Women and Humanae Vitae

Humanae Vitae offers a deep and radical affirmation of the dignity of women.

Pope Paul VI in 1963
Pope Paul VI in 1963

One of the neglected aspects of the teaching of St. Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, is its perspective on women. It is one of the ways that the encyclical is seen as prophetic or as retrograde, so it deserves attention.

The Pope admittedly does not directly speak much to women. The word “woman” appears five times in the encyclical, “women” three. In a document almost 7,000 words long (excluding footnotes), that’s not much. Some will take it as prima facie evidence of the Pope’s “patriarchal” views.

Hopefully, instead of resorting to simplistic conclusions, we might at least be more intellectually curious and dig deeper.

The Pope’s first reference to woman leads us to a main assumption about the birth control debate. Identifying the signs of the times, the historical context in which the encyclical emerged, the Pope speaks of “a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society…“ (no. 5). [The sentence also continues with a recognition of a reappraisal of the values in “conjugal love.”]

Humanae vitae recognizes that the socio-economic position of women in the world was changing. Although the encyclical does not explore that dimension very thoroughly, it should have — because that changing role was one reason for the birth control debate.

Note that I deliberately speak of the “birth control” debate. Birth control encompasses both contraception and abortion. Both “control” births by preventing them. Humanae vitae speaks about both contraception and abortion (as well as sterilization — see no. 14). 

The encyclical acknowledges that the role of women in the modern world is changing. That said, the encyclical does not simply make that admission and then drop it (even if its opponents think it did). Rather, the encyclical sees its understanding of the role of women in the modern world as fully compatible — indeed an outcome — of its teaching on birth control.

Fully aware that there are readers who, at this point, simply say “yeh, well …” and are ready to dismiss what the encyclical has to say outright, I invite them to take a challenge: think this line of thought through to its end. Don’t fall back on the intellectually lazy response that has bedeviled the encyclical for over half a century – “I don’t like its conclusion so why should I bother with its arguments?” – and give the thought process a chance.

The failure to engage this argument – that the teaching of Humanae vitae on “birth control” is at least fully compatible with a modern understanding of “the dignity of women and her place in society” – is one reason why American (and, in general, Western) society is as polarized as it currently is. Catholics have refused to understand, much less advance, their own argument in secular society.

If Humanae vitae is correct and offers a vision of “the dignity of women and her place in [modern] society,” then it poses a vision in direct conflict with the leitmotif of American elite opinion on women and modernity.

The Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence, ever since Roe, has in some degree rested on the assumption that “reproductive choice” is essential to women being able to participate in the “modern” world. Indeed, the Court explicitly invoked that argument when it upheld Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. “… [F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their view of themselves and their place in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives” (505 US 833 at 856). 

While that assertion is often taken at face value, its proof remains elusive. As Chief Justice Rehnquist notes in his dissent, the claim that Roe is the reason women attained their current “’places in society’” is “dubious” (at 956). Other factors — greater pursuit of higher education, economic competition with men, and the undermining of sex role stereotypes in the job market — played roles. Critics will claim that all those factors would be undermined by pregnancy, but then they would have to admit that our economy is structured in a way hostile to women who might also “choose” to be mothers … and perhaps we think that’s just fine. 

The fact that the United States remains the only major industrialized country with no robust parental leave legislation almost thirty years after Casey and fifty after Roe suggests the abortion license of those two decisions carved out certain right “places in society” for women workers — not as workers and mothers. Rehnquist came in for the coup de grace, noting “[i]n the end, having failed to put forth any evidence to prove any true reliance, the joint opinion’s argument is based solely on generalized assertions about the national psyche, on a belief that the people … have grown accustomed to the Roe decision over the last 19 years and have ‘ordered their thinking and living around’ it” (at 957, emphasis added). 

(We might also ask whether this unproven assertion about birth control being essential to women’s equal social participation will not become a new textual hook to ground the abortion liberty should the Equal Rights Amendment be forced into the Constitution). 

Humanae vitae, far from being some esoteric document out-of-touch with modernity, supposedly advancing some doctrine about birth control as exotic as Seventh Day Adventist opposition to transfusions or Amish eschewal of electricity, offers a vision of “the dignity of women and her place in society” that puts it in direct conflict with the vision espoused by the United States Supreme Court. 

Contrary to its supposed modernity and progressivism, the vision of woman in Roe is paradoxically quite traditional. The abortion liberty does not make economic structures adjust to women who might “choose” (the sacred talisman of Roe) to be mothers. It simply enables women who, caught in the conflict between motherhood and worker-hood, to remain the latter by eliminating the former. Yes, have women found their “places in society” by conforming their bodies, their fertility, their “choices” to a corporate friendly man’s world? Any wonder why Roe is constantly rescued by corporate-friendly types like David Souter, Harry Blackmun, and Anthony Kennedy? Their ethic of “choice” doesn’t require boardrooms to choose to do anything different. Shannon Roberts rightly observes that, in “liberating” women as we have, we have formed a cultural ethos that values job achievement and dis-esteems home and family. Any wonder that it is the primarily the economically most stable and richest countries that will demographically disappear over the next 80 years, becoming pale echoes of their current selves? One might wonder out loud whether between the radical feminist left intent on “deconstructing” the family and the corporate economic right intent on maintaining the status quo les extremes se touchent?

Where are the social justice warriors otherwise so committed to uprooting “systematic” evils in society?

Humanae vitae called for an understanding of the birth control question based on “the laws written into the actual nature of man and woman” (no. 12). Reckoning not just with those “laws” but even more so with that “nature” would force recognition that socio-economic inclusion of women in the modern world and workplace requires adjusting that workplace to the fact that men and women can and do become parents and that is “very good.” It would require rethinking work and the workplace in a way that does not simply assume career paths — especially career paths in the influential professions — must be modelled on the working man who can put in 50, 60+ hours/week because, after all, he’s a “professional” (who has a wife or other domestic help tending to his familial life at home). That model also excludes (primarily) women and others who might actually take seriously HR rhetoric about “work/life balance.” 

Roe’s model requires no such adjustment. It only requires, in the name of “liberation,” that women to adjust their maternity to their career path. Furthermore, as we have seen in subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence, the ethic of choice inexorably leads not to recognizing the “laws written into the actual nature of man and woman” but denial of any such thing as normative human nature.

Humanae vitae maintains that rejecting its vision leads to actions “equally repugnant to the nature of man and woman” (no. 13). As Michel Aupetit, the Archbishop of Paris, noted in his recent book on the encyclical, the rejection of Humanae vitae, while paying lip service to women “controlling their reproductive lives” has, in fact, made women responsible for and men of that task. It is women who are expected to “be responsible” for taking the Pill and women who are pressured into having abortions — by partners, by employers, by social expectations — if they nevertheless become pregnant. One need only read the package insert that accompanies prescriptions of the Pill to find a litany of complications that the Pill can cause — all of them borne by women who have supposedly been given “responsibility” for their reproductive lives.

Where are the “greens” who are so “eco” and “organic” friendly when it comes to asking why women should be overdosed with synthetic hormones to simulate pregnancy so they can escape the natural fertility of their own bodies?

The encyclical concludes its mentions of women with a warning that is usually cited by most people who call the encyclical “prophetic.” The Pope foresaw the likely consequences of widespread public acceptance of contraception leading to forgetfulness of “the reverence due to a woman, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of [a man’s] own desires, no longer considering her as his partner …” (no. 17). While undoubtedly those whose model of “equality” presupposes androgyny – “persons” who happen to be men or women – would call the Pope’s view discriminatory in the real world, where “persons” are men or women, the consequences of cancelling out sex are increasingly apparent. They also arguably might be characterized as ideological discrimination against real women as they exist in the real world.

Far from being a marginal vision of “the dignity of women and their place in society,” Humanae vitae has the potential of offering a deeper and more radical affirmation of that dignity than the model on which elite opinion preens. Perhaps 52 years after the encyclical and apart from an ideological lens, we might revisit its progressive vision of female dignity and its implications for the modern world.