Humanae Vitae’s First Prophecy and the Beauty of Marriage
Pope Paul VI Re-Affirms Church Teaching on Inherent Dignity of Marriage
“False teachers, many belonging to an intellectual elite in the worlds of science, culture and the media, present an anti-gospel…When you ask them, “What must I do?” their only certainty is that there is no definite truth, no sure path….Consciously or not, they advocate an approach to life that has led millions of young people into a sad loneliness, in which they are deprived of reasons for hope and are incapable of real love.”
— Pope Saint John Paul II, Address to Young People in Manila, Philippines, January 14, 1995
These days, many people tend to interpret any prohibition whatsoever as a repressive encroachment upon their personal autonomy. Not only is this wrong-headed, but it is completely self-defeating. While some prohibitions can be unjust and repressive, many others are true and just. Not only are these not repressive, they are in fact liberating. Just as mastering the rules of perspective allowed Raphael to paint his masterpiece, The School of Athens, so too can mastering the moral laws allow us to create the ultimate masterpiece of a virtuous life. On the other hand, to contravene or seek to “transcend” those rules does not lead to more freedom: it leads only to anarchy and misery.
When Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, the world immediately interpreted it as a gigantic “no.” At a time when the whole world was ecstatically embracing the new forms of artificial contraception – especially the seemingly miraculous birth control pill – many, including a large percentage of Catholics, looked to the Church to change its teachings to align with technological and so-called societal progress.
Instead, it seemed to many, that Pope Paul VI stubbornly turned his back on progress. According to this interpretation, Humanae Vitae is, quite simply, the encyclical that refused to allow Catholics the freedom to use contraception. Or more bluntly, it is the encyclical that has kept the Church in the “dark ages,” clinging to a gloomy view of sex, based upon arbitrary and authoritarian moralizing.
Humanae Vitae: An All-Encompassing “Yes” to a Love
But that’s not how Pope Paul VI understood what he was doing. On the contrary, he quite obviously believed that the “no” that he re-affirmed (the Church has been saying the same thing for 2000+ years) in Humanae Vitae was couched within a “yes” to something far greater and beautiful: an anthropology and theology of marriage that grant to marriage and married couples a dignity, value and calling far surpassing the understanding of the world.
Our age tends to view marriage as a temporary union of persons oriented towards the gratification of various more or less noble desires (personal fulfillment, companionship, sexual pleasure, etc.). Within this view, a marriage need only endure as long as it continues to serve those purposes. Children, also, are shoe-horned into this paradigm: something to be chosen under ideal circumstances as part of the couple’s “journey” of personal discovery and self-actualization.
Compare that view of marriage to the one expressed by Pope Paul VI in paragraph 9 of Humanae Vitae. Speaking of the love to which husband and wife are called, the pope wrote:
It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.
“A love which is total.” A love like this, modeled on the wholly selfless love of God for us, cannot be self-contained. If, as the Gospel of John says, God is Love, then love is the creative force of the universe. Insofar as married couples mirror that love in their own lives, so too will their relationships participate in God’s creative powers. That greatest of human loves, that between a husband and wife, is also innately oriented outwards, towards creation. As Pope Paul VI wrote, married love “is fecund… it is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”
The problem of contraception, wrote Pope Paul VI, is that by separating the unitive and procreative ends of sexuality, couples “act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality – and with it themselves and their married partner – by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.” To love totally in marriage means not withholding the fertile part of being a man or woman; that is, the wife gives all of her femininity and the husband gives all of his masculinity. Should one or both resort to contraception (employing the contraceptive mentality), they would be withdrawing their fertility from the self-giving. They would not be giving their all to each other. Such an action not only makes procreation impossible – preventing cooperation with God in life-giving love – but also damages the bonds of love – harming the unitive, love-giving end.
It is no surprise that many marriages are weak because of the use of contraception. Every time that a married couple uses contraception they withhold love from one another. The marital embrace then becomes solely focused on gratification and is not the self-giving, unifying, and potentially fruitful act that God created it to be.
The Four Prophecies
Paragraph 17 of Humanae Vitae is perhaps the most famous paragraph. In this paragraph Pope Paul VI predicts the consequences for couples and society on the whole should contraception become normative. Many commentators have referred to these as the “four prophecies” of Humanae Vitae, all of which were dismissed as mere fear-mongering by most of the pope’s contemporaries, but all of which have come startlingly true.
Contraception would lead, said the pope, to:
- an increase in marital infidelity
- a “general lowering of morality”
- men increasingly using women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment” rather than as cherished partners
- an imposition of contraception by unscrupulous governments
Over the next few weeks, I will examine each of these prophecies in greater depth. Let us briefly look at the first.
An Increase in Marital Infidelity
At face value, verifying whether this first prophecy has come true is difficult: there simply don’t exist any reliable statistics on rates of marital infidelity, especially over time. This is hardly surprising. People, it turns out, are extremely reticent to admit being unfaithful to their spouses, even to researchers in an anonymous survey. This makes it difficult to correlate rates of contraception use with rates of marital infidelity.
But this difficulty is only apparent. Because, in fact, we have a mass of other information pointing to a catastrophic sea-change in the stability of marriages and the cultural normalization of adultery. Before the legalization of divorce in the 1960s, could any of us have imagined the creation of websites and services dedicated solely to facilitating adultery? Now, however, they are shamelessly advertised on street corners, public transit, and during commercial breaks on TV.
Furthermore, even if we did have reliable statistics about how many married people have been unfaithful over the past number of decades, those statistics would be hopelessly complicated by the fact that what was long been considered a clear case of “infidelity” – i.e. leaving one’s marriage and starting a new long-term sexual relationship with a person other than one’s spouse – is now just a common and socially acceptable practice. We call it “divorce.”
And we do have solid statistics on the rates of divorce in the U.S. As this graph shows, there was a spike in divorce rates beginning in the mid 1960s. That happens to coincide with the Supreme Court’s 1965 ruling that it was unconstitutional for government to prohibit married couples from using contraception. Divorce rates continued to climb up to the 1980s, as the ideology of the sexual revolution spread, and contraception use also increased. This brought in its wake a host of deleterious consequences, not least of which is that a huge number of children now grow up in single-parent households, or are shuffled around from one parent to another.
While people have pointed to a decrease in divorce rates since the mid-1980s as a sign of improvement, unfortunately they are missing the elephant in the living room: namely, that one significant reason for the decrease in divorce is that far fewer people are getting married in the first place. The graph mentioned above shows divorce rates and marriage rates falling in tandem, beginning in the early 1980s. That makes sense. If you never get married, you can’t get divorced. But this is hardly good news. It just means that the pornified, low-commitment, easy-sex culture has reached such a nadir that people see no need to even attempt a life-long, exclusive relationship. Instead of getting married, many couples opt for co-habiting. But on this front the statistics are also clear: co-habitation is inherently far more unstable than marriage, with many people engaging in serial co-habitation over time. Does such serial co-habitation constitute “infidelity”?
In the end, Pope Paul VI’s first prophecy came far truer than perhaps he himself knew it would: not only did marital infidelity significantly increase, but things have now gone so far that we have re-defined and institutionalized infidelity, removing the stigma and presenting it as just one acceptable option among many. There is no doubt in my mind that the redefinition of the purpose of sexuality created by easy access of contraception – away from sex as oriented towards procreation, to sex as primarily a means of self-gratification – has contributed mightily to the situation we find ourselves in. Next week, we will look at the second prophecy.
More from Fr. Boquet’s series on Humanae Vitae:
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.