Reflections on Humanae Vitae Part III: Paul’s Prophecy

There are many reasons that Paul VI, the author of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, will soon be canonized as a saint. For today’s article, I would like to focus on one particular element that may have been a factor: Paul VI was a prophet.

He was a prophet in the theological sense as someone who speaks the Word of God, especially to a world of men that would mostly reject it. But he was also a prophet in the common understanding of the term as someone who predicts the future accurately. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI predicts three consequences of accepting artificial contraception into our culture.

1.The Destruction of Marriage

Paul VI writes “Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.” (Humanae Vitae, 17)

Let us deal with the first point: the destruction of marriage. As Paul points out, human beings are very susceptible to temptation. And I think human experience can tell us that for many, the lure of lustful pleasures can be very powerful, if not overwhelming. I believe that Our Lady of Fatima said something akin to the idea that most souls go to hell because of sins of the flesh not because they are the worst but because they are the most frequent.

Marriage requires sexual fidelity to your spouse. As the years progress, as the flame of romantic love tends to cool between the spouses, the temptation is common. One or both spouses may begin to connect on an emotional level with someone else or they could just experience plain animal lust for another. In the past, fear of pregnancy could be a strong deterrent against these affairs. With the introduction of contraception, that fear is removed.

To be clear, someone who refrains from cheating only because he or she does not want to get caught is not someone who is living the marriage ideal. But introducing contraceptive will make that ideal harder to reach. And if we make it easier by lowering this moral standard, as Paul says, then marriages will be destroyed with all of the negative consequences that has to the spouses and the children.

2. The Objectification of Women

Paul VI writes, “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that 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.” (Humanae Vitae, 17)

Paul understood that once pregnancy could be taken off the table, men would be even more inclined to reduce women to sex objects. You may ask, “Why only men turning women into objects? Isn’t it a danger of women seducing men to objects as well?” It is a fair point, but one that is probably not as overwhelming in concern because of the difference between men and women.

The great Catholic author JRR Tolkien once wrote in a letter to his son, “They have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not …. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.” (Letters of JRR Tolkien, ed. H Carpenter & C Tolkien)

Perhaps this is not a politically correct point, but Tolkien makes clear that in our fallen human states, the male sexual urge tends towards greater intensity, variety, and objectification. Comedian Larry Miller once tried to explain to the women in his audience that they didn’t understand how the sex drive of men was way out of proportion to the sex drive of women: “You have no idea! It’s like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it!”

As we have seen, Paul VI points out how the young are especially susceptible to temptation. I knew someone in high school refrained from sex with his girlfriends because his father said to him in all seriousness, “If you ever get a girl pregnant, don’t bother coming home.” I am not advocating for either the father’s statement nor my classmate’s motivations for abstinence. I am merely pointing out the fact that often only serious consequences can deter our strongest temptations. And for many men, if we divorce pregnancy from sex, then sex will become purely an act of pleasure.

Once sex becomes purely an act of pleasure, then it starts to be treated like any other intoxicant, something to be used as an ecstatic indulgent. Women become merely the means, not the end of sexual union. This leads to the complete objectification of women that we see in our media all the time. Is it any wonder that men like Harvey Weinstein should be uncommon once you unshackle the beastial nature of men? And once you accept this objectification as a foundational view of women, are we surprised by the explosion of pornography?

3. Forced Sterilization

Paul VI writes, “Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? 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.” (Humanae Vitae, 17)

While this is not something that we have experienced in the west, we hear of the horror stories of China’s “One Child Policy.” If you have a society in which contraceptives become part of the social fabric, you have a situation where a state, like China, make it compulsory, which leads to even worse crimes like forced abortions.

Paul VI was correct when he saw the consequences of contraception play out in our world. But there were other ones that he did not spell out that Pope St. John Paul II and others saw. We will discuss those in our next article.

Copyright WL Grayson, 2018

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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