Like a bitter child nursing an old grievance against a parent well into adulthood, progressive Catholics cling to the belief that Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae damaged the moral credibility of the Church. Indeed, they blame the controversial papal letter for the faithful's subsequent lack of support for other teachings that deal with abortion, same-sex relationships and premarital sex.

"Nothing has divided the church more than its prohibition against contraception, even among married couples," writes Peter Steinfels in a Sept. 11 op-ed in the Washington Post.

The author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Steinfels is the former religion correspondent for The New York Times and previously served as editor of Commonweal. His op-ed in the Post rehashes all the events and discussions leading up to Pope Paul VI's fateful decision to affirm the Church's condemnation of contraception. Now he wants Pope Francis to address the topic "honestly" at the upcoming Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Steinfels does not explain what an honest discussion on the topic should look like, nor does he address this subject with sufficient transparency himself.   

On the one hand, he acknowledges that many Catholics ignored Humanae Vitae from the get-go. But he never considers that their subsequent rejection of other moral teachings was not the fault of a pope who stood his ground, but of the destructive logic of contraception itself.   If he did consider that uncomfortable possibility, I suspect, Steinfels would be forced to re-think his own judgments dating back to the 1960s when dissent was cool. True, the dissenters could not have known just how far things would go. But they already had worked out some of the arguments (lesser evil, everything is relative) that would be used to dismiss Catholic teaching on abortion, divorce, cohabitation and more.  

Meanwhile, Mark Regnerus, an influential social researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who converted to Catholicism because of Humanae Vitae, has challenged Steinfels' assertions.

"My wife and I elected to pursue a tubal ligation for her immediately following the birth of our third child, in 2008. We regretted it within three months," said Regnerus in a Sept. 18 column in National Review.

"We thought it would make sex freer and more spontaneous. But it accomplished neither of those things. Instead, it reduced sex to satiation — a utilitarian means to an end. It still bonds, but it is different now from what it was when new life was possible. Unfortunately, untying fallopian tubes is not easily or cheaply accomplished. Sterilization left us with unanticipated regret about empty chairs around the table that will never be filled with laughter (and yes, some aggravation).

That shared sense of loss and regret, he said, was not the fruit of their conversion to Catholicism. Rather, it  inspired their journey to Rome: "The Church looked increasingly appealing because she was the only one who explained what we felt."

But like any good social scientist, Regnerus doesn't rest his case on his own personal experience.  Instead, he looks at the sweeping tapestry of American sexual behavior that followed the FDA's approval of oral contraception in 1960. This is his expert opinion:

"Wide uptake of contraception changes people and communities. It alters the meaning of sex, fosters ambivalence about having children, and reinforces (though doesn’t cause) a consumptive rather than productive view of humanity — that we’re here to enjoy ourselves, to consume what life, work, and others have to offer us. It undermines the notion that we were made to love and be a gift to others, not to use and be used. Collectively, it splits the mating market into two parts — those looking for commitment and those just looking for sex — making the road to marriage notably longer and more confusing."

Steinfels sets aside this broader view of contraception's impact on human behavior. He wants to walk back the debate to the focus of the initial objection to Humanae Vitae: The pope's insistence on the "intrinsic evil of each and every use of contraception." 

Perhaps the Synod will take up this matter, but Regnerus already has an answer that Steinfels won't like: Contraception is a "package deal." Good intentions alone cannot effectively control its consequences for those who  bring it into their intimate relationships.  

As Regnerus sees it, contraception has shaped many of the patterns of behavior that now define our world. Here's his short list of pathologies:

  • Expectations of paired sexual activity emerge quickly in budding relationships.
  • Sexual exclusivity is no longer assumed but rather subject to negotiation.
  • Plastic sexuality — sexual interests and directions are shaped and remodeled. In turn, diverse sexual expressions and identities flourish.

Further, Regnerus also points out that many progressive Catholics are simply dismissing Pope Francis's repudiation of contraception as another element of a throwaway culture in his encyclical, Laudato Si.

"Just as we are manipulating the earth’s resources — a game that will soon bite us back — we are also manipulating women’s bodies, even if at their own invitation," said Regnerus. "And we’re only just now beginning to realize that the hookup culture is a sibling to rape culture, because dignity ignored will become dignity denied. This is the world that effective contraception has made. We’re investing in orgasms, not persons."