Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
July 26, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, but few expect the occasion to prompt celebrations in Rome.
A papal commission has quietly undertaken a “historical-critical investigation” of the bitter theological debate that ended with the pope’s formal repudiation of artificial contraception as an attack on the good of marriage and a threat to the moral foundations of society.
The papal commission’s mission is to “reinterpret” the encyclical’s teaching “in the light of Amoris Laetitia.” At the helm of this effort is Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, a theological opponent of the encyclical, who have suggested “abandoning a conception of doctrinal patrimony of the Church as a closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now.”
Humanae Vitae is out of date, according to this viewpoint. And the “complexities” and “realities” of modern life have led most Catholic couples to embrace contraception as a “possible good.”
Opponents of Humane Vitae floated similar objections back in 1968, when the birth-control pill was touted as a wonderful breakthrough for married couples who wanted to space their children and stabilize family finances. Over the past week, other arguments challenging some aspect of the encyclical have also made headlines.
What’s mystifying, however, is that present-day critics of the encyclical still contend that contraception is the lesser evil, the most reasonable option available — even though researchers now link a slew of disturbing social developments to the contraceptive-fueled regime of sex on demand.
Mary Eberstadt, the author of Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, also finds this oversight puzzling.
In an article published in the April 2018 issue of First Things, Eberstadt recalls Pope Paul VI’s prediction that widespread contraceptive use would shake long-established moral values, destabilize marriage and foster disrespect toward women, and points to fresh data that confirm “the prophetic power of Humanae Vitae.”
1. Increased use of contraception has also increased abortion.
Eberstadt reports that the same legal arguments used to support contraceptive rights has been used to fortify laws securing abortion. Indeed, the campaign for legal abortion followed the FDA’s approval of the birth-control pill.
This “linkage … undermines the claim that a hard-and-fast line can be drawn between the two,” she said.
And social researchers have pointed to one explanation for this trend: contraceptive use fosters risky sexual behavior, and then people turn to abortion when contraception “fails.”
2. Declining rate of happiness for women.
Contraception was supposed to make women happier and freer than ever before.
Has it? Evidence points to the contrary.
As economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers discovered in their assessment of US citizens between 1970 and 2005, women’s happiness scores have fallen while their male peers’ score remained steady. Back in the 1970s, women were happier than men, but by the 1990s, they were less happy than men.
Eberstadt points to other troubling developments, like the fact that E. L. James’s sadomasochistic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey, replaced J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in 2012 as the bestselling work in Amazon’s history.
“This signals an extraordinary commercial demand by women for the tale of a rich and powerful man who humiliates, bullies,” said Eberstadt, “and commits violence against a woman, over and over.”
She also cites the “secular sex scandals of 2017 and 2018,” and the #MeToo movement.
“It appears that the sexual revolution licensed predation. That is not a theological judgment, but an empirical one— foreseen in part by social scientist Francis Fukuyama. His 1999 book, The Great Disruption, made a point that echoes in Humanae Vitae, though based on a thoroughly secular analysis: ‘One of the greatest frauds … was the notion that the sexual revolution was gender-neutral, benefiting women and men equally. … In fact the sexual revolution served the interests of men, and in the end put sharp limits on the gains that women might otherwise have expected from their liberation from traditional roles.’”
A large part of the problem is the collapse of marriage, the social institution that was supposed to be strengthened by contraception.
Unmarried women are responsible for an estimated 40 percent of live births in the U.S. These women and their children are more likely to struggle with poverty and face powerful headwinds.
3. Underpopulation and the scourge of loneliness.
Once upon a time, Western elites feared that overpopulation would result in mass starvation, and they chastised Church leaders for opposing contraception.
This year, said Eberstadt, the publication of Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, by Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly is but the latest and most comprehensive attack on “the population arguments that some hoped would undermine Church teaching.”
“This is all the more satisfying a ratification,” she said, “because Connelly is so conscientious in establishing his own personal antagonism toward the Catholic Church.”
Eberstadt then points to disturbing byproduct of the growing problem of underpopulation: a self-inflicted scourge of loneliness in the West and other developed nations. In Japan, solitary elderly people can lay dead in their homes for weeks with no one alerting authorities, and half of Swedish adults live alone.
4. Churches that accommodated the sexual revolution implode from within.
Why, asks Eberstadt, would the Catholic Church, which has largely avoided the most divisive debates over sexuality that tore apart Protestant denominations, launch a reassessment of Humanae Vitae?
She points to a headline in the British press, “The Anglican schism over sexuality marks the end of a global church,” which marked the 2016 gathering of the Anglican Communion at Lambeth, where African church leaders resisted further effort to abandon Christian moral teaching.
Yet, in 1998, Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey, a leader of the Episcopalian Church’s progressive wing and the author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, argued that his denomination must adapt to the new realities forged by the sexual revolution or lose its relevance.
Bishop Spong was wrong, and the Episcopalian church has steadily shrunk in size.
“Surely anyone urging Rome to follow Lambeth’s lead today must first explain how Catholicism’s fate will be different,” said Eberstadt.
Instead, Rome must defend Humanae Vitae by explaining why Paul VI was right, and sharing the data that squares with his prophetic teaching.
Over the past half-century, Paul VI and his predecessors, faithful Catholic bishops, pastors and lay people have “sacrificed” a great deal to defend this teaching, “relinquishing the good opinion of a mocking world”
Yet they can be consoled that the “ever-growing empirical record continues to vindicate Paul VI’s encyclical.”
The “closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now” that Msgr. Marengo condemns surely does exist. But Humanae Vitae is not the problem.