that story, we’ve needed an account of its fallout closer to the truth. That account falls into two parts: one examining post-revolutionary reality among individuals; and the other examining its effects on the wider world.
In 2008, the then-editor of First Things, Joseph Bottum, invited me to write an essay about Humanae Vitae to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the encyclical. At the time, this seemed like a fine opportunity for an exercise in spirited contrarianism. After all, Humanae Vitae may be the most universally mocked and reviled religious statements of the past century. How, many millions have asked, could the Church possibly defend the teaching against artificial contraception? Didn’t it want to join the modern world? Etc.
Before I could try to shock the bourgeoisie with a rousing defense of Humanae Vitae, I actually had to read the thing for the first time. It’s hard to get across just how transformative that reading became. Humanae Vitae makes several predictions about what the world would look like once the sexual revolution really took hold. The reason these predictions amazed me was simple, yet profound.
As a researcher who had studied and written about various aspects of American society over the years, I knew from different forms of evidence, popular as well as expert, that these predictions weren’t just predictions – they had actually all come true. Confirmation abounded, especially in the social sciences. In fact, Humanae Vitae has been vindicated as few attempts to spy the future ever are: including by information that did not exist when the document was written, and by scholars and other experts with no interest whatever in its teaching.
What struck me most forcefully here was that Church teaching was being vindicated by secular sources – again, secular social science, assembled by mostly secular social scientists, and appearing in secular journals. It was not theology that was demonstrating the downside of separating procreation and recreation – though no doubt theology can. Instead, it was scholarship about subjects like broken homes, interrupted relations between the sexes, rising rates of mental illness and addiction, and lots of other interrelated facts. And though the myriad authors of that research across the decades wouldn’t have dreamed of it, their work, understood in full, had gone to show, in effect, that Humanae Vitae and related Church teaching were right.
That perception – that aha! moment – led to the two Adam and Eve books, and their contrarian readings of the legacy of the sexual revolution. The first, Adam and Eve after the Pill, examined what might be called the microcosmic fallout of humanity’s embrace of contraception: the effects on individual men, women, and children, and on the radically changed social mores of the postrevolutionary order.
The second, new book widens the aperture to cover the macrocosmic fallout. It dissects the effects of the revolution on society, politics, and the Church. Needless to add, the Foreword by the late, great Cardinal George Pell, with whom I discussed some of these arguments, is the honor of a lifetime. This book, like the earlier one, revolves around the same general theme: the most unpopular Church teaching is being vindicated inadvertently, but really, by the accumulation of postrevolutionary evidence.
Much of what we do in life feels accidental at the time. This body of work is no exception. The late Fr. Arne Panula was a great believer in Providence. At times I feel he’s laughing at me for not having shared his certainty about the workings of that capital-P word. The idea that I’d spend years committing these arguments to paper, and sometimes to public appearances, would have seemed unlikely, even absurd to me in 2008; and certainly unwanted. But unexpected or not, the work commenced, and its unfolding changed me.
Before, I thought of myself as a writer who happened to be Catholic. Afterwards, I became a Catholic writer. What does that mean? It means that even if I hadn’t been a Catholic in the first place, the assembling of the evidence in the Adam and Eve books would have forced me to become one.
That’s because, if the argument of those books is true, then Church teaching is true. And if Church teaching is true, and one is privileged to witness a proof of that truth, however unanticipated, one can’t move on, and pretend there’s nothing to see here. One is stuck. And that’s how I turned from an accidental Catholic into an intentional one.
A thought that permeates both books that takes us straight to the present: We are all witnesses, here and now, to a great irony that encompasses not only the Catholics of America, but those of the entire West.
After all, Western Christianity spends most of its time these days in a defensive crouch, squabbling internally. Yet all the while, evidence from outside the Church continues to point toward something that many inside the Church seem not to know. The Church, practically alone among all institutions, has been harboring profound truths for two thousand years – most notably, in this case, the truth that living by that big, bad rule book is actually better for human beings than discarding it.
The irony is extraordinary. Pressure has been mounting for a long time now for the Catholic Church to do what most Protestant churches have done – abandon the teachings that prompt the most complaining from the pews – i.e., put down the Catechism, and pick up the cool-kid flag. Yet even as the call for capitulation grows louder, transforming and deforming Catholic discussion, the evidence thrown out by the world itself points in the opposite direction: caving to the sexual revolution would cripple the Church – exactly as it has crippled every other church that’s tried it.
And beyond that institutional point lies another that is surpassingly important. This kind of remedial labor, this insistence that postrevolutionary reality is other than what the dominant culture says it is, is not done for no reason. The revolution continues to claim many, many victims. To honor their witness is not some kind of reactionary indulgence, as boosters of the revolution claim. No: it is humanitarian work. There needs to be more of it. And there will be.
Meanwhile, it’s my modest hope that the facts assembled during these past 15 years will persuade some believers and unbelievers alike, and above all, give new heart to the wounded and those who tend them.
*Image: Mrs. Eberstadt [photo via Catholic Information Center]
You may also enjoy:
Anthony Esolen’s Let’s Really Read the Signs of the Times
Michael Pakaluk’s The Wreck of Vatican II