The Fourth Prophecy of Humanae Vitae: When Self-Mastery is Rejected
Birth Control is a name given to a succession of different expedients by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself.
— G.K. Chesterton
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This is one of the most famous lines from the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park. It’s spoken by Dr. Ian Malcolm, played brilliantly by Jeff Goldblum. It’s the final line of a remarkable little speech Dr. Malcom makes to billionaire John Hammond, the creator of the dinosaur park. “The lack of humility before nature here staggers me,” Dr. Malcolm first tells Hammond, after hearing of his grandiose plans. “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it.”
It might seem a bit flippant to begin a column on perhaps the most serious of Pope Paul VI’s four prophecies in the encyclical Humanae Vitae – the totalitarian imposition of birth control by governments – with a reference to Jurassic Park. And yet, Dr. Malcolm’s speech is packed with truth; rarely, indeed, has a Hollywood movie contained a more succinct and relevant indictment of some of the worst tendencies of our time.
Human beings have understandably become wholly enamoured of their technical prowess these past two centuries. We have conquered nature in ways that previous generations could not have even imagined was possible. And yet as humans have pivoted away from the ancient preoccupation with attaining wisdom in favor of the modern preoccupation with perfecting technique, we have increasingly run the risk of single-mindedly pursuing the possible, without taking the time to ask whether the possible thing is the right thing.
In Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI repeatedly sought to remind his peers that there is a deeper order in the universe than the natural sciences alone can discover, and that to violate this order carries with it unforeseen consequences. Some people, observed the pope, oppose the Church’s position against artificial birth control by arguing “that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man.” “To this question We must give a clear reply,” the pope responded. “The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.”
Elsewhere, he added: “Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.”
The Fourth Prophecy – Totalitarian Population Control
The English writer G.K. Chesterton expressed his opposition to contraception with this pungent aphorism: “What is quaintly called Birth Control . . . is in fact, of course, a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control.” In mentioning “control,” Chesterton was speaking of self-control. As he said elsewhere, “Normal and real birth control is called self-control.”
As I pointed out in a previous column, many of the problems that have followed in the wake of contraception stem from the way contraception has seemingly short-circuited the need for self-control. Contraception, as Pope Paul VI said, removes the “incentives to keep the moral law.” If doing so seems to offer a benefit to mankind, this “gift” is only apparent, since in the end the eradication of necessary limits and barriers sets loose the destructive force of human concupiscence.
This observation hearkens back to Dr. Malcolm’s speech quoted above: the problem with John Hammond’s hijacking of already extant biological technology to resurrect dinosaurs for profit is that it required no “discipline.” Hammond and his scientists didn’t have to wrestle deeply with the implications of the technology; they just took it, and did the possible regardless of its wisdom, with predictably disastrous consequences.
As we have seen these past three weeks, artificial contraception has embedded the principle of reaping short-term benefit by shirking responsibility and self-discipline as a fundamental axiom at every level of our society. In the process each of Pope Paul VI’s dire predictions have been proved true: beginning at the individual level with married couples, with the catastrophic increase of marital infidelity and divorce; spreading to a poisoning of the relations between all men and women in general, with women often being reduced to “instruments of pleasure”; and finally, in the whole of society, through a “general lowering of moral standards.”
However, Pope Paul VI also anticipated one last, even more far-reaching and pernicious consequence. With his far-seeing eye, the pope saw that if individual people widely embraced the poisonous logic of contraception – i.e. pursuing short-term benefits at the expense of violating God’s order – there was nothing stopping institutions and governments from doing precisely the same thing in pursuit of some ostensibly “beneficial” purpose. Hence, his fourth prophecy.
Speaking of the “power” of artificial contraception, the pope warned:
[C]areful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Pope Paul VI Proved Right (Again)
Once again, it seems scarcely necessary to “prove” how right the pope’s prophecy turned out to be. Unfortunately, however, thanks in part to the silence or outright complicity of much of the mainstream media, many people are still unaware of how widespread and utterly horrifying many of the coercive population control programs of the 20th and 21st century have been – nor how ubiquitous are ongoing Western efforts to foist “soft” coercive population control programs on Third World nations in exchange for funding.
At least since Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, so-called “progressive” experts have been predicting catastrophic plagues and famines on account of the world’s increasing population. Although Malthus’ arguments have since been thoroughly debunked, population hysteria reached its zenith in the 60s. Many nations, above all China and India, responded to this hysteria (as Pope Paul VI predicted) by implementing forced population control. These programs mandated that couples avoid having children by using contraception or submitting to forced sterilizations, or (most horrifying of all), submitting to forced abortions if they exceeded the allowable number of children.
The statistics are staggering. China’s government claims that their population control program has prevented the births of some 400 million people since 1980. This includes both abortions and children not born due to government-sponsored (and often forced) sterilizations. While it is impossible to gain clear statistics on how many of these abortions and sterilizations were forced as opposed to voluntary, the abortion numbers alone are mind-boggling. According to human rights activist Reggie Littlejohn, there are some 23 million abortions in China…every year. Many of these, undoubtedly, are by couples striving not to exceed the one child (now two-child) limit; and many are forcibly conducted on couples actively resisting. Additionally, according to The Economist, China’s government has collected two trillion yuan ($315 billion, £206bn) in fines for having extra children since 1980.
The main difficulty for anyone attempting to convey the horror perpetrated under China and India’s population control programs is the sheer magnitude of that horror. As Stalin is reputed to have said: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” I can recount story after story of pregnant women being kidnapped, beaten, and forcibly aborted up to nine-months gestation, with the bodies of their babies sometimes deposited next to them on their beds or in buckets, and none of these stories would come close to conveying the level of evil perpetrated by the governments of these nations against their own people.
But while China and India’s population control programs are the best known, according to population expert Steve Mosher, at least 35 countries have implemented similarly violent and coercive programs. Furthermore, this doesn’t take into account the “soft” coercion being routinely exercised by Western governments (including the United States) and hyper-wealthy foundations on numerous Third World countries, forcing them to accept contraceptive “aid” in exchange for other funding.
Under these purportedly “humanitarian” programs, trillions of dollars have been spent to eradicate families in the poorest parts of the world so that the West can maintain its own standard of life. While these programs allow Western governments and philanthropists to pat themselves on the backs for their good work, in reality they embody the worst of what Pope Francis has called “cultural colonization” – i.e. forcing practices on countries that violate their cultural values – and lazy, short-term thinking. Blanketing these countries with latex and hormonal pills seems to absolve Western elites of the responsibility to work to meaningfully improve the structures of influence that lead to poverty, or to build programs that lead to long-term economic development and authentic human development.
NFP: Discipline vs. License
Governments, like individuals, are tasked with the responsibility to “discipline” themselves to pursue the wise course, rather than do what is expedient. Protecting the rights of their citizens, combatting extreme poverty, eradicating crime, and providing equal opportunity for all are difficult goals. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, governments, like individuals, may be tempted to take the “shortcut,” the easiest “solution” involving the least amount of work, sacrifice, and thought.
As Chesterton put it memorably, for the birth control advocate, “The question he dreads is ‘Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?’ His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: ‘You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice, I will deprive myself of your children.'”
Pope Paul VI was aware that some people found it inconsistent that the Church sanctioned the use of Natural Family Planning, including for the deliberate purpose of postponing pregnancies, while forbidding artificial contraception. What’s the difference between the two cases, asked skeptics: in both cases, the goal is to avoid pregnancy. The pope’s response was two-fold: 1) The two cases are dramatically different in terms of the means chosen to achieve the desired end. In the one case, the couples are cooperating with mechanisms put in place by God himself, whereas in the second, the couple is introducing an obstructive and artificial mechanism. 2) In the case of NFP, the couple is relying on self-discipline to space births, whereas the contracepting couple is striving to skirt around the need for discipline in favor of license.
As any couple using NFP knows, abstinence can be difficult. It demands a commitment to a higher good, and the mechanism of abstinence in turn constantly encourages a couple to re-evaluate the reasons for their commitment to postponing another child. Contraception, on the other hand, encourages a mentality of complacency. As Dr. Malcolm warned, technology without discipline leads to disaster. “Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character,” notes Pope Paul VI. “And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings.”
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.