<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback
article • Humanae Vitae at 50

One Step from the Brink

We live in a world suffering from the fulfillments of Humanae Vitae’s warnings about separating procreation from the act of sex. Is it too late to pull back from the edge?

The enemy of God and man, the self-destroyer supreme, stands alone on the Earth. He gazes sadly upon the sun, that looks “like the God of this new world,” reminding him of the brightness he has lost, “once glorious far above thy sphere,” till pride and, worse, ambition threw him down.

Why did he do what he did? He can approach an honest answer here, because the other fallen angels are not nearby. He need not play the politician. It was ingratitude. God had made him what he was “in that bright eminence” and never cast that bounty in his teeth, “nor was his service hard.” All he required was the easy recompense of a grateful heart. But Satan wanted more than the everything that he had been given:

Lifted up so high,
I ’sdeigned subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing, owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged: what burden then?

I begin with this scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost because it captures something of the position of man and the Church in 1968, that year of social upheaval and collapse, and something also of the warning Pope Paul VI so gently but clearly issued in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued July 25 of that year. For in many ways the providence of God had elevated man to a height never known before. Man did not exactly acknowledge that height, and failure to notice blessings is not so far from ingratitude as it is. Thus Pope Paul begins the encyclical with a frank admission of what then must have been viewed as a serious problem:

There is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequence that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships. This can easily induce public authorities to be tempted to take even harsher measures to avert this danger (2).

Yet dissent from the Church’s teaching on contraception, both before and after Humanae Vitae, did not generally come from those developing countries. Rather it was from Europe, the United States, and Canada, nations whose peoples were blessed with great wealth, so that, at least for them, even the illusion of needing contraception could hardly be felt.

Outdated concerns

Then the pope, gentle and generous, concedes that “not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family” (2).

I must be honest here. I see that that is so, in the wealthy nations, only if “education” implies the mortgage of one’s labor to those nests of racketeers known as colleges and universities; and then we must ask why people have not risen up in rebellion against those who fleece them. It is, in other words, a problem not of poverty but of wealth badly used.

So also with the next worry. “Also noteworthy,” says the pope, “is a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society” (2). The renegade feminist Camille Paglia once said that women owed their liberation less to feminist politics than to Clarence Birdseye, the first promoter of frozen foods. The point is well taken. By 1968, in the wealthy countries, the burden of hard physical labor that had rested upon women was largely relieved, by appliances, supermarkets, department stores, and processed foods.

That was true also of men, though to a lesser degree; a jackhammer does more work than a pickax, but it also requires at least as much strength to wield, and the same may be said of other tools. Though women no longer use mangles and washboards, men (and some women) still use axes, shovels, picks, saws, and sledgehammers. But again, we have what was an unprecedented blessing somehow viewed as a problem, as the opportunity for women to assume new roles in political and social life was felt as an urgent necessity.

Satan had seduced his underling angels by playing upon their fears. The occasion was that of a tremendous blessing: the Father’s revelation of the Son to the hosts of heaven, with intent to unite them in warmer bonds of love to one another and to him:

Your head I him appoint;
And by myself have sworn to him shall bow
All knees in Heaven, and shall confess him Lord;
Under his vice-gerent reign abide
United as one individual soul
For ever happy.

Satan would not see it so. He whispers that night to his confidant, henceforth known as Beelzebub, the lie, a self-devised and self-deceiving lie, that the supposedly new ruler would impose new laws; and new laws, far from offering the angels new shares in the divine life, will be mere curbs upon their self-owned liberty. In other words, they are free and can be freer than before, yet the bonds of love that are the true means and expression of liberty chafe on their souls.

‘Our own quickening power’

But you cannot seduce by fear alone. You must promise. Satan promises a freedom that is proper, if at all, to God alone:

We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power.

A similar promise lurks behind the call for contraception:

But the most remarkable development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life (2).

There we have it. It is the ultimate question. The carrier of the virus happened to be, in 1968, the relatively narrow question of whether married couples might licitly use technological means to thwart the natural functions of the human body in the act of coitus. The virus itself was the old one: “Ye shall be as gods.” Satan stamped the Pill with a label: “Liberty.”

We should be careful here to note a distinction. The “one step higher” that Satan envisions is not of the same character as the steps before it. God, says the faithful Abdiel in rebuke of the rebel, has never set a limit to the good he showers upon the angels:

Yet by experience taught we know how good,
And of our good, and our dignity
How provident he is, how far from thought
To make us less, bent rather to exalt
Our happy state under one Head more near
United.

It is not with men and angels as with the rest of creation, to which God says, “Thus far, and no farther.” The choice is not between rising and not rising but between rising at the loving invitation of God and rising by our own power. So concludes philosopher Germain Grisez, one year before Humanae Vitae:

The longer the controversy about contraception has continued, the clearer it has become that contraception as such is not the real issue. The real issue is much more profound. It is whether there will be progress or retreat in the realization of the Christian ideal of married love. It is whether there will be a clear assertion of the fundamental outlook for Christian morality in the modern world or whether that outlook will be clouded by secular humanism with its utilitarian compromises and its false personalism. It is whether the Catholic Church will continue to teach the gospel, which ever remains God-centered, or will be silenced by the ridicule of those whose only reality is man-centered (“Contraception and Reality,” Triumph magazine, April 1967).

It is not whether to obey—for obey we will, even when we parade ourselves as patrons of liberty—but whom we obey. Or what.

The “one step higher,” then, repudiates all that went before. Its result has been analogous to what happened to Satan, and what C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, saw must happen to man when he perfects the techniques of the domination of nature and directs them within and at himself:

At the moment, then, of man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely “natural”—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.

That is not so much a prediction as an analysis of the inner logic of the rebellion cast as utilitarian domination. The rebellion does not so much lead to disintegration and dehumanization as it already is those, in the seed.

Beyond creation into chaos

So I find that the predictive power of Humanae Vitae, which is but its analytic precision, is even greater than I had supposed, now that I read it again after events of the last several years. Pope Paul could not, in a human sense, have predicted the specifics of our mad disobedience, but they are there already in Humanae Vitae, as functions of that crucial God-repudiating, man-repudiating, nature-repudiating step. Take for example Paul’s clear enunciation of the structure of sexual intercourse:

[The Church’s teaching], often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that 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 (12).

If those two meanings are not only related to one another but are connected inseparably, then we should find that where contraception prevails, divorce also prevails, along with an unprecedented incapacity for “the generation of new lives”—incapacity caused by a poverty that is not material but spiritual. The body works, sort of, but the soul is feeble. We train ourselves not to be heroes, learning the virtue that Paul in a quiet fatherly way enjoins upon us, but to be losers, capitulating, supine or prone, to sexual desires that in our time are often the expressions of frustration and boredom and not even the misdirected longings of erotic love.

The design of the human body, male and female, and the design of their coming-together, is willed by the Creator himself, says Paul:

“To use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and his holy will” (13).

But we take that one step, that step beyond creation into chaos, and here is what we find. We no longer even acknowledge that there are such beings as man and woman. We are told that we are “fluid”—the sex-commercial word for what is shifting, uncertain, unreliable, unreal.

Deny God, destroy man. Paul the man could not foresee a time when a man might say, backed by the massive power of the state, that he is “really” a woman because his irrational impulses dictate it. Paul the Vicar of Christ did see it: it is here.

The eradication of morals

The pope did issue warnings, and in each case what he foretold includes or implies the madness and sexual dissolution of our time, just as Abdiel’s warning to Satan includes or implies a hell to come:

That golden scepter which thou didst reject
Is now an iron rod to bruise and break
Thy disobedience.

Let us take them one by one.

“Let them [the people in authority] first consider,” the pope says, “how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (17). No one now is surprised by conjugal infidelity. It is no more a scandal than homicide among savages or sharp dealing among usurers. Worse, we hear proclamations of the benefits of infidelity, coming often from those whose sexual proclivities are sterile by definition. Yet the Pill had been touted as a savior of marriages.

Paul then warns about “the general lowering of moral standards.” Here I grow indignant, because the Pope’s suave and sophisticated opponents among Catholic theologians must have been blind not to see that in sexual matters, by 1968, Western man had already begun to slide down the mountainside. The slide continued. No one now troubles to engage the pope’s argument, because no one cares overmuch about that general lowering.

That is because people have come to deny that there are any morals to be lowered. Each of us is to be his own deity, and the very insistence upon a moral law is met with derision and the anger of lese-majeste. The hedonists are not amused. The culture, if a culture at all, is astonishingly coarse and vulgar, without any compensating sense of a true use of the sexual powers by way of chaste love. We are not only fallen into a nocturnal swamp but are fallen without any memory of good dry earth and the sun above.

“Not much experience is needed,” Paul says, “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” (17).

It is hard not to laugh bitterly here. We place pornography within easy reach of every child in the Western nations. We do worse. We make it nearly impossible for children not to see the pornographic, and, far from encouraging young people “to be faithful to the moral law,” we instruct them in techniques for its supposedly happy and healthy dismissal. We teach them, in school and with the full sanction of the state, how to do evil.

How quickly license enslaves

Paul worries 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” (17). One step; and we have teenage boys regularly requiring girls to please them with sodomy, the inherently anti-conceptive practice, and girls going along with it, to the spiritual and often physical harm of both; and licentious women who will treat a man too as a “mere instrument of selfish enjoyment,” and robots to stand in for a “respected and beloved companion.”

How quickly even in the political realm does license enslave! The pope worries that contraception will prove tempting to shortsighted or unscrupulous governments, for “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” (17). Who, indeed. We have seen China awash in the blood of abortion. We know of its “one-child” policy, the price of whose cruelty has been paid mainly by baby girls. It is a strange license that grows the state and extends its reach far further than any absolute despot could ever imagine:

It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife (17).

One step, and here we are; sex has been nationalized. An inoffensive charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, must provide contraception to its employees, or else. Catholic adoption agencies must give up young children to homosexual couples, or else. Inoffensive bakers and other owners of small businesses, not discriminating between sinner and sinner as to who shall enjoy the benefit of their basic services, wish to refrain from help to celebrate immorality, and they are targeted for national opprobrium and life-ruining lawsuits. People who decline to participate in another person’s sexual fantasy, who say “he” to a he and “she” to a she, are threatened with crippling fines and loss of employment.

If we wish not to grant such enormous powers to the state, says Paul, “we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed” (17). The Church does not assign these limits; it simply recognizes them. They are visible to those who grant “reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions.”

Ignoring the pope’s advice

The step beyond integrity is dis-integrity. We geld and spay our young people, in the service of sexual confusion, given force by mass entertainment and mass schooling. We lop and mutilate. We pump young bodies with synthetic growth hormones that are sure to prove carcinogenic, growing more tissue and more kinds of tissue than we bargain for, to the huge profit of pharmaceutical corporations. We have so fully lost a sense of bodily integrity that we no longer distinguish between what is medical—what remediates—and what surgeons and druggists can do to accomplish or to pretend to accomplish what we will.

Fifty years after Pope Paul spoke these phrases, we do not “ennoble man,” or encourage “self-mastery,” the power “to dominate instinct by means of reason.” We have no use for “ascetical practices,” exercises proper to the Christian soldier. We do not “fully develop” in moral action the personalities of husband and wife, “enriched with spiritual values.” Family life knows no “serenity and peace,” and spouses are not in the habit of “attention for one’s partner,” struggling to “drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love.”

We scoff at the idea that youths should “grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties.” We scoff at the “need of creating an atmosphere favorable to education in chastity” and do not even understand what “the triumph of healthy liberty over license” means. In sexual matters, the most socialist among us is a complete laissez-faire individualist, never bothering to ask about “the progress of civilization and the defense of the common good of the human spirit” but tamely believing the lie that “progress” means that you get to scratch where you itch.

We have allowed the “morality of [our] peoples to be degraded,” and introduced the unnatural into “that fundamental cell, the family.” Faced with the family’s manifest suffering, we shrug and say that we hardly need the family at all. We have not pursued “a wise education of peoples in respect of moral law and the liberty of citizens,” instead accepting “an utterly materialistic conception of man and his life.” And even we Catholics have not availed ourselves regularly of the sacraments that Paul recommends, especially penance, “which makes man a new creature, capable of corresponding with love and true freedom to the design of his Creator and Savior, and of finding the yoke of Christ to be sweet.”

Catholic doctors did not become apostles to their fellows, striving to arouse in them “the discovery of solutions inspired by faith and right reason.” Catholic priests, too often, did not “expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity.” They did not “speak the same language.” They did not emulate the Lord, who “was intransigent with evil but merciful toward individuals,” preferring to be careless with individuals and conveniently lenient with evil. Catholic bishops did not “work ardently and incessantly for the safeguarding and the holiness of marriage,” and now arguably no group of men in the world is of less regard than they.

That one step was not one step. It was rebellion and an invitation to rebellion. The consequence was intrinsic to the act. I will end with the words of Milton: “I formed them free,” says the Father, referring to Adam and Eve, “and free they must remain, till they enthrall themselves.”

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate