Humanae Vitae and the Tyranny of Technology

Humanae Vitae’s (HV) pro-natal message arrived, as discussed in part one of this series, in an increasingly anti-humanistic culture already fast abandoning the longstanding hope – a hope in this case at once both natural and uniquely American in its boundless optimism à la the Declaration of Independence or President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” – that the generations to come could have it better than the present generation. We can call it, “progress exhaustion.”

But with the fears of overpopulation increasing, the “solution” was clear – to Catholics and non-Catholics alike – as Mary Eberstadt wrote in the August/September 2008 issue of First Things: “Tell the Church to lift the ban on birth control.” “We don’t need any more babies!” the culture shouted. God’s command in Genesis 1:28 – “Be fruitful and multiply” – no longer seemed to be responsible bedroom behavior, much less a divine imperative in an age of overpopulation.


Some saw humans as ants rather than assets.

Of course, as God receded further into the background of the Secular City, until being declared officially “dead” in a 1966 cover story by Time magazine, what else would one expect but a loss of faith and hope? The fear and chaos left in the wake of the blood-splattered walls of the Charles Manson family’s Tate-LaBianca “Helter Skelter” murders in August of 1969 were evidence enough of the kinds of horrors that follow “the eclipse of the sense of God.” We get too “the eclipse” of the sense of man and the value of his bodily life (cf. St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 21-24).

Now, chillingly reminiscent of the disparaging people-as-dots line – uttered by Orson Welles’ Harry Lime character in the classic British film noir, The Third Man (1949), but minus the bird’s-eye-view from the Ferris wheel – human beings were looking more like ants than assets in the eyes of many, especially those of the population control zealots.

Further, while Humanae Vitae would not deny the many benefits bestowed by modern technology (Paul VI calls this fact “the most remarkable development” of our time; see HV, 2), it would remind the world in its reply to the “dominion over nature” argument of the Majority Report, that man does not have absolute dominion/power over his body and its natural functions – nor should he (see HV, 13, 17; cf. 2). This is especially true with respect to man’s sexual capacity, for it concerns “the generation of life, of which God is the source” (HV, 13; cf. 2). How different Bl. Paul VI’s God-centered view is from the materialist man-centered vision of such a notable scientist as James D. Watson, whose book The Double Helix, his personal account of the co-discovery (with Francis Crick) of the structure of DNA, was also published in 1968.

Man’s said “dominion over nature” was one of several important, but ultimately unsound Majority Report arguments – overpopulation (see HV, 2), “the demands of married love or of responsible parenthood” (see HV, 7; cf. 10, 16), “the lesser evil” (see HV, 14), and “the principle of totality” (see HV, 3, 14, 17) being others – briefly considered and courageously rejected by the Holy Father in HV.

As well, when much of Western culture was equating sex with recreation, no-moral-qualms-about-it – on the Beatles’ 1968 White Album, for example, Paul McCartney sings, “Why don’t we do it in the road?” – another, much wiser, Paul begged to differ in HV: Sexual activity belongs only within the covenant of marriage, and like marriage itself, the marital act is ordered to both love and life (see HV, 8-9, 12; cf. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 50). Indeed, the pope proclaimed, procreation/parenthood is a sublime role, duty, and mission (munus) of Christian spouses from God, the Creator (see e.g. HV, 1, 12, 25).

Humanae Vitae would prove “prophetic” in far more ways than the specific ones it accurately “predicted” would come to pass if contraception became widely used (see HV, 17), as it did in fact become. For example, it is ironic that the modern Gay Rights Movement dates its beginnings to the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969, just less than one year after HV. A movement whose core ideology affirms the goodness of intrinsically sterile same-sex relations could not but understand (and emphatically reject) HV’s condemnation of not only heterosexual intercourse purposely made sterile, but all forms of non-marital sex (cf. HV, 13).

The pope’s last encyclical, as it turned out, would give the Church the fundamental “language” it would need years later to address the moral challenges arising from the Gay Rights Movement, such as gay “marriage,” as well as those challenges spawned by artificial reproductive techniques, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), which wrongly separate “baby-making” from “love-making” in order to “make” or “manufacture” – rather than procreate – a child.

Another irony: The first “test-tube” baby conceived and brought to birth by IVF, Louise Brown would be born in England ten years to the date of HV’s release.  Today, IVF has become a morally acceptable baby-making technique in our culture; just one more way to help couples overcome their infertility, with the question of its moral goodness considered a settled matter.

But rather than serving as a “gateway” to the “culture of life”, it turns out that IVF’s manipulation of human life and its power over its beginnings has helped foster our Brave New World’s “culture of death” (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae; cf. also Evangelium Vitae, 63). Both cloning and embryonic stem cell research are further manifestations of how this culture subjects the human person, often the tiniest, to the tyranny of technology – often with deadly results.

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.
Articles by Mark: