On July 25, 1968 a respected world leader published a document predicting grave social consequences if a certain new drug were to be approved. His document set off international outrage, but all of what he said has come to pass. I was seven years old, the fourth of six children in a happy home. The American family was strong, with few divorces and many healthy children. Pornography was considered despicable and children played in the streets without fear. Fifty years before the #MeToo movement, this world leader predicted the exploitation of women, widespread divorce, and a general lowering of morality, if we chose to use the drug that had recently been developed.
The drug was the hormonal contraceptive pill, and Pope Paul VI was the world leader. The widespread use of contraception, he said in his encyclical Humanae vitae, will “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards…. A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to a mere instrument … of his desires.…” The pope’s prescience is certainly remarkable, a clarity inspired by God. At a time when cultural trendsetters were convinced that the contraceptive pill would strengthen marriage and liberate women, Paul VI foresaw the weakening of family life and disrespect for women from which we now suffer. Actually, he had only to consider the Soviet Union, which had legalized contraception forty years before. Today, Russia’s divorce rate is still an unbelievable 90%. The average Russian woman has had eight abortions, and most Russian children do not know who their father is. The Soviet Union was certain to collapse, because as goes the family, so goes society.
Everyone Condemned Contraception until 1930
The Bible condemns contraception; St. Augustine condemned contraception in the fourth century; Thomas Aquinas condemned contraception in the thirteenth century; Martin Luther in the sixteenth century as did every Christian theologian until 1930, when the Anglicans became the first in history to approve its limited use. The divorce rate in America that year was 15%. By 1968, when virtually all religions but Catholicism had accepted contraception, the divorce rate had doubled to 30%. Today, almost everyone contracepts, and the divorce rate is 50%, but in fact less than half of Americans are even getting married. “Modern contraception is not only a fact of our time; it may even be the central fact; it is hard to think of any other [innovation] whose demographic, social, behavioral, and personal fallout has been as profound” writes author Mary Eberstadt.
Has the sexual revolution delivered on its promises to liberate women, to bring love and peace to the world, and to strengthen society? On this, the 50th anniversary of his prophetic encyclical, we should listen carefully to the vicar of Christ; he teaches that the mystery of human love is revealed only within the natural laws of God. To begin with, contraception is unnatural: what other creature in the natural world contracepts the reproductive act? But beyond nature, contraception denies the supernatural meaning of the marital act. It tosses God’s gift of co-creation back in His face. The fullness of human love is meant to transcend the present; it is meant to express itself into the future in new life—even into eternity, when an immortal soul is created at conception. Contra-ception steals love’s tomorrow. I think of my mother and father, enfeebled by old age, dependent on the love now of their six children. How terrible to have contracepted or aborted the children God meant to give you in life! What a lonely death a woman would face had she no children to help her through the last part of her life!
In response to the errors of the Anglican church in 1930, Pope Pius IX published Casti Connubii that same year: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature.” We frustrate our love when we sterilize it. One woman or one man cannot meet my need to love and be loved. It takes a family, a big family, because I need lots of love. Contraception is designed to limit our families. It limits the family’s potential to provide that love we all need.
The Good News
The good news is that every marriage has to potential to provide the enduring love we all crave. Statistically, spouses that do not contracept almost never divorce. Most of us do not know about these marriages, because the sexual revolution has shouted down the Gospel for the 50 years. But there are signs that people are fed up with the false promises of the “summer of love.” Some young people are turning back to the perennial teachings of Jesus, transmitted through the Catholic Church. I know of many families that have never contracepted. Happiness has not been easy for them, but it has been possible. Fifty years after their wedding day, most of them will be more deeply in love than ever. Their adult children will be able to say to their own children that the man sitting next to my mother is my father. There is no reason more families cannot be like these families. Your homework is to read Pope Paul’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. I first read it at age 21, when I had been dating a lovely young lady for two years. It speaks not primarily about birth control but about human life and human love. It gave me great hope and joy upon that first reading, and I would like you to have that same joy in knowing that God has created us for greater things—to love and to be loved. We can find authentic love in this life, if we learn to trust God and follow His precepts for the great gift of Christian marriage.