'What If the Sexual Revolution Didn't Make Women Happy?' Mary Eberstadt Asks in New Book
As supporters of HHS contraceptive mandate ask, 'Where are the women?' author marshals a half century of social research to vindicate 'Humanae Vitae.'
WASHINGTON — While the U.S. bishops press for legal and legislative remedies to the federal contraception mandate, opinion surveys confirm that many practicing Catholics ignore Church teaching on birth control.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in a published interview last week, acknowledged the failure of many bishops to defend and promote Humanae Vitae (“On the Regulation of Birth”), Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, which ignited a firestorm when it was issued in 1968.
The encyclical "brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the Church, that I think most of us — and I'm using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself — kind of subconsciously said, Whoa. We'd better never talk about that, because it's just too hot to handle.
“We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day," stated Cardinal Dolan in a March 30 interview published in the Wall Street Journal.
The candid remarks from the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops underscore one consequence of the HHS mandate controversy: Catholic leaders and the faithful have begun to reassess the sidelining of Humanae Vitae.
Enter Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill, a collection of the author’s wide-ranging essays just released by Ignatius Press. The contraception mandate looks like a publisher’s dream for Eberstadt’s book sales, as curious Catholics and other Americans investigate what all the fuss is about.
A timely chapter of Adam and Eve is the author’s 2008 essay, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae.” It links Paul VI’s grim prediction of the pill’s moral and cultural impact to the toxic sexual culture of 21st-century America.
“The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments,” Eberstadt writes, noting that most of the damning evidence has been collected by secular, but “honest,” academic researchers.
“In a well-known 1996 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, [Nobel Prize-winning economist George] Akerlof explained in the language of modern economics why the sexual revolution — contrary to common prediction, especially prediction by those in and out of the Church who wanted the teaching on birth control changed — had led to an increase in both illegitimacy and abortion.
“In another work published in the Economic Journal 10 years ago, he traced the empirical connections between the decrease in marriage and married fatherhood for men — both clear consequences of the contraceptive revolution—and the simultaneous increase in behaviors to which single men appear more prone: substance abuse, incarceration and arrests, to name just three,” writes Eberstadt in “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae.”
The essays in Adam and Eve” frame the author’s unique and perceptive take on a host of related topics. In one discussion, “What Is the Sexual Revolution Doing to Children? The ‘Pedophilia Chic’, Then and Now,” the author examines how the clergy abuse scandal forced Americans to grapple with the destructive impact of adult sexual predators. In “The Transvaluation of Values…: Is Pornography the New Tobacco?” she critiques the normalization of an Internet-fueled addiction.
During a recent interview, Eberstadt acknowledged that her reassessment of the ’60s was prompted by exposure to young people and their struggles to deal with a culture that has drifted away from a commonsense approach to human flourishing.
“I listen to the way they talk and what they talk about with extra sharp ears,” she said. “Part of what motivated me to write this book and a previous one, called Home Alone America, about the impact of day care, is that life is tougher during these times than it used to be, and our material progress over the past 50 years can’t trump that truth.”
“The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” was the fruit of her own systematic reassessment of a papal teaching that continues to be ridiculed by many self-identified Catholics who have never bothered to actually read it.
Several years ago, Eberstadt sat down and read Humanae Vitae for the first time, and was immediately struck by its prescience.
“I had heard it dismissed and mocked,” she recalled. “In fact, this document had done a better job of predicting what the world would be like after the pill than anything else of its time.”
“People think it is medieval that the Church banned contraception, even though recent surveys show the ‘paradox’ of declining female happiness over the past 40 years,” said Eberstadt.
“With all the gains they have made with increased freedom and financial independence and less discrimination, women are less happy now than 40 years ago. Sociologists can call it a ‘paradox,’ but it’s only a paradox if the sexual revolution makes you happy. What if it doesn’t? That’s the radical thought people should be ready to entertain,” she said.
The author echoed similar insights in her fictional, updated version of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: The Loser Letters. A satirical response to the “new atheists” movement, the 2010 novel is a bestseller for Ignatius Press.
Mark Brumley, the president of Ignatius Press, describes The Loser Letters as “a kind of apologetics in the area of social morality,” while the data-driven criticism of Adam and Eve offers “a first-rate analysis of the culture that penetrates a lot of the confusion.”
“You don’t have to be a Catholic to find this book interesting, and bringing her on board is part of our strategy of engaging the culture,” Brumley added.
Eberstadt is the mother of four children, married to the demographer and political economist Nicholas Eberstadt, who has long challenged the Malthusian doctrine of population control enthusiasts in a slew of important works and has since converted to Catholicism. Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
After graduating from Cornell, she worked for Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, and Eberstadt was inspired with her boss’ ability to “balance an intellectual and domestic life.”
She began working at magazines like Policy Review and The Public Interest, the neoconservative journal produced by the late Irving Kristol, “dubbed the godfather of the neo-conservative movement,” which arose partly in response to social upheaval of the 1960s.
Neo-conservatives have been described as “liberals who were mugged by reality.” Asked if she is a “neo-conservative,” Eberstadt expresses admiration for Kristol, and defines the “neo-con” label as expressing “a healthy skepticism of government intentions, social engineering, and also offering the greatest critique of the welfare state ever made.”
However, the author’s abiding passion is not political activism, but studying and writing about the cultural mores that have reconfigured the world in which her children live.
“Since the ’60s, any kind of critical thinking went underground. At some point I made a conscious decision that I would use what I had to shed light on what needed light,” she said.
Her unique and unpredictable perspective caught the eye of Joseph Bottum, then the editor of First Things, the journal on religious and public life founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus. A number of the essays in Adam and Eve were first published in some form in First Things.
“Mary has an interesting way of looking at the world,” Bottum said. “She is not trapped by the categories of normal analysis. The result is that she provides insights I read in no one else’s work.”
Adam and Eve After the Pill raises painful questions for political leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has challenged the validity of Catholic moral teaching as she advocates for expanded access to birth control.
More importantly, the research packed into Eberstadt’s book could help stiffen the spines of Cardinal Dolan’s brother bishops. The devastating social research provides grist for somber reflection in Sunday homilies, pre-Cana presentations and CCD textbooks.
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.