Humanae Vitae not only contains the truth about the right ordering of the marital act but it has much to teach us about the right ordering of society.
Moral issues are always being influenced by cultural patterns. And the Church’s official teaching is always being understood through cultural filters. Contraception and Humanae Vitae are no exceptions to these two general maxims. In this article, I want to suggest how a major cultural trend has shaped the way we look at the marital act and how Pope Paul VI’s encyclical holds two aspects of morality together: the personal and the social.
For decades now, we have watched social problems escalate and we have failed to consider that there might be a relationship between these social problems and contraception. We have sought explanations for these social problems by looking at poverty, race, education and a host of other factors—including the structure of the family. All the while, we have sidestepped any consideration of decisions about the sexual act itself. I am going to suggest in this paper that Paul VI’s encyclical not only contains the truth about the right ordering of the sexual act but that it has much to teach us about the right ordering of society.
Private, No Admittance
Some critics of Humanae Vitae complain that the Church should stop interfering in what goes on between spouses in the bedroom. Sexual relations between adults are private matters and the Church should concern herself with ethical issues of a more public character, they say. The real evil, some revisionists insist, is not in an inexpensive piece of synthetic rubber or a mass-marketed pill but in the familial discord that results from being unable to manage the stress of having a large number of children. This is to say nothing of the great financial strain on large families and how this phenomenon by itself invites friction all the time, some dissenters contend.
Having children and having to manage finances and stress are usually not the concerns of unmarried persons engaging in contraceptive sex. I say usually because many of those who are unmarried and are engaging in contraceptive sex are teenagers. Ordinarily, it is not their intention to have children until later in their lives when they are married, have jobs, and have some economic security. But the fact is that marriage does not alter contraceptive use. For those who were using contraceptives before marriage, a wedding does not mean their discontinuance.
Frequently, then, there is long-term reliance on contraceptives and little along the way to call this continuing reliance into question. The desire not to seem out of step with current attitudes has brought silence from parents; the desire not to lose popularity has brought silence from pulpits. As young people in particular have been deprived of the guidance from families and churches that could be difference-making, contraceptive use, it would seem, has become a cultural automatic. This phenomenon has been generously assisted by the privatization of morality.
The privatization of morality has been very easy for many people to accept. In diverse, pluralistic societies, it is exceedingly difficult to adopt and live by a common code of conduct. In privatizing certain aspects of moral behavior, we can thereby concentrate on what are presumed to be the larger, more overarching dimensions of community standards.
The attractiveness of privatizing certain kinds of moral actions has also meant a slowness and a reluctance in admitting that there are effects in the social order to what are termed “private actions.” The complex nature of the social order has also created a tendency to focus on large, impersonal forces as explanations for misdeeds or malevolence. There seems to be little interest in tracing the causes of social disturbance to individual decisions, especially when those decisions do not appear to be “hurting anyone.”
The notion of privacy is deeply ingrained in modern consciousness. It is the idea that there is a sphere of life that is not open to the probing of others. It is claimed partly as a protection against unwelcome intrusions from a prurient public. It is also claimed as a right, wherein we withhold from others that which they would like to know about us. Symptomatic of our times, though, is the fact that the right to privacy has been twisted to mean that all decisions made in private are right.
Against the near unanimity of a privatized morality today, there is accumulating research showing that key decisions made in the privacy of the bedroom do indeed exert considerable influence on social reality. We are beginning to see more clearly that our private decisions, in all of their autonomy and good faith, may actually be setting up socially injurious conduct down the road.
Peculiarities in the Cultural Hegemony On Sex
Lionel Tiger is an anthropologist at Rutgers University. In a 1996 essay in U.S. News and World Report, he tries to make sense of the changing relationship between men and women. He argues in this essay and elsewhere that the widespread use of contraceptives beginning in the 1960s caused a revolutionary break between men and women. Women became emancipated, he notes, and this new state of liberation produced two curious and unexpected results. The first was the rise in the number of abortions. With the availability of the Pill, the number of abortions should have dropped, but they did not. The second was the huge increase in the number of children born to parents who are not married to each other. In industrialized nations, except Japan, out-of-wedlock births now account for one quarter to two thirds of the total number of births.1
Seldom are the effects of abortion mentioned in the mainstream media, but data does exist. In his book Aborted Women, Silent No More, David Reardon reports that in a survey of women who have had abortions, 62 percent described themselves as having become suicidal as a direct or indirect result of their abortions. Approximately 20 percent reported that they actually made one or more suicide attempts.2 Nearly one third of the women surveyed described themselves as drinking more heavily after their abortions, while 15 percent admitted that they became alcoholics.3 Reardon then makes the provocative observation that abortion actually increases child abuse.4 Further, he argues that marital stress caused by abortion increases family hostilities and thus heightens the possibility of violent outbreaks.5
In the case of children born to parents who are not married to each other, a lot of these children grow up with single mothers who are more likely to be poor, under-employed and under-educated. And that may not be the worst of it. The worst of it might be the absence of fathers, appropriate male role models. For the male children of absentee fathers, there is a greater likelihood of dependence on drugs, addiction to alcohol and incarceration for crimes.6 For the female children of absentee fathers, there is the difficulty of trusting adult males. This obviously complicates dating, courtship and marriage later on. Haunted by one previously failed relationship with an adult male, these women are left wondering if another significant adult male is going to disappoint them again—this time in marriage.
More abortions and more out-of-wedlock births have succeeded in producing quick fixes for individuals. Women who do not want to bring pregnancies to term can choose abortion and not interrupt their educations and careers. Women who do want to bring their pregnancies to term can have their babies and raise a child (or children) more or less on their own, unencumbered by any social stigma.
George Akerlof, Janet Yellen and Michael Katz are all economists at the University of California at Berkeley. They argue that the decline of social stigma connected with single parenting has meant the disappearance of the shotgun marriage. “Until the early 1970s,” they write, “it was the norm in premarital sexual relations that the partners would marry in the event of pregnancy. The disappearance of this custom has become a major contributor to the increase in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio.”7 They observe further that “the shotgun marriage began its decline at almost the same time as the advent of female contraception and the legalization of abortion.”8 Like the anthropologist Tiger, the economists Akerlof, Yellen and Katz characterize what occurred as a technology shift.
Some technological shifts have proven to be culture-changing. For instance, the automobile, the telephone and the computer have all had a profound impact on the way we think, feel and behave. We no longer approach time, distance or information—just to mention three things—in the same way. Likewise, contraception has altered the way most men and women view sexuality. With contraception, sex and baby-making have become separated. And with baby-making out of the way temporarily or permanently, the meaning and purpose of sex have been re-assigned in the culture.
Technology is not value-free. With every advance technologically, we either gain or lose ethically. After decades of sustained reliance upon contraceptives across all sectors of the culture, we should acknowledge that a heavy price has been paid. Even with unfettered access to contraception, abortions and out-of-wedlock births have soared to and remain at very high levels. How do we interpret this?
Some would say that abortion is used as a backup to failed contraception. Some would say that not everyone uses the technology. There is truth in each of these statements. I would like to suggest that yet another factor is at work here. I referred to it earlier in the paper as the privatization of morality. I would like to return to this theme and reiterate its significance culturally before treating Pope Paul VI’s encyclical.
The Unassailability of Privacy
In a democracy, disputes are settled by going to court. Citizens go to court because they believe that a ruling of the law will vindicate one party or the other in a contested matter. Rulings, we know, create winners and losers. Rulings divide the victor from the vanquished and more. They establish a superiority of one position over another, one principle over another. A principle tried repeatedly and upheld repeatedly is not just considered settled, but becomes deeply embedded, and not just in the codex. Before long, it becomes securely fixed in the psyche.
In our diverse, pluralistic country, value systems are bound to come into conflict. When they do, we rely on a court, eventually the Supreme Court, to intervene and determine an outcome. By looking at a few Supreme Court decisions, it is possible to understand better how an almost mystical status has been conferred upon one cultural characteristic.
In 1965, in a 7-2 ruling the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law that forbade the sale of contraceptives to married persons. The basis for the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut was the right to privacy. The justices in the majority admitted that the right could be found nowhere in the United States Constitution. They did, however, see privacy as falling within the penumbras of other constitutional protections. Eight years later, by an identical 7-2 margin, the members of the high court ruled in Roe v. Wade that Texas laws against abortion were unconstitutional. Once again, the majority opinion acknowledged the obvious, namely, that there is not any right to privacy in the Constitution. Using the same reasoning of the court in Griswold, the majority in Roe based its holding on the penumbras of other constitutional guarantees.
While the abortion decision continues to be deeply contested, the Griswold decision has passed into history without protest. The importance of Griswold, therefore, should not be underestimated. The Griswold decision is cited in a 2003 Supreme Court case involving homosexuality. Then, the high court ruled that a Texas law against sodomy was unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in this 6-3 decision, said, “after Griswold it was established that the right to make certain decisions regarding sexual conduct extends beyond the marital relationship.”9 “After Griswold” refers to Eisenstadt v. Baird, which in 1972 upheld the right to sell contraceptives to unmarried persons.
What is clear in all of these cases is that a majority of justices decided that a right to privacy protects sexual conduct between consenting adults against most strictures. Sexual conduct between consenting adults cannot be restrained legally because it is essentially private in character. The fact that it occurs mostly behind closed doors and is mostly shielded from the view of others means that the action substantially bears no social import.
The significance of judicial thinking and its influence across the culture ought not to be minimized. Supreme Court rulings in a culture with weak authority figures and structures have an expansive forcefulness. The prestige of Supreme Court rulings is also transferable from decisions on race and civil rights to other matters. When personal consciences have been poorly formed due to relativism and secularism, Supreme Court rulings come to be considered the equivalent of inspired and inerrant texts.
Cultural Hubris and Weakness
Humanae Vitae did not change the teaching of the Church on the regulation of births. But, when it was issued in 1968, the culture was undergoing rapid change. As I have tried to point out here, a major attitudinal shift was underway regarding how personal conduct is interpreted. The strong current in Western culture favoring the individual had become perilously distorted. Privacy had come to trump everything else about the individual, and we had begun losing sight of the impact personal behavior has on the social matrix.
In the immediate aftermath of the publication of Humanae Vitae, there was not much concern for what the Holy Father said would happen if we split apart the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. Many people were despondent that the Church had not gone along with the temper of the times and approved the licitness of contraceptive sex. As the years passed, they were still discouraged about the Church’s refusal to compromise and still insistent that the culture’s prescription for sex as a private matter was correct. And then something happened.
Cultural commentators and critics started calling attention to things like the leading index of cultural indicators. We began noticing that many alarming trends—rises in violent crime, narcotics use, teen pregnancy, etc.—are in many important ways related to the family. It is not in dispute that the condition of the family has a great deal to do with the health of the culture. But let us not content ourselves with this level of analysis. Let us probe more deeply, getting to the real nub of the issue by looking at the decision made by men and women to create, expand and limit the family—the decision to respect fertility or deny it through the use of contraceptives.
Humanae Vitae: Taking Stock
Ten years ago, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Father Richard John Neuhaus asked a diverse group of individuals across confessional boundaries to comment on Paul VI’s encyclical in the pages of First Things. Allow me to cite three of the contributors to the symposium in the December 1998 issue of Father Neuhaus’ journal.
Harold O.J. Brown is a professor at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He writes, “Abortion on demand followed contraception…. Now society is caught in the whirlwind, with massive rates of abortion, unwed motherhood (or ‘single parenting,’ as PC language puts it), sexually transmitted disease, the widespread collapse of the natural family, and an aging population in all developed countries…. [We] are now forced to contemplate the wreckage of a society.”10
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He writes, “We must recognize the prophetic character of the encyclical’s warning about the inevitable result of the contraceptive mentality…. The Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.”11
Charles J. Chaput is the archbishop of Denver, Colorado. He writes, “The rates of abortion, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births have all massively increased since the mid-1960s…. Population control policies are now an accepted part of nearly every foreign aid discussion. The massive export of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization—frequently as a prerequisite for aid dollars and often in direct contradiction to local moral traditions—is a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering.”12 Chaput senses that contraception is behind a lot of other morally problematic issues today. “In vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation and embryo experimentation are all descendants of contraceptive technology…. Contraceptive technology, precisely because of its impact on sexual intimacy, has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility and marriage itself.”13 He concludes that our culture is “in serious distress. American society is wracked with sexual identity and behavior dysfunctions, family collapse, and a general coarsening of attitudes toward the sanctity of human life…. Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception…because he was right about contraception itself.”14
All three commentators above agree with Paul VI, who says in paragraph 17 of his encyclical that contraception could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Reliance on it causes a man to forget the reverence due to a woman and reduces her to a mere instrument for his satisfaction. Public authorities could impose the use of contraceptives on everyone. Contraception will mislead men and women into thinking that they have unrestricted control over their own bodies.15
The Holy Father was way ahead of the curve in predicting the consequences of a cultural dependence on contraception. Not only was he genuinely prophetic but he seemed also to understand that what is required of spouses in their observance of the moral law does indeed have a bearing on the just ordering of society.
It is interesting to note that all three commentators on Humanae Vitae in the First Things symposium refer to the consequences wrought by contraceptive use. The first commentator, Dr. Brown, sees abortion, unwed motherhood, sexually transmitted disease, widespread collapse of the family and an aging population following in the wake of contraception. The second commentator, Dr. Mohler, remarks that there is an “inevitable result” to the contraceptive mentality. He says the introduction of the Pill gave way to a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. And, finally, Archbishop Chaput points to the increased rates of abortion, family breakdown, domestic abuse, venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births in the aftermath of large scale contraceptive use.
How do we know that certain things are bad for us? Well, scientists set up studies that measure the effect of one phenomenon on another. Cigarette use, for instance, has been shown to produce harmful effects in the lives of smokers and even non-smokers. Cigarette smoking is linked to heart disease, lung disease and other grave medical conditions that inevitably shorten lives and impair the quality of living for others.
In the battle against AIDS, it has been shown that intravenous drug use and sexual promiscuity are the two leading behavioral components in the onset of the disease. Those who use needles to inject themselves with illegal substances and those who engage in sexual relations outside of marriage increase the risk of getting the HIV virus, which leads to AIDS.
When it comes to evaluating moral behavior, we cannot overlook the fact that certain types of conduct have a deleterious effect personally and socially. Indeed, one of the ways we reason that certain acts are morally injurious is by taking account of the negative consequences of these acts. But we must be careful.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), Pope John Paul II warns against limiting the evaluation of moral acts to the intention and the consequences. “Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention—as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (Mark 7:20-21; Matt. 15:19)—and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice.”16
The Holy Father asserts the primacy of the object rationally chosen by the deliberate will for evaluating moral acts. In this, he is following the lead of St. Thomas.17 It is necessary, he contends, to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.18 The Church’s moral tradition, he stipulates further, calls certain acts intrinsically evil.19
In a work of moral philosophy, which Veritatis Splendor is, the Pope finds it necessary to comment on the specific issue of contraception. For this, he appeals to his predecessor, Paul VI, who writes in Humanae Vitae that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order.”20 John Paul II stops there in Veritatis Splendor with his analysis of contraception, but Paul VI goes a little bit further. “It is a serious error,” he writes in Humanae Vitae, “to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”21
In 1948, Richard Weaver published Ideas Have Consequences, which assailed the philosophy of nominalism. Weaver was concerned that the vision inspired by William of Occam in the fourteenth century threatened the belief that universal moral norms do exist and that they are necessary for making correct ethical assessments. It is not just our ideas that have consequences; our moral judgments have consequences, too.
With due respect for the nature of objects, then, we cannot ignore that our moral actions have outcomes to them. The repetitiveness of our moral actions inexorably creates an ethos or mentality. We are never just isolated moral actors. Acting morally in sync with others produces a prevailing atmosphere or climate. A communal morality reflects more or less the decisions freely undertaken by those who comprise the community. A communal morality derives from the fact that free men and women choose to live in accord with moral norms or in violation of them.
The Marital Act and Virtue
In paragraph 20 of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul says the law of God “demands from individual men and women…a resolute purpose and great endurance.”22 This virtue of endurance “enhances man’s dignity and confers benefits on human society.”23
By endurance, we see things to their ends. We do not give up the pursuit of valuable goals even when there is hardship and suffering. Endurance in the moral realm arises out of an inner capacity to complete what has been started. Endurance not only brings satisfaction to our personal lives when we attain things; it is also a characteristic that makes its mark on others. Children who witness their parents enduring difficulties with forbearance are receiving lessons for life in the successful resolution of conflict. They are probably less prone to succumb to adolescent pressures by resorting to under-age drinking and using illicit drugs. Young men and women who see endurance in their parents are probably more apt to defer gratification and postpone having children until they are married and financially ready. And just as important, children become parents themselves at some point in the future. Generational patterns of endurance are then built up.
In paragraph 21 of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI observes that “the right and lawful ordering of births demands…[that spouses] acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions…. [Self]-discipline…brings tranquility and peace.”24
Living in a technologically advanced era requires that we obtain skill sets in order not to fall behind economically. Today, men and women expect to be trained in schools so that they might develop the competencies that will allow them to keep pace with a rapidly changing technical environment. Too often, though, they overlook necessary inner formation that permits them to integrate properly the emotions and sentiments they invariably experience on the road to affective maturity. When parents achieve a mastery of themselves and not just their physical environments, this lesson too is not lost on their children. Self-mastery, like endurance, is a behavior that is incontrovertibly personal. It cannot be done to someone from the outside. But, when there are examples of it around us, we tend to pick up on it and make it our own. Thus, there is a generational impact. The children of self-mastering parents—who become self-mastering adults themselves—are then more likely to possess healthy attitudes for confronting problems and dilemmas, and are less likely to resort to the socially harmful conduct that has already been mentioned in this paper.
Self-mastery and self-discipline are definite influences on our intentions. Our intentions, though, are not just acts we contemplate; they have histories that have been marked by our self-governing capacity. Self-determining subjects are not regarded as such because they only make choices in accord with their egos. Men and women are called self-governing when they demonstrate an aptitude for consistently choosing what is good outside of themselves. Self-determining subjects evaluate the good and evil of things according to standards that they have not devised but have discovered to be true.
Pope Paul VI remarks in paragraph 22 of Humanae Vitae that there is a right and a duty to provide for the common good of human society. The common good is not accomplished, however, when low moral standards are encouraged. 25
The Pope refers to the common good and low moral standards in relation to the virtue of chastity. While chastity is a personal virtue, a climate or environment that is chaste can be established in the home and, by extension, in society. Parents who love chastely and who wish to pass this gift on to their children are helping to build what Paul VI calls elsewhere “the civilization of love.”26 Uncorrupted and properly ordered love is not just found in pure hearts (Matt. 5:8) but can exist in the social fabric also. The social fabric is woven together using many different stitches. Those committed to the common good and high moral standards will use the thread of chaste love to weave a garment that is capable of withstanding the tearing and fraying that come from an ascendant cultural immodesty. A chaste social fabric has a chance of lasting in society because it is passed on generationally.
Personal and Social: Self-gift and Communion
Endurance, self-mastery and chastity are three personal virtues. As I have been emphasizing, each one can be passed along in the family by parental example. But we don’t have to limit the witness vertically. There can also be witness horizontally: siblings showing each other by lifestyle how there can be a personal appropriation of God’s plan for the marital act. The evangelical net can obviously be stretched even further to include friends and neighbors. In the course of this personal witness, then, there isn’t a plan to orchestrate or a design to implement.
The whole cannot get better unless the discrete parts or members act in accord with nature and emulate the Lord’s example. Christ has made a complete gift of himself and we cannot hope to achieve a measure of happiness unless we do the same. Spouses give of themselves completely when their matrimonial gift to each other is unburdened by contraceptive sex.
When the conjugal gift of self is free and uninhibited, the marital act confounds any meaning ascribed to it from outside—although it never ceases being a modest act. Sex free of contraception links the personal to the social because it is a mutual gift of self that engenders a true communion. This always precludes us from characterizing the marital act as an irreducibly private association.
Making inroads culturally to curb social problems does not in every instance require a governmental solution. We could start to see some relief if only we re-thought the myth that decisions about the sexual act are unyieldingly private. Decisions about the sexual act are deeply personal and have an inexorable impact on the social order because the gift I make of myself is not to myself; it is unfailingly to the other. A society’s health immediately begins to improve when its citizens decide to stop acting against themselves—not only physically, but morally, too.
- Lionel Tiger, “Nasty turns in family life,” U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 121, 1, p.57. See the following works by Tiger: The Decline of Males (2000) and The Pursuit of Pleasure (1992). Both volumes treat, among other topics, contraception and its impact culturally. Since the 1960s, the easy availability of contraception has helped to bring about striking changes in attitudes concerning human sexuality. ↩
- David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987), p. 22. In this volume Reardon references numerous studies of women who had abortions. Readers may want to consult the findings reported by Reardon; they will gain a much better understanding of the various effects of abortion that often go unreported in the mainstream press. ↩
- Ibid., p. 23. ↩
- Ibid., p. 225. ↩
- Ibid., p. 226. ↩
- David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 30-31. ↩
- George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen and Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,” Quarterly Review of Economics, Vol. 111, 2, p. 278. As the sexual revolution gathered momentum, the idea that the nuclear family was the only acceptable environment in which to raise a child disintegrated. ↩
- Ibid., p. 279. The social stigma around single motherhood had begun to fade, curiously enough, with the burgeoning use of contraception. ↩
- United States Supreme Court, Lawrence v. Texas, No. 02-102, June 26, 2003. The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, p. 4. ↩
- Harold O.J. Brown, “Contraception: A Symposium,” First Things, Vol. 88, December 1998, p. 18. ↩
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Contraception: A Symposium,” First Things, Vol. 88, December 1998, p. 25. ↩
- Charles J. Chaput, “Contraception: A Symposium,” First Things, Vol. 88, December 1998, p. 19. ↩
- Ibid., p. 20. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Humanae Vitae, 17. ↩
- Veritatis Splendor, 77. ↩
- Ibid., 78. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 80. ↩
- HV, 14. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 14. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 21. ↩
- Ibid., 22. ↩
- Pope Paul VI, “Homily for Christmas,” December 25, 1975, and “Message for the World Day of Peace,” January 1, 1977. ↩