Rethinking Humanae vitae
Deborah Savage, Ph.D.
When Pope Blessed Paul VI promulgated his landmark encyclical Humanae vitae in July 1968, I was just getting ready to enter my junior year in high school. I knew nothing of the controversy that swirled around the document at the time. Though it seems unbelievable in light of our contemporary context, I was blissfully unaware that anything like contraception even existed, let alone that the birth control pill had only recently been invented, or that its use had even more recently been legalized. I was more or less a “normal” sixteen-year-old, at least what passed for it then—a diligent student and an athlete, looking forward to college. But I well understand now why, throughout the world, the Catholic Church and those who think with her and listen to her are taking the time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae’s publication. Because by the time I got to college in 1970, everything had changed. It was there that I actually witnessed firsthand what the Holy Father’s teaching was intended to avert. And although the cultural transformation that took place during that time is widely considered to have been “liberating”, I now recognize those events as the beginning of a new kind of slavery.
There can be no question that Humanae vitae was a prophetic document; virtually every prediction it included has come to pass. But the certainty I feel about the truth it proclaims is based only secondarily on moral concepts or indisputable sociological data. In the first place, it is grounded in my own lived experience—and that of the young women I knew—of the beginnings of the so-called sexual revolution. Since virtually everyone—from secular humanists, to academics, to feminists, to Pope Francis—gives pride of place to human experience as the touchstone of truth, it seems timely now to give an account of mine.
When the birth control pill was introduced into the culture in the mid-1960s, it entered into an already sexually loaded atmosphere that had begun a decade before. People have forgotten now about the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and his paramour, Simone de Beauvoir (one of the matriarchs of second-wave feminism), and the pervasive presence of the mores of the so-called beatnik generation. “Free love” was already on the radar screen of most “twenty- and thirty-somethings” as the decade began. But it was still accompanied by the unfortunate “unintended” consequences that naturally occur from sexual intercourse: women have an “inconvenient” tendency to get pregnant. When the first oral contraceptive became available in 1960, for the first time in history, we were medically equipped to “cure” the fertility problem. We were finally poised to remove the one remaining obstacle to unfettered access to sex without a penalty—or so we thought. But at the time, contraception was illegal, even for married couples. All that remained was to make it a matter of law.
The watershed event of the decade actually took place in 1965: the Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut decision to legalize contraception. When Humanae vitae was promulgated barely three years later in 1968, it simply reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching: that the “unitive and procreative dimensions” of the marital act are both essential to its meaning. But the Griswold decision had legalized what amounted to a human fiat to tear asunder these dimensions. There was no going back. The pope’s encyclical sparked a firestorm of controversy in a culture that thought it had, finally, taken hold of the forbidden fruit. People abandoned the Church in its wake; priests and pastors were afraid even to discuss the issue with those who remained. But it was a firestorm that blazed almost entirely beyond the consciousness of people like me. Young people, especially young women, had no idea what was actually already underway.
From St. John Paul II
bright dawn of the new world,
Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life
Look down, O Mother,
upon the vast numbers
of babies not allowed to be born,
of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women
who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick killed
by indifference or out of misguided mercy.
Grant that all who believe in your Son
may proclaim the Gospel of life
with honesty and love
to the people of our time.
Obtain for them the grace
to accept that Gospel
as a gift ever new,
the joy of celebrating it with gratitude
throughout their lives
and the courage to bear witness to it
resolutely, in order to build,
together with all people of good will,
the civilization of truth and love,
to the praise and glory of God,
the Creator and lover of life.
Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, 105
Excerpted from “Why Humanae Vitae is Still Right” edited by Janet E. Smith.