ago Humanae Vitae "prophesied" that marriages and society would
suffer if the use of contraception became widespread. Now the vast majority of spouses, as
well as those who are unmarried, use some form of contraception.
sure, the encyclical was not written to be a prophetic document. Rather, it was written to
be a clarifying document, intending to explain what the Church teaches about
contraception. The encyclical does present this teaching clearly, but it has been little
heeded during the last 25 years. Statistics show that few Catholics live by these
teachings, and it seems safe to suppose that few Catholics have read Humanae Vitae.
understand marriage as an elevated calling, whereby God enlists spouses in the
all-important enterprise of bringing forth new human life. The Church teaches that to use
contraception is to reject God and his life-giving blessings. The Church teaches not
merely that contraception is wrong, but that because contraception is wrong, it will have
Pope Paul VI
made four rather general "prophecies" about what would happen if the Church's
teaching on contraception were ignored.
first noted that the widespread use of contraception would "lead to conjugal
infidelity and the general lowering of morality." That there has been a widespread
decline in morality, especially sexual morality, in the last 25 years, is very difficult
to deny. The increase in the number of divorces, abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and
venereal diseases should convince any skeptic that sexual morality is not the strong suit
of our age.
There is no
question that contraception is behind much of this trouble. Contraception has made sexual
activity a much more popular option that it was when the fear of pregnancy deterred a
great number of young men and women from engaging in premarital sexual intercourse. The
availability of contraception has led them to believe that they can engage in premarital
sexual activity "responsibly." But teenagers are about as responsible in their
use of contraception as they are in all other phases of their livessuch as making
their beds, cleaning their rooms and getting their homework done on time.
2. Loss of Respect
Paul VI also
argued that "the man" will lose respect for "the woman" and "no
longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium" and will come to
"the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer
as his respected and beloved companion." This concern reflects what has come to be
known as a "personalist" understanding of morality. The personalist
understanding of wrongdoing is based upon respect for the dignity of the human person. The
Pope realized that the Church's teaching on contraception is designed to protect the good
of conjugal love. When spouses violate this good, they do not act in accord with their
innate dignity and thus they endanger their own happiness. Treating their bodies as
mechanical instruments to be manipulated for their own purposes, they risk treating each
other as objects of pleasure.
3. Abuse of Power
Paul VI also
observed that the widespread acceptance of contraception would place a "dangerous
weapon . . . in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral
exigencies." The history of the family-planning programs in the Third World is a
sobering testimony to this reality. In Third World countries many people undergo
sterilization unaware of what they are doing. The forced abortion program in China shows
the stark extreme toward which governments will take population programs. Moreover, few
people are willing to recognize the growing evidence that many parts of the world face not
overpopulation, but underpopulation. It will take years to reverse the
"anti-child" mentality now entrenched in many societies.
4. Misuse of the
Paul's final warning was that contraception would lead man to think that he had unlimited
dominion over his own body. Sterilization is now the most widely used form of
contraception in the U.S.; individuals are so convinced of their rights to control their
own bodies that they do not hesitate to alter even their own physical make-up.
desire for unlimited dominion over one's own body extends beyond contraception. The production of "test-tube babies" is
another indication of the refusal to accept the body's limitations; so too are euthanasia
and the use of organs transplanted from those who are "nearly" dead. We seek to
adjust the body to our desires and timetables, rather than adjusting ourselves to its
In Pope Paul made some positive predictions as well.
He acknowledged that spouses might have difficulty in acquiring the self-discipline
necessary to practice the methods of family planning that require periodic abstinence. But he taught that self-discipline was possible,
especially with the help of sacramental grace. In Section 21, he remarked:
discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human
value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and
wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such
discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and facilitates the
solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to
drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.
this passage is rarely studied, Pope John Paul II is one commentator who recognizes the
depth of its wisdom. It plays the central role in his reflections on ; he focuses on the
importance of "self-mastery" for the proper use of sexuality, and explains the
meaning of the human body and the human person as these bear upon sexuality.
Paul II has spoken of the Church's teaching on contraception as a part of the
"permanent patrimony" of the Faith. Twenty-five years of neglecting Humanae
Vitae have produced enough unpleasant consequences to help us recognize how foolish
and dangerous it is to squander that patrimony.
Janet Smith is
Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas.
Copyright 1988 Janet Smith. All