This is Part V of a series; find Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.
So many have looked to and continue to look to the Catholic Church as a reliable source of religious and moral truth on account of the truth of Humanae Vitae. It is a remarkable truth at the heart of both the “culture of life” and the New Evangelization. To name but one individual attracted to the Church because of HV, the late British writer Malcolm Muggeridge spoke movingly about the encyclical already before his conversion to the Faith. It was, he says in his Confessions of a 20th Century Pilgrim (1988), the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally convinced him to convert.
If he, Muggeridge, were to find himself pope, he wrote in National Review ten years after HV, his “first venture…would be to reissue Humanae Vitae…reinforcing its essential point that any form of artificial contraception is inimical to the Christian life…The divorcement of eroticism from its purpose, which is procreation, and its condition, which is lasting love, consequent upon the practice of artificial contraception, was proving increasingly disastrous to marriage and family.”
The explosion of pornography and pre-marital sex, not to mention venereal diseases such as HIV/AIDS and HPV, are but a few of the social pathologies that have followed the past half century now that we so casually uncouple sex from marriage and procreation from lasting love (cf. HV, 22). But then again, Bl. Paul VI warned us of such bitter fruits – confirmed by abundant social science data – even if he realized, as a good pastor, how very difficult the practice of chastity and the observance of the moral norms of marriage would be for many (see, e.g., HV, 20; cf. 1-3).
You see, the norm of the inseparability of the “unitive” and the “procreative” ends acts as a safeguard of conjugal love and the family; without it, all forms of unnatural and perverted sex seem morally acceptable, as the late eminent British Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe cogently argued over forty years ago.
Today’s culture, at least many of the “Baby Boomers” among us, often looks back nostalgically, if not fondly at the 1960s culture of sexual freedom and its admirable idealism in thinking that such absurdly kooky ideas as Flower Power, LSD, and the “Make Love Not War” slogan could change the world for the better. But HV proposed quite a different way to create what it called an authentically “human civilization.” If only more of us celebrated its lasting legacy rather than the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” message of Woodstock Festival (1969) – the epitome and in some ways the culmination of the 1960’s Hippie Generation or Youth Culture – I believe our nation would be in much better shape today.
“In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage,” Bl. Paul VI memorably announced, “the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization” (HV, 18). Showing respect for the laws of conception in the context of married love, couples humbly acknowledge that they are “not the master of the sources of life but rather the ministers of the design established by the Creator” (HV, 13).
Imagine that! Spouses are the priests of God’s intelligent love and his creative power to give life – co-creators of new human life with the Lord God himself!
In a world that seems to have gone crazy, HV is, therefore, ultimately a message of sexual sanity: the sanity of life over death, of love over lust, and hope over despair. It is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in a May 2008 Address to mark HV’s 40th anniversary, “a gesture of courage.”
With the benefit of almost five decades worth of “hard knocks” experience and social science support behind us, we see the terrible things that happen to human persons and society, like falling dominoes – increases in family breakdown, out-of-wedlock births, and abortion among them – when a culture rejects (or forgets!) the moral norm that couples are not to do anything before, during, or subsequent to sexual intercourse that would impede the transmission of new human life – whether as an end or as a means (see HV, 14).
But it all makes perfect sense really. For contraception, more than preventing “unwanted” children from coming-to-be, leads us to view children as unwanted. This selfish attitude is part and parcel of what is meant by the “contraceptive mentality” (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 13).
In fact, it can be argued, contraception is a “gateway” to abortion and abortion, in turn, is a “gateway” to child abuse. Easy access to contraception and abortion did not take away this and other problems, as it was claimed would happen over four and a half decades ago – it made them worse. In retrospect, it is clear how compassionate HV really was to warn the human family about them. If only we had listened to its then 70-year-old author!
Spawned by such modern cultural landmarks as Playboy, the Pill, and bad U.S. Supreme Court decisions (e.g. Griswald vs. Connecticut, 1965), the “Sexual Revolution” gave us sex as a care-free pleasure to be slurped, not savored and sanctified in the bond of marriage. And our sex-obsessed culture has slurped to the point of satiation – even to the point of believing it needs abortion as a form of “back-up” birth control. But thankfully, there is some evidence that the tide seems to be turning away from the path of “Sexual Suicide” (George Gilder), especially among young people. Many couples, for example, are now discovering the joys of NFP.
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.
- The Five Phases of the Sexual and Cultural Revolution
- Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?
- Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod
- Speaking the Truth in Love
- Whose Agenda? Reflections on the Upcoming Synod