The Courage of Pope Paul VI
How a pope’s controversial encyclical led me to the Catholic Church.
When I was first exploring Catholicism after a life of atheism, it never occurred to me that I would accept the Church’s teachings against artificial contraception. Like most other people of my generation, I understood contraception to be a universal good. From high-school health classes to messages in popular media, I was bombarded with the message that the pill and similar methods of birth control were essential components of a good and free life, especially for women.
A few months into my conversion journey, I found myself bedridden due to a medical condition. To pass the time, I had printed out a stack of documents I’d found online that discussed that crazy Catholic teaching against contraception.
I learned that, in 1968, Pope Paul VI triggered a worldwide hissy fit when he announced in an encyclical called Humanae Vitae (translated “On Human Life”) that the Catholic Church still opposed contraception. Though nobody argued about the fact that this had been a key Christian teaching from the very beginning, every other denomination had reversed its stance on the issue after public opinion changed in the early 20th century. The last holdout, the Catholic Church, was expected to do the same. It didn’t.
In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic position on that issue and went on to suggest that contraception, if it did become widely used, would be bad for marriages.
Everyone laughed at such a silly idea: After all, surely it would help couples if they were free to enjoy marital intimacy without the worry of pregnancy.
The encyclical was written in 1968, just three years after Griswold v. Connecticut made contraception legal throughout the United States. At the time, the divorce rate was about 10.5 divorces for every 1,000 women. By 1970, it was 15. Five years later, it was 20. And in 1978, 10 years after the Church’s predictions, the divorce rate was 23 per 1,000 women: It had more than doubled.
So when I got to the part where Pope Paul also predicted that contraception would result in bad things happening to women, it got my attention.
To the pooh-poohs of society at large, Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would lead men to disrespect women. He said that once a man got used to the widespread availability of contraception, he would “forget the reverence due to a woman and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”
A mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.
I looked down at a stack of old magazines lying on the floor next to the bed. I picked up four and tossed them on the bed. Each positioned itself as a source of advice for the modern, empowered woman. One bore the headline: Sexy at 70! One Grandma’s Racy Photo Shoot
I grabbed the magazine and opened it to the promised article about the “sizzling septuagenarian.” I could be sexy at 70, too, the article assured me. There was palpable desperation underneath the author’s words as she said over and over again that sexiness does not have to end at 50 — or even 60. She assured the reader that many men like the maturity that comes with women of an advanced age, and she offered suggestions for how older women could use their life experiences to better please their partners.
It seemed that the author had never questioned the idea that, for a woman, your value is directly connected to how attractive you are to men.
I looked at the cover again: A 20-year-old girl cocked her hip seductively, her lips slightly parted, her eyes lowered at the camera. Her chest bulged against a stretchy, sequined top, which was cropped short enough to reveal a stomach like that of a 14-year-old boy. One of the other headlines promised in large, neon letters to enlighten readers about the top 10 things that men found unattractive. Another was about how to lose weight. I scanned the covers of the other magazines: woman in a bikini; woman in a micro-mini skirt; another woman squeezed into a skin-tight dress. All of them had the word “sexy” or one of its synonyms somewhere on the cover, usually more than once.
I pulled up another stack of glossy rags and pushed them around my bed so that I could see all the covers at once. Something I had always wondered, but had never articulated, came to the forefront of my mind:
When, exactly, did the standard of beauty become a dictate that we must all look like Barbie dolls?
When I saw pictures of my ancestors, the women always looked beautiful, but in a way that didn’t overwhelm the senses with their physical beauty alone. The faded photographs of my grandmothers and their grandmothers showed clothing styles that left some attention for their faces, that didn’t detract from the subtleties of their expressions. The draping of the material smoothed over details, so that a few extra pounds could be smoothed into graceful curves.
Now, a century and a half later, society says a woman can hardly consider herself truly beautiful without a tight abdomen, slender physique, wrinkle-free face and, even, to quote one of the magazines in front of me, “ultra-sexy upper arms.” Upper arms? Did our ear canals now have to be sexy, too?
This was not a standard of beauty built on respect for women. In fact, it seemed like an outlook spawned by a society that demanded that women make themselves objects for men’s pleasure.
And when I considered when the standard of beauty began to change, I realized that it was right around the time that everyone started using contraception. Pope Paul VI wouldn’t have been surprised.
Half-buried in magazines, I came to the dizzying realization that the Church was not entirely wrong on this issue. I still didn’t know if it was completely correct, but I had to give it credit that it alone predicted that contraception would have unintended consequences, articulated what they would be and had been proven right. It continued to say, as it had always said, that society urgently needed to take an honest look at whether contraception has really been a good thing for women.
In the weeks that followed, I would become awed by the Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality: In fact, it would be the linchpin of my conversion. The more I looked into this area of Catholicism, the more I became convinced that this Church had a wisdom too profound to have come from humans alone.
When my husband and I entered the Church at the Easter vigil the next year, I would often think back on that moment in my bedroom with the stack of magazines — and thank God for the courage of Pope Paul VI.
Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer, radio host and the mother of six young children.
This essay is adapted from her memoir, Something Other than God,
available from Ignatius Press.
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