Imagine the birth-control pill as a “chemical corset” that controls and reshapes a woman’s body so that it operates like a man’s.
It’s a strange, unsettling image, worthy of a feminist-inspired dystopian novel or film. In fact, when this chemical corset was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, its arrival was heralded as a milestone of sorts. “It was the first medicine ever designed to be taken regularly by people who were not sick,” noted Time magazine.
Nevertheless, oral contraceptives were successfully marketed as a precondition for personal freedom, liberating women from the burden of fertility. And, today, artificial birth control and the various moral, political and legal arguments employed to justify its use are deeply entrenched in the culture.
Indeed, what’s even more disturbing is that artificial contraception use is so widespread, including among Catholics, that moral resistance seems at times impossible, even for some at the highest levels of the Church. A half-century after the release of Pope Paul VI’s groundbreaking encyclical, Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), the Vatican has commissioned a high-level review of the internal Church debate that preceded the encyclical’s release, and the encyclical’s supporters fear it will be consigned to the dustbin of history.
From the start, Humanae Vitae was greeted with considerable derision. Influential theologians argued that its endorsement of Christianity’s long-standing prohibition of contraception would undermine the Church’s credibility with the lay faithful, many of whom had begun to use artificial contraceptives in spite of Church teaching. This year, that line of argument will likely get more traction as the Vatican prepares for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Youth scheduled for October. Last month, a “pre-synodal report,” which summarized the views of young participants in a wide-ranging Holy See-facilitated discussion, confirmed that Catholic teaching on contraception still sparks controversy.
No doubt, this is partly the legacy of a flawed catechetical effort that has largely ignored Humanae Vitae. It is also a poignant reminder that young Catholics have inherited a world transformed by the logic of the chemical corset.
But it is worth noting that the pre-synodal report also made clear that many participants embraced the Church’s teachings as “a source of joy” and urged the Church to “proclaim them with greater depth of teaching.”
What are we to make of this pivotal time and the mixed messages from the young?
This “is a very difficult but also very promising moment: difficult, because the language of Catholic moral wisdom is alien to many young people, who often leave the Church without ever really encountering her,” observed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in an April 4 address at The Catholic University of America that marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 papal encyclical. He continued that it was “promising, because the most awake of those same young people want something better and more enduring than the emptiness and noise they now have.”
Archbishop Chaput introduced the image of the chemical corset — a term he heard from a friend, who is a wife and mother with an ironic humor — as he headlined a major conference, “Humanae Vitae (1968-2018): Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love and Life.” The gathering brought together leading theologians and physicians, natural family planning specialists and legal scholars in a rousing celebration of the prophetic witness to the hidden dangers of artificial contraception and the healing power of Catholic teaching on marriage by Pope Paul VI, who is soon to be canonized (see related commentary). And while many active Catholics are familiar with Pope Paul VI’s foresight that artificial contraception would harm marriage and lessen the dignity of women, Archbishop Chaput observed that the adoption of the chemical corset has also tainted modern Christianity, shaking believers’ faith in God and in the gift of his creation.
In contrast, early Christians set themselves apart from the dominant pagan culture, rejecting all threats to nascent human life, including contraception, abortion and infanticide.
These distinctive practices persisted into the modern world but had not yet tainted Christianity. Then, in 1930, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops determined that contraception could be permitted in certain cases “where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.”
But, over time, noted Archbishop Chaput, the entire teaching on contraception was reversed by many, and “reformers” employed similar arguments to modify or upend bans on abortion, premarital sex and homosexual relations.
As other Christian churches followed the Anglicans’ lead, the ensuing moral vacuum fostered the creation of “a new religion,” with its own distinctive social and sexual practices. While the early Christians set themselves apart in their reverence for the body and for the spousal one-flesh union as a sign of Christ’s unconditional love for his Church, those who embrace the chemical corset scorn, perhaps unthinkingly, the body’s limits and the sacrifices that come with marriage and family life.
“Much of the moral conflict, broken family life, social unraveling and gender confusion that seems so common today stems — directly or more subtly — from our disordered attitudes toward creation and our appetite to master, reshape and even deform nature to our wills,” said Archbishop Chaput. The fractured, angry state of American culture surely vindicates Humanae Vitae and its dire predictions. But the encyclical was even more ambitious, for it sought to advance a holistic vision of life and of married love, anchored in a profound respect for the dignity of the human person, body and soul. Further, the sacrifices that accompany marriage, including periodic abstinence to regulate births, are part of the Creator’s plan. The sacrifices can be painful, but we are called to embrace them with a glad heart, not to sweep them aside as a threat to our freedom.
Yes, the Catholic Church has failed to effectively transmit this difficult teaching in the face of an all-out assault on human dignity and God’s plan for sexuality. But that does not mean we should give up now. And it does not justify a repudiation of the teaching by Church authority, a move that will inevitably provoke a review of other inconvenient moral teachings.
The steady drumbeat of dissent, said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confers “the aura of morality upon changed norms of behavior.” But it is nothing less than “a surrender of moral integrity.”
Cardinal Ratzinger issued this judgment 30 years ago, well before Catholics had begun to challenge Church teaching on same-sex “marriage” or questioned the ban on so-called sex reassignment surgery for people with gender dysphoria. And only the most prophetic of voices will correctly predict the future distortions first ushered in by the chemical corset. Nevertheless, the very first Christians have taught the faithful what they must do as they navigate this world and as they accompany the young on their journey.
“Our mission now, as always,” said Archbishop Chaput, “is not to surrender to the world as it is, but to feed and ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world — and thereby to lead it to Jesus Christ and his true freedom and joy.”