Humanae Vitae and Artificial Contraception
Fifty years ago, a Papal encyclical forbade the use of artificial contraception. How relevant is that document today? July 29th marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. You don’t have to fully agree with the encyclical’s stance on artificial contraception to appreciate its spot-on analysis of the sexual revolution and its consequences. In fact, it’s no stretch to call this document “prophetic” in many respects. The document begins by saying something every Christians should agree with: “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.” And then, it recognizes what it calls a “remarkable development”: “man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature (has reached the) point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life,” including the laws “that regulate the transmission of life.” Humanae Vitae was prompted by the collision of the historical Christian view of marriage and childbirth, and the view that emerged from the intersection of medical technology and the sexual revolution. The latter resulted in the divorce of sex, marriage, and procreation. In 1968, the expectation in many circles, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, was that the Christian view would succumb to the new modern ideology. But instead, Pope Paul VI surprised many when he affirmed nearly two millennia of Christian teaching on the subject. Now note I said “Christian,” not “Catholic.” For 1900 years, all Christians—Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox—condemned artificial birth control. Martin Luther called contraception a manifestation of the wickedness of fallen human nature. In his Commentary on Genesis, John Calvin wrote, “When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime.” In 1930 at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion opened the door to artificial contraception. It attempted to hedge its bets by condemning it when used “for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” but that attempt just ended up being futile. By 1968, the contraceptive mentality had taken over our culture. Even those who disagree with Paul VI’s rejection of contraception, must still acknowledge that his prediction of where the contraceptive mentality would take us was quite accurate. Experience, Paul VI wrote, teaches us that “human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law.” But artificial contraception offered incentive to break that law. The result, Humanae Vitae predicted, would be increased “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Men “may forget the reverence due to a woman and . . . reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires…” Countless victims of the sexual revolution have proven Paul VI right. Finally, he warned that governments, in furtherance of some “greater good,” may actually impose contraception on an entire population. Again, countries like China, India, and others have done exactly what Humanae Vitae predicted they would. We’ve asked a number of scholars to weigh in on the ongoing legacy of Humanae Vitae and the consequences of the sexual revolution. Come to BreakPoint.org today to view this, our latest symposium. We must, in this cultural moment, re-imagine sexuality as God intended, not as the sexual revolution corrupted it. As Christians, we must recommit to living faithfully to a Christian vision of sex, procreation, and marriage—as strange is it may seem to progressive ears. Again, come to BreakPoint.org for our symposium on Huamanae Vitae.