Maureen Dowd has a winner, this week’s most emailed opinion column from the NY Times, her attack on the Catholic Church called “The Nuns’ Story.”
In 2004, the cardinal who would become Pope Benedict XVI wrote a Vatican document urging women to be submissive partners, resisting any adversarial roles with men and cultivating “feminine values” like “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.”
Nuns need to be even more sepia-toned for the über-conservative pope, who was christened “God’s Rottweiler” for his enforcement of orthodoxy. Once a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth, Benedict pardoned a schismatic bishop who claimed that there was no Nazi gas chamber. He also argued on a trip to Africa that distributing condoms could make the AIDS crisis worse.
Nice. At another point in the article she takes another shot at the Church over condom distribution: Maybe the church shouldn’t be so obdurate on condoms.
There are so many things wrong with the article I can only choose two to respond to. The first relates to the Pope’s comments on condoms and AIDS that Dwight G. Duncan, a professor at Southern New England School Of Law, addressed in column titled Piling On The Pope.
“On the plane taking him to Africa for the first time as pope, Benedict XVI fielded some questions last week from reporters, including one about the spread of AIDS there and whether the position of the Catholic Church was unrealistic and ineffective. The Pope said that he would say the opposite, that “the scourge [of AIDS] cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality; in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness — even through personal sacrifice — to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.”
Western media pundits reacted like Dracula when confronted by a crucifix: The New York Times dogmatically pontificated: “Grievously wrong! ‘There is no evidence that condom use is aggravating the epidemic and considerable evidence that condoms, though no panacea, can be helpful in many circumstances.” A Washington Post “Catholic” commentator headed his column, “Impeach the Pope,” and stated, “the cardinal sin of the Catholic Church — a literally deadly sin, if ever there was one — is its opposition to birth control.” The National Catholic Reporter ran a story headlined, “Gay Catholic Groups Condemn Pope’s Statements in Africa on Condom Use,” and quoted the communications director of Call to Action as saying:
“To this day, the Vatican bans the use of condoms by Catholics, This is just morally wrong.”
Condoms, it turns out, are a sacred cow. Condom is King. The modern secular dogma is that sex is all about having fun, and that the possibility of having children as a consequence, or contracting a serious life-threatening disease, needs to be nipped in the bud by a flexible shield of body armor that could easily be mistaken for a balloon. Problem is, life is more complicated than that. Sex is deep and mysterious and intrinsically related to life and death and love and selfishness. It’s not all fun and games and can’t be fixed with a rubber band-aid. So when the pope suggests that condoms aren’t the answer he must be shouted down, even or especially when what he says is true.
Dr. Edward C. Green, author of five books and over 250 peer-reviewed articles, is the director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. He is not a Catholic, but an agnostic. He told National Review Online last week that “the Pope is correct; or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments…Condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”
There is, Green says, a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.” I can understand this: how often a diet soda will give me an excuse to indulge in potato chips or chocolates or whatever!
Green continued: “The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV infection rates…” This is what the pope called “the humanization of sexuality in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another.” As Dr. Green wrote in First Things last April, “Christian churches — indeed, most faith communities — have a comparative advantage in promoting the needed types of behavior change, since these behaviors conform to their moral, ethical, and scriptural teachings. ‘What the churches are inclined to do anyway turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention.”
On March 10, Pope Benedict published a letter to bishops concerning the remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrite bishops, another recent instance of the media piling on the pope. In it, he commented on the reaction of some who “openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock….: an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than the present moment.”
He mentioned St. Paul’s advice in Galatians 5:13-15, “surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment:
‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.’.. .Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority; which is love?” The same comment could be made about the current contretemps over condoms.”
The second is much broader, the implicit rejection (not only by Dowd but by overwhelming numbers within and without the Church) to Humanae Vitae, the encyclical by Paul VI that celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and wrote this then and if you didn’t get a chance to read it then, pass through some of these Reading Selections and review it now. As Archbishop Chaput has commented, if Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself: Much of this is devastating to Dowd’s cynical commentary but until Cafeteria Catholics begin practicing the Theology of the Body and living a Catholic sexuality, it is no surprise that she probably has a large number of Americans who probably agree with her.
This is what we, as Catholics, need to tell her and to live the truth of:
To be human means to be-in-relation, to be-with. Even more pointedly, it is something which is radically from others. It is essential that we recognize our real relationality, a truth often obscured by classical theology which, following Boethius, stressed the radical individuality of persons (the human being is an “individual substance of a rational nature”). This truth has also been forgotten by much modern thought since the Enlightenment, which stressed the freedom, rights and autonomy of the individual human subject. What and who my real “self” is, is a mystery which is constituted by the mystery of others.
This means that my humanity is something always profoundly greater, even other, than I am. Sexual differentiation highlights this. Scholars in a variety of disciplines have begun to take seriously what the poets and song writers have always told us: men and women seem to experience and understand reality in some remarkably different ways. Christian theology has tended to ignore this, treating human “nature” independently of its sexual concretization. While there is much that we can say about being human which is true about both men and women, perhaps we are only now beginning to realize that there is much which cannot be said quite so simply. Each of us, male or female, must realize the fact that there is another mode and experience of being human which is different from, and not reducible to, one’s own. There is another way of being human which remains inaccessibly mysterious.
Therefore, no human being can claim to experience or understand the mystery of what it means to be human only from his or her humanity. The real humanity of each person, male or female, is something that points beyond itself to a real other. This is a paradox. Male and female are not simply accidental characteristics of human being; neither are they two different creatures. They are irreducibly different in one humanity.
This, it seems to me, expresses something of the mystery of God and about our relationship with God. The mystery of the sexually other human is a symbol of the absolute mystery of God’s other-ness and of our relatedness to and transcendence towards God as our final personal wholeness and fulfillment. Our humanity is essentially ecstatic, other-directed. We are whole and entire only in our relationships with others: both human others and with God, that divine Other.
From The Christian View of Humanity by John Sachs
The above is Catholic Truth.
Reading Selections from The Vindication of Humanae Vitae by Mary Eberstadt
That Humanae Vitae and related Catholic teachings about sexual morality are laughingstocks in all the best places is not exactly news. Even in the benighted precincts of believers, where information from the outside world is known to travel exceedingly slowly, everybody grasps that this is one doctrine the world loves to hate. During Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States, hardly a story in the secular press failed to mention the teachings of Humanae Vitae, usually alongside adjectives like “divisive” and “controversial” and “outdated.” In fact, if there’s anything on earth that unites the Church’s adversaries — all of them except for the Muslims, anyway — the teaching against contraception is probably it.
To many people, both today and when the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968, the notion simply defies understanding. Consenting adults, told not to use birth control? Preposterous. Third World parents deprived access to contraception and abortion? Positively criminal. A ban on condoms when there’s a risk of contracting AIDS? Beneath contempt.
“The execration of the world,” in philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s phrase, was what Paul VI incurred with that document — to which the years since 1968 have added plenty of just plain ridicule. Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”
Cafeteria Catholics and Humanae Vitae
As everyone also knows, it’s not only the Church’s self-declared adversaries who go in for this sort of sport. So, too, do many American and European Catholics — specifically, the ones often called dissenting or cafeteria Catholics, and who more accurately might be dubbed the “Catholic Otherwise Faithful.” I may be Catholic, but I’m not a maniac about it, runs their unofficial subtext — meaning: I’m happy to take credit for enlightened Catholic positions on the death penalty/social justice/civil rights, but of course I don’t believe in those archaic teachings about divorce/homosexuality/and above all birth control.
Thus FOX News host Sean Hannity, for example, describes himself to viewers as a “good” and “devout” Catholic — one who happens to believe, as he has also said on the air, that “contraception is good.” He was challenged on his show in 2007 by Father Tom Euteneuer of Human Life International, who observed that such a position emanating from a public figure technically fulfilled the requirements for something called heresy. And Hannity reacted as many others have when stopped in the cafeteria line. He objected that the issue of contraception was “superfluous” compared to others; he asked what right the priest had to tell him what to do (“judge not lest you be judged,” Hannity instructed); and he expressed shock at the thought that anyone might deprive him of taking Communion just because he was deciding for himself what it means to be Catholic.
A Modern Morality Tale
“He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh,” the Psalmist promises, specifically in a passage about enjoying vindication over one’s adversaries. If that is so, then the racket on this fortieth anniversary must be prodigious. Four decades later, not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratified in empirical force, but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.
Forty years later, there are more than enough ironies, both secular and religious, to make one swear there’s a humorist in heaven.
The Four Warnings
Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae‘s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends:
1. A general lowering of moral standards throughout society;
2. A rise in infidelity;
3. A lessening of respect for women by men; and
4. The coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.
In the years since Humanae Vitae‘s appearance, numerous distinguished Catholic thinkers have argued, using a variety of evidence, that each of these predictions has been borne out by the social facts. One thinks, for example, of Monsignor George A. Kelly in his 1978 “Bitter Pill the Catholic Community Swallowed” and of the many contributions of Janet E. Smith, including Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the edited volume Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader.
An Irony Within An Irony
Although it is largely Catholic thinkers who have connected the latest empirical evidence to the defense of Humanae Vitae‘s predictions, during those same forty years most of the experts actually producing the empirical evidence have been social scientists operating in the secular realm. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox emphasized in a 2005 essay: “The leading scholars who have tackled these topics are not Christians, and most of them are not political or social conservatives. They are, rather, honest social scientists willing to follow the data wherever it may lead.”
Consider, as Wilcox does, the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof. In a well-known 1996 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Akerlof explained in the language of modern economics why the sexual revolution — contrary to common prediction, especially prediction by those in and out of the Church who wanted the teaching on birth control changed — had led to an increase in both illegitimacy and abortion. In another work published in the Economic Journal ten years ago, he traced the empirical connections between the decrease in marriage and married fatherhood for men — both clear consequences of the contraceptive revolution — and the simultaneous increase in behaviors to which single men appear more prone: substance abuse, incarceration, and arrests, to name just three.
Along the way, Akerlof found a strong connection between the diminishment of marriage on the one hand and the rise in poverty and social pathology on the other. He explained his findings in nontechnical terms in Slate magazine: Although doubt will always remain about what causes a change in social custom, the technology-shock theory does fit the facts. The new reproductive technology was adopted quickly, and on a massive scale. Marital and fertility patterns changed with similar drama, at about the same time.
Negative Effects On Children And Society
To these examples of secular social science confirming what Catholic thinkers had predicted, one might add many more demonstrating the negative effects on children and society. The groundbreaking work that Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in 1965, on the black family, is an example — along with the critical research of psychologist Judith Wallerstein over several decades on the impact of divorce on children; Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s well-known work on the outcomes of single parenthood for children; Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur’s seminal book, Growing Up with a Single Parent; and David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America, another lengthy summarization of the bad empirical news about family breakup.
Numerous other books followed this path of analyzing the benefits of marriage, including James Q. Wilson’s The Marriage Problem, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, Kay Hymowitz’s Marriage and Caste in America, and Elizabeth Marquardt’s recent Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. To this list could be added many more examples of how the data have grown and grown to support the proposition that the sexual revolution has been resulting in disaster for large swaths of the country — a proposition further honed by whole decades of examination of the relation between public welfare and family dysfunction (particularly in the pages of the decidedly not-Catholic Public Interest magazine). Still other seminal works have observed that private actions, notably post-revolution sexual habits, were having massive public consequences; Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption come especially to mind.
All this is to say that, beginning just before the appearance of Humanae Vitae, an academic and intellectual rethinking began that can no longer be ignored — one whose accumulation of empirical evidence points to the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution on many adults and children. And even in the occasional effort to draw a happy face on current trends, there is no glossing over what are still historically high rates of family breakup and unwed motherhood….In sum, although a few apologists such as Stephanie Coontz still insist otherwise, just about everyone else in possession of the evidence acknowledges that the sexual revolution has weakened family ties, and that family ties (the presence of a biologically related mother and father in the home) have turned out to be important indicators of child well-being — and more, that the broken home is not just a problem for individuals but also for society. Some scholars, moreover, further link these problems to the contraceptive revolution itself.
Contraception Causes Abortion
Consider the work of maverick sociobiologist Lionel Tiger. Hardly a cat’s-paw of the pope — he describes religion as “a toxic issue” — Tiger has repeatedly emphasized the centrality of the sexual revolution to today’s unique problems. The Decline of Males, his 1999 book, was particularly controversial among feminists for its argument that female contraceptives had altered the balance between the sexes in disturbing new ways (especially by taking from men any say in whether they could have children).
Equally eyebrow-raising is his linking of contraception to the breakdown of families, female impoverishment, trouble in the relationship between the sexes, and single motherhood. Tiger has further argued — as Humanae Vitae did not explicitly, though other works of Catholic theology have — for a causal link between contraception and abortion, stating outright that “with effective contraception controlled by women, there are still more abortions than ever. . . . Contraception causes abortion.” (See PayingAttentionToTheSky here)
The Population Bomb: Discredited Overpopulation Science
Just as empirical evidence has proved that the sexual revolution has had disastrous effects on children and families, so the past forty years have destroyed the mantle called “science” that Humanae Vitae‘s detractors once wrapped round themselves. In particular, the doomsday population science so popular and influential during the era in which Humanae Vitae appeared has been repeatedly demolished.
Born from Thomas Robert Malthus’ famous late-eighteenth-century Essay on Population, this was the novel view that humanity itself amounted to a kind of scourge or pollution whose pressure on fellow members would lead to catastrophe. Though rooted in other times and places, Malthusianism of one particular variety was fully in bloom in America by the early 1960s. In fact, Humanae Vitae appeared two months before the most successful popularization of Malthusian thinking yet, Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb — which opened with the words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
If, as George Weigel has suggested, 1968 was absolutely the worst moment for Humanae Vitae to appear, it could not have been a better one for Ehrlich to advance his apocalyptic thesis. An entomologist who specialized in butterflies, Ehrlich found an American public, including a generation of Catholics, extraordinarily receptive to his direst thoughts about humanity.
This was the wave that The Population Bomb caught on its way to becoming one of the bestsellers of recent times. Of course, many people with no metaphysics whatsoever were drawn to Ehrlich’s doom-mongering. But for restless Catholics, in particular, the overpopulation scare was attractive — for if overpopulation were the problem, the solution was obvious: Tell the Church to lift the ban on birth control.
It is less than coincidental that the high-mindedness of saving the planet dovetailed perfectly with a more self-interested outcome, the freer pursuit of sexuality via the Pill. Dissenting Catholics had special reasons to stress the “science of overpopulation,” and so they did. In the name of a higher morality, their argument went, birth control could be defended as the lesser of two evils (a position argued by the dissenter Charles Curran, among others).
Less than half a century later, these preoccupations with overwhelming birth rates appear as pseudo-scientific as phrenology. Actually, that may be unfair to phrenology. For the overpopulation literature has not only been abandoned by thinkers for more improved science; it has actually been so thoroughly proved false that today’s cutting-edge theory worries about precisely the opposite: a “dearth birth” that is “graying” the advanced world.
Overpopulation Science: A Grotesque Error
In fact, so discredited has the overpopulation science become that this year Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly could publish Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population and garner a starred review in Publishers Weekly — all in service of what is probably the single best demolition of the population arguments that some hoped would undermine church teaching. This is all the more satisfying a ratification because Connelly is so conscientious in establishing his own personal antagonism toward the Catholic Church (at one point asserting without even a footnote that natural family planning “still fails most couples who try it”).
Fatal Misconception is decisive proof that the spectacle of overpopulation, which was used to browbeat the Vatican in the name of science, was a grotesque error all along. First, Connelly argues, the population-control movement was wrong as a matter of fact: “The two strongest claims population controllers make for their long-term historical contribution” are “that they raised Asia out of poverty and helped keep our planet habitable.” Both of these, he demonstrates, are false.
Even more devastating is Connelly’s demolition of the claim to moral high ground that the overpopulation alarmists made. For population science was not only failing to help people, Connelly argues, but also actively harming some of them — and in a way that summoned some of the baser episodes of recent historical memory:
The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they knew it themselves. . . . The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the “unfit,” or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to people with power because, with the spread of emancipatory movements, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That is why opponents were essentially correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished business of imperialism.
Coercive Contraceptive Technology
The forty years since Humanae Vitae appeared have also vindicated the encyclical’s fear that governments would use the new contraceptive technology coercively. The outstanding example, of course, is the Chinese government’s long-running “one-child policy,” replete with forced abortions, public trackings of menstrual cycles, family flight, increased female infanticide, sterilization, and other assaults too numerous even to begin cataloguing here — in fact, so numerous that they are now widely, if often grudgingly, acknowledged as wrongs even by international human-rights bureaucracies. Lesser-known examples include the Indian government’s foray into coercive use of contraception in the “emergency” of 1976 and 1977, and the Indonesian government’s practice in the 1970s and 1980s of the bullying implantation of IUDs and Norplant.
Should governments come to “regard this as necessary,” Humanae Vitae warned, “they may even impose their use on everyone.” As with the unintended affirmation by social science, will anyone within the ranks of the population revisionists now give credit where credit is due?
Deforming Relations Between The Sexes
Perhaps the most mocked of Humanae Vitae‘s predictions was its claim that separating sex from procreation would deform relations between the sexes and “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Today, when advertisements for sex scream from every billboard and webpage, and every teen idol is sooner or later revealed topless or worse online, some might wonder what further proof could possibly be offered.
But to leave matters there would be to miss something important. The critical point is, one might say, not so much the proof as the pudding it’s in. And it would be hard to get more ironic than having these particular predictions of Humanae Vitae vindicated by perhaps the most unlikely — to say nothing of unwilling — witness of all: modern feminism.
Yet that is exactly what has happened since 1968. From Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer on up through Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, feminist literature has been a remarkably consistent and uninterrupted cacophony of grievance, recrimination, and sexual discontent. In that forty-year record, we find, as nowhere else, personal testimony of what the sexual revolution has done to womankind.
Consider just what we have been told by the endless books on the topic over the years. If feminists married and had children, they lamented it. If they failed to marry or have children, they lamented that, too. If they worked outside the home and also tended their children, they complained about how hard that was. If they worked outside the home and didn’t tend their children, they excoriated anyone who thought they should. And running through all this literature is a more or less constant invective about the unreliability and disrespect of men.
The signature metaphors of feminism say everything we need to know about how happy liberation has been making these women: the suburban home as concentration camp, men as rapists, children as intolerable burdens, fetuses as parasites, and so on. These are the sounds of liberation? Even the vaunted right to abortion, both claimed and exercised at extraordinary rates, did not seem to mitigate the misery of millions of these women after the sexual revolution.
Coming full circle, feminist and Vanity Fair contributor Leslie Bennetts recently published a book urging women to protect themselves financially and otherwise from dependence on men, including from men deserting them later in life. Mothers cannot afford to stay home with their children, she argues, because they cannot trust their men not to leave them. (One of her subjects calls desertion and divorce “the slaughter of the lambs.”) Like-minded feminist Linda Hirschman penned a ferocious and widely read manifesto in 2005 urging, among other bitter “solutions,” that women protect themselves by adopting — in effect — a voluntary one-child policy. (She argued that a second child often necessitates a move to the suburbs, which puts the office and work-friendly conveniences further away).
Woman (Hear Me Roar) And The Unreliable Man
Beneath all the pathos, the subtext remains the same: Woman’s chief adversary is Unreliable Man, who does not understand her sexual and romantic needs and who walks off time and again at the first sashay of a younger thing. What are all these but the generic cries of a woman who thinks that men are “disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium” and “no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection”?
Perhaps the most compelling case made for traditional marriage lately was not on the cover of, say, Catholic World Report but in the devoutly secular Atlantic. The 2008 article “Marry Him!” by Lori Gottlieb — a single mother who conceived her only child with donor sperm rather than miss out on motherhood as she has on marriage — is a frank and excruciatingly personal look into some of the sexual revolution’s lonelier venues, including the creation of children by anonymous or absent sperm donors, the utter corrosiveness of taking a consumerist approach to romance, and the miserable effects of advancing age on one’s sexual marketability.
Gottlieb writes as one who played by all the feminist rules, only to realize too late that she’d been had. Beneath the zippy language, the article runs on an engine of mourning. Admitting how much she covets the husbands of her friends, if only for the wistful relief of having someone else help with the childcare, Gottlieb advises: “Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality. We forget that we, too, will age and become less alluring. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children. Which is all the more reason to settle before settling is no longer an option.”
The Pill’s Bastard Child: Pornography
To these and other examples of how feminist-minded writers have become inadvertent witnesses for the prosecution of the sexual revolution, we might add recent public reflection on the Pill’s bastard child, ubiquitous pornography.
“The onslaught of porn,” one social observer wrote, “is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’” Further, “sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity. . . . If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so.” And perhaps most shocking of all, this — which with just a little tweaking could easily have appeared in Humanae Vitae itself: “The power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time.”
This was not some religious antiquarian. It was Naomi Wolf — Third Wave feminist and author of such works as The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities, which are apparently dedicated to proving that women can tomcat, too. Yet she is now just one of many out there giving testimony, unconscious though it may be, to some of the funny things that happened after the Pill freed everybody from sexual slavery once and for all.
That there is no auxiliary literature of grievance for men — who, for the most part, just don’t seem to feel they have as much to grieve about in this new world order — is something else that Humanae Vitae and a few other retrograde types saw coming in the wake of the revolution. As the saying goes, and as many people did not stop to ask at the time, cui bono? Forty years later, the evidence is in. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver observed on Humanae Vitae‘s thirtieth anniversary in 1998, “Contraception has released males — to a historically unprecedented degree — from responsibility for their sexual aggression.” Will any feminist who by 2008 disagrees with that statement please stand up?
The Lambeth Conference Of 1930 And The Rise Of The Modern Gay-Rights Movement
The adversaries of Humanae Vitae also could not have foreseen one important historical development that in retrospect would appear to undermine their demands that the Catholic Church change with the times: the widespread Protestant collapse, particularly the continuing implosion of the Episcopal Church and the other branches of Anglicanism. It is about as clear as any historical chain can get that this implosion is a direct consequence of the famous Lambeth Conference in 1930, at which the Anglicans abandoned the longstanding Christian position on contraception. If a church cannot tell its flock “what to do with my body,” as the saying goes, with regard to contraception, then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.
It makes perfect if unfortunate sense, then, that the Anglicans are today imploding over the issue of homosexuality. To quote Anscombe again:
If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here — not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behavior in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.
By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican Church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell her other members — married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual — not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals.
Thus in a bizarre but real sense did Lambeth’s attempt to show compassion to married heterosexuals inadvertently give rise to the modern gay-rights movement — and consequently, to the issues that have divided their church ever since. It is hard to believe that anyone seeking a similar change in Catholic teaching on the subject would want the Catholic Church to follow suit into the moral and theological confusion at the center of today’s Anglican Church — yet such is the purposeful ignorance of so many who oppose Rome on birth control that they refuse to connect these cautionary historical dots.
Rethinking By Protestants
The years since Humanae Vitae have seen something else that neither traditionalist nor dissenting Catholics could have seen coming, one other development shedding retrospective credit on the Church: a serious reappraisal of Christian sexuality from Protestants outside the liberal orbit.
Thus, for instance, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in First Things in 1998 that “in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation’s Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church’s teaching.” Later, when interviewed in a 2006 article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about current religious thinking on artificial contraception, Mohler elaborated: “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the Pill. . . . The entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there can be no question that the Pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”
Mohler also observed that this legacy of damage was affecting the younger generation of evangelicals. “I detect a huge shift. Students on our campus are intensely concerned. Not a week goes by that I do not get contacted by pastors about the issue. There are active debates going on. It’s one of the things that may serve to divide evangelicalism.” Part of that division includes Quiverfull, the anti-contraception Protestant movement now thought to number in the tens of thousands that further prohibits (as the Catholic Church does not) natural family planning or any other conscious interference with conception. Such second thoughts among evangelicals are the premise of a 2002 book titled Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Re-Thinks Contraception.
Rethinking By The Catholic Youth
As a corollary to this rethinking by Protestants, experience seems to have taught a similar lesson to at least some young Catholics — the generation to grow up under divorce, widespread contraception, fatherless households, and all the other emancipatory fallout. As Naomi Schaefer Riley noted in the Wall Street Journal about events this year at Notre Dame: “About thirty students walked out of The Vagina Monologues in protest after the first scene. And people familiar with the university are not surprised that it was the kids, not the grownups, who registered the strongest objections. The students are probably the most religious part of the Notre Dame. . . . . Younger Catholics tend to be among the more conservative ones.” It is hard to imagine that something like the traditionalist Anscombe Society at Princeton University, started in 2004, could have been founded in 1968.
I Won’t Tattle On My Gay Priest …
One thing making traditionalists of these young Americans, at least according to some of them, is the fact of their having grown up in a world characterized by abortion on demand. And that brings us to yet another irony worth contemplating on this fortieth anniversary: what widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae has done to the character of American Catholicism.
As with the other ironies, it helps here to have a soft spot for absurdity. In their simultaneous desire to jettison the distasteful parts of Catholicism and keep the more palatable ones, American Catholics have done something novel and truly amusing: They have created a specific catalogue of complaints that resembles nothing so much as a Catholic version of the orphan with chutzpah.
Thus many Catholics complain about the dearth of priests, all the while ignoring their own responsibility for that outcome — the fact that few have children in numbers large enough to send one son to the priesthood while the others marry and carry on the family name. They mourn the closing of Catholic churches and schools — never mind that whole parishes, claiming the rights of individual conscience, have contracepted themselves out of existence. They point to the priest sex scandals as proof positive that chastity is too much to ask of people — completely ignoring that it was the randy absence of chastity that created the scandals in the first place.
In fact, the disgrace of contemporary American Catholicism — the many recent scandals involving priests and underage boys — is traceable to the collusion between a large Catholic laity that wanted a different birth-control doctrine, on the one hand, and a new generation of priests cutting themselves a different kind of slack, on the other. “I won’t tattle on my gay priest if you’ll give me absolution for contraception” seems to have been the unspoken deal in many parishes since Humanae Vitae.
A more obedient laity might have wondered aloud about the fact that a significant number of priests post-Vatican II seemed more or less openly gay. A more obedient clergy might have noticed that plenty of Catholics using artificial contraception were also taking Communion. It is hard to believe that either new development — the widespread open rebellion against church sexual teachings by the laity, or the concomitant quiet rebellion against church sexual teachings by a significant number of priests — could have existed without the other.
Christian Theologians Across Centuries
During Benedict’s recent visit to the United States, one heard a thousand times the insistence that Humanae Vitae somehow sparked a rebellion or was something new under the sun. As Peter Steinfels once put the over-familiar party line, “The pope’s 1968 encyclical and the furor it created continue to polarize the American church.” On this account, everything was somehow fine until Paul VI refused to bend with the times — at which point all hell broke loose.
Of course, all that Paul VI did, as Anscombe among many other unapologetic Catholics then and since have pointed out, was reiterate what just about everyone in the history of Christendom had ever said on the subject. In asking Catholics to be more like contraceptive-accepting Protestants, critics have been forgetting what Christian theologians across centuries had to say about contraception until practically the day before yesterday.
It was, in a word, No. Exactly one hundred years ago, for example, the Lambeth Conference of 1908 affirmed its opposition to artificial contraception in words harsher than anything appearing in Humanae Vitae: “demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.” In another historical twist that must have someone laughing somewhere, pronouncements of the founding fathers of Protestantism make the Catholic traditionalists of 1968 look positively diffident. Martin Luther in a commentary on Genesis declared contraception to be worse than incest or adultery. John Calvin called it an “unforgivable crime.” This unanimity was not abandoned until the year 1930, when the Anglicans voted to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases, and one denomination after another over the years came to follow suit.
Seen in the light of actual Christian tradition, the question is not after all why the Catholic Church refused to collapse on the point. It is rather why just about everyone else in the Judeo-Christian tradition did. Whatever the answer, the Catholic Church took, and continues to take, the public fall for causing a collapse — when actually it was the only one not collapsing.
The Consequences Deriving From Contraception
The fundamental issue is rather what Archbishop Chaput explained ten years ago: “If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”
This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex — as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree — is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record.
The Rejection That Broke Paul VI’s Heart
Considering the human spectacle today, forty years after the document whose widespread rejection reportedly broke Paul VI’s heart, one can’t help but wonder how he might have felt if he had glimpsed only a fraction of the evidence now available — whether any of it might have provoked just the smallest wry smile.
After all, it would take a heart of stone not to find at least some of what’s now out there funny as hell. There is the ongoing empirical vindication in one arena after another of the most unwanted, ignored, and ubiquitously mocked global teaching of the past fifty years. There is the fact that the Pill, which was supposed to erase all consequences of sex once and for all, turned out to have huge consequences of its own. There is the way that so many Catholics, embarrassed by accusations of archaism and driven by their own desires to be as free for sex as everyone around them, went racing for the theological exit signs after Humanae Vitae — all this just as the world with its wicked old ways began stockpiling more evidence for the Church’s doctrine than anyone living in previous centuries could have imagined, and while still other people were actually being brought closer to the Church because she stood exactly as that “sign of contradiction” when so many in the world wanted otherwise.
Yet instead of vindication for the Church, there is demoralization; instead of clarity, mass confusion; instead of more obedience, ever less. Really, the perversity is, well, perverse. In what other area does humanity operate at this level of extreme, daily, constant contradiction? Where is the Boccaccio for this post-Pill Decameron? It really is all very funny, when you stop to think about it. So why isn’t everybody down here laughing?