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Humanae Vitae, the 60s, and the Sexual and Scientific/Technological Revolutions

“Responsible parenthood…concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.” (Bl. Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 10)

“[The pill] is a revolutionary development, probably to be ranked among the half dozen or so major innovations in man’s two or more million years of history.  In its effects, I believe that the pill ranks in importance with the discovery of fire, the creation and employment of tools, the development of hunting, the invention of agriculture, the development of urbanism, scientific medicine, and the release of and control of nuclear energy.” (Ashley Montagu, 1969)

It is fitting that Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (HV) was promulgated in the summer – July of all months, in the season of flares and fireworks – for the long-awaited encyclical condemning contraception unleashed a boom of its own in the Catholic Church: radical theological dissent, then and now, but already previewed in some measure by the misinterpretations of what the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) taught about marriage and by the unauthorized leak in April of 1967 of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission’s Majority Report, which favored a change in the Church’s centuries-old teaching (see HV, 5-6).

beatles-all-you-need-is-loveBl. Paul VI’s July 25, 1968 letter on “the transmission of human life” (HV, 1) was situated between two eventful American summers: that of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, which ushered in or at least pushed further along the Sexual Revolution, and that of 1969, the summer of the lunar landing, symbolic of man’s growing technological prowess over the forces of nature, including his own biological nature.

From computers to communications technology to cancer treatment, a Scientific Revolution of its own was taking place that would continue full steam into the 1970s (itself a decade of decline, decadence, and despair on many fronts). The benefits and burdens, as well as the ambiguities, of this scientific and technological “revolution” were, if you recall, cinematically portrayed in stunning fashion in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

HV’s view of technology, however, would be profoundly different than that which NASA’s Apollo 11’s achievement came to symbolize for many in the 1960’s generation and the generations to come. This is the false idea that if we can send a man to the moon, then we can eradicate poverty, prejudice, pestilence, and population problems through technological ingenuity and bureaucratic planning alone – plus lots of federal government money, as was the case with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. This erroneous notion, although still very influential today but to a lesser degree – from the nuclear bomb to biotechnology, who is not fearful of the misuse of technology – does not shape the viewpoint of Humanae Vitae (HV), though it welcomed a science that is conformed to sound morality.

Humanae Vitae’s understanding of (married) love, moreover, would be radically different than that of the “free-love” and “sexual liberation” espoused by the hippies who congregated during the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and other major American cities, and whose “soundtrack” was the Beatles’ drug-influenced 1967 pop music masterpiece, the Sgt. Pepper album.

According to Bl. Pope Paul VI, Christian married love has its “origin” from God, the Author of marriage (see HV, 8). Specifically, it is a love that is “fully human,” involving not only the emotions but also an act of the “free will” to commit to each other’s “human fulfillment.” Spouses become in a way, “one heart and one soul.” It is too a kind of love that is “total” or unconditional in the gift of self, that is, it is a love of one’s partner for his or her “own sake.” This love is also characterized by HV as “faithful and exclusive” of all others, thus ruling out adultery. Finally, it is a love that is “fecund,” in that it seeks to “go beyond” the “loving interchange” of the couple “to bring new life into being” (see HV, 9).

For many, the 1960s – however we “date” and “define” the decade – were filled with what the University of Cambridge’s Jon Agar calls “co-existence and contradiction.” The Cold War between the forces of communism (namely the Soviet Union) and the forces of capitalism and freedom (namely the United States) is a case in point, in many respects, of “co-existence.” The “contradictions” of the decade, on the other hand, were, in fact, often only apparent when viewed merely on the surface level.

Thus, for example, the Summer of Love more or less “co-existed” with the riots in our inner cities; both the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War Peace Movement “walked” side-by-side with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; and the technology-as-salvation forces “rubbed elbows” with the nascent anti-technological Environmentalist Movement.

But violence – especially in the service of “progressive” social change – was always one common characteristic that often lurked menacingly just below the surface of some of these movements or at times even erupted in full force. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when anti-war protestors clashed with police, the deadly violence of the Altamont rock concert in 1969, and the student demonstrations on college campuses that turned violent in the late 1960s are but a few notable examples of the so-called “altruistic” violence that was unleashed in the service of an allegedly good cause.

By the time Prof. Paul Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian The Population Bomb was published in 1968, secular liberalism’s sexual ethic was already betraying its utopian technocratic faith in unending human progress through science and technology – the latter of course being the “twin gods” of secular humanism. Ehrlich’s bestselling pro- population control book was not only widely off the mark as we know now in our day of the demographic suicide, especially of Europe, it was also, in many ways, symbolic of the outlook of the post-Christian age of affluent Western culture: the loss of faith in the future.

It turns out, contrary to a 1967 Beatles’ song, “love” is not “all you need.”  Societies also require for their flourishing, as the Church had taught for two millennia, one significant fruit of this love: babies. Additionally, societies need strong families that are rooted in life-long heterosexual marriage for these babies to grow up in. Furthermore, these families must be situated in a morally sound culture. Unfortunately, no news flash necessary, we have sorely lacked this kind of culture the last 50 years. The culture has in fact become toxic to all who breathe its foul air.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about Humanae Vitae. Check back next week for the next installment.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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