Pope Paul VI predicted it all

| Deborah Savage | March 6, 2018 | 0 Comments
Humanae Vitae and Contraception


Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns exploring the content and impact of “Humanae Vitae,” Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical affirming the Church’s proscription on the use of contraception. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its promulgation.

When Blessed Pope Paul VI promulgated his landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On the Regulation of Birth”) in July 1968, I was just getting ready to enter my junior year in high school. I knew nothing of the controversy that swirled around the document at the time. I was blissfully unaware that anything like artificial contraception even existed, let alone that the birth control pill had been recently invented, or that its use had even more recently been legalized. I was a more or less “normal” 16-year-old, a diligent student and an athlete, looking forward to college. But now I well understand why, both in our archdiocese and throughout the world, we are taking the time to mark the 50th anniversary of the encyclical’s publication. That “Humanae Vitae” was an undeniably prophetic document is obvious to me — and not just because of all that has happened since. I witnessed firsthand what it had intended to avert. For, by the time I got to college in 1970, everything had changed.

Pandora’s box

I was born in San Francisco and went to a college barely an hour’s drive from the famous Haight-Ashbury district, ground zero of the then burgeoning “free love” movement. I guess you could say that I had a front row seat to what we now refer to as the sexual revolution. Though the cultural transformation that took place during that time is now widely considered “liberating,” from where I sit now, I would say it was the beginning of a new kind of slavery. I watched from the sidelines as the young women around me dropped like flies in the face of its onslaught. We had all entered into college life full of hope; for many, that hope lost its sheen in the meaningless sexual encounters that lay ahead.

The first indication that one of my dorm mates had “done it” was most often morning-after tears, followed soon by a kind of despair as it dawned on her that the young man to whom she had given herself had no intention of calling back. The second was the heavy sense of desperation that filled the halls of the dorm as we all waited with baited breath for someone’s menstrual cycle to begin. When it did, there was usually some kind of party; when it did not, the girl just disappeared.

It just no longer made sense to say “no” to young men so intent on their desires; at least it didn’t make sense to them. The advent of the pill had opened the door to sex without consequences, apparently even if you weren’t taking it. Or such was the assumption. Most of us didn’t really know yet that one simply needed to visit the campus clinic and procure a prescription for those magical birth control pills. It had all happened so fast. And anyway, to do so was an open admission that one had decided to “do it” on a regular basis. And, at least at first, that was a hard step to take.

It gradually became clear that almost no one was likely to acquire a steady boyfriend. The men were looking for conquests. The women took their chances on every date — and every date brought with it the same tussle. No? Yes? No? Until, finally, one by one, the women, exhausted, surrendered.

Though I was Catholic, I knew nothing about the pope’s encyclical. It simply was not on my radar screen. I was at a public university, and it never really came up. I have no recollection of the priests at the Newman Center ever mentioning it — nor do I remember the priest at my home parish preaching about it (though no doubt he did). I knew what sex was but had little experience of it. What I did know for sure was that it was darn hard to get a date those days unless it was known that you were willing to “go all the way.”

One young man said to me — when I protested that I did not do that sort of thing — “Well, I would like to hear your reason, but it had better be a good one.” I remember feeling panicky as I realized I actually wasn’t completely sure why; I did not know how to explain my reasons for saying no to his demand for sex. It was just an instinct, really, for which I had no coherent explanation. But I was fairly certain that to tell him that “my mom had told me not to” was not going to fly. After all, he had taken me out for a nice dinner.

Unitive, procreative aspects essential

The sexual revolution defined my generation. Its aftermath has continued to define the experience of young people ever since — on college campuses, in bars and at parties — in the normal search for love. It has encroached on the workplace, insinuated itself into every form of media, shackled relationships and destroyed marriages. It has led directly to the situation we face now. For when the sexual act is divorced from its procreative dimension, or from the sacramental love that ought to accompany it, there is no reason to rule out any kind of sexual encounter.

Like the diseases that have spread as a result, it is itself a virus, a sort of permanent, culturally transmitted STD. One that now lurks in almost every interaction between men and women, young and old alike.

Though “Humanae Vitae” simply reaffirmed what Catholics (and most Christian denominations) had always believed — that the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act were both essential to its meaning — the document sparked a storm of controversy among those who had fully expected the Church to open the door to the use of the pill. Many were disappointed, others enraged, still others dumbfounded. How could the pope be so old-fashioned? When was the Church going to get with the times?

But as it turned out, Pope Paul VI was right. These two dimensions — the unitive and the procreative aspects of sex — cannot be torn asunder merely by human fiat. The attempt to do so has led — not to the liberation it promised — but to decades of confusion, pain and tragedy in a vital aspect of human life, and to the degradation of women, to the murder of countless “unwanted” children, to the spread of pornography and to the breakdown of the family.

Indeed, as scholar Mary Eberstadt demonstrates in her 2008 essay “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” all the evidence, much of it compiled by social scientists with no stake in the Catholic understanding of human sexuality, demonstrates that absolutely every prediction made by the late Holy Father in his encyclical has come to pass.

How I wish we knew then what we know now. How different my life, and the lives of several generations of young people since, would have been. If only someone would have explained to us then — in language we could understand — that the sexual act has two intimately intertwined aspects, and that its unitive and procreative dimensions cannot be separated without damage to the persons engaged in it.

‘Radical gift of self’

As we would learn years later from St. John Paul II’s own reflections on the deeper meaning of “Humanae Vitae,” the sexual embrace unites the couple in a radical gift of self that must be understood to include the whole person, body and soul. And in order for this gift of self to be total and therefore authentic, the union of two persons who are literally designed for love requires an openness to the further blessing that can result from that union — the miraculous gift of children.

At the heart of Pope Paul’s prophetic document is an understanding of human sexuality that presents the body as the sign of a sacred inner reality: the person — not a something, but a someone who must never be used as a mere object of pleasure. It presents a profoundly beautiful teaching that reveals that the body is a sacrament, one given to us by our Creator, in order to participate, as St. John Paul tells us in “Love and Responsibility,” in the very transmission of existence.

Though the irony is lost on most of today’s thought leaders, it is patently obvious to any honest observer that the excesses of the “hook-up culture” — revealed so profoundly by the #MeToo phenomenon — are merely the logical consequences of the tacit decision — midway through the 20th century — that it was time to separate sex from a loving, committed, sacramental relationship. If we had just given it but a moment’s thought, all of this could have been predicted.

Oh, wait. It was predicted — by Pope Paul VI in 1968.

Savage is a faculty member at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul where she directs the Masters in Pastoral Ministry program. She is also the director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a member of St. Mark in St. Paul. Learn more about the Siena Symposium at stthomas.edu/sienasymposium.

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Category: The Local Church