Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control.
Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 17
Reflection – Oh, is it the weekend already? I guess it’s time for another thrilling installment of ‘weekends with Humanae Vitae’ then! My posting will be a bit wonky the next couple of days, as I am going to Ottawa to give a talk on Saturday. It’s just a day thing, so I will be posting, just not at the normal times.
Now we come into the part of the document where people reading it start throwing around the word ‘prophetic’, in other words, the part where Pope Paul VI seems to have anticipated pretty well the developments of the subsequent decades following upon the widespread acceptance of contraception. I don’t know about prophetic exactly—it’s not a word I use lightly—but certainly the Pope was right in his predictions.
It is important to note here, though, that the truth or falsehood of the Church’s teaching in no way rests on whether or not he got this part right. We are not consequentialists, deciding that things are good or evil depending on their results; contraception is evil because it denies the divine-human nature and meaning of human sexuality—evil in itself, not just evil in its effects, in other words. That is important, as people will start quibbling with this section of the encyclical and then claim that they have debunked the encyclical’s argument. Well no, you haven’t, and if you think you have it just proves that you really don’t understand the Church’s teaching.
That being said, I don’t know how anyone can seriously argue that HV 17 does not describe the state of affairs in the year 2014 fairly accurately. Internet pornography use is pandemic, and the average age of exposure to online sex for boys is 12, with many viewing their first images much younger. A university study that tried to measure the impact of pornography use on young men had to be abandoned because they simply couldn’t find any young men at all who had not used it.
And is this anything, can it be anything, besides an expression of sexuality in which men “forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection”?
Meanwhile, IRL, divorce rates hover somewhere around 50%, falling somewhat of late mostly because people aren’t bothering to get married in the first place, and the hookup culture is still strong in the young adult population, in which sex is completely detached from relationship, caring, let alone commitment and mutual responsibility for one another. What else is this but an opening “wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”? The Pope was right about what would happen, and we are all reaping the fruits of it.
The idea behind contraception was that, by separating sex from procreation, we could more strongly express sex and its link to love. It was a utopian and somewhat unreal picture of humanity, leaving out of consideration entirely the capacity of human beings to be selfish and exploitative.
Sex is a very good thing, created by God and blessed, a power for love and life in this world that is very strong. But fragmented into its component parts, which is exactly what contraception does—the physical pleasure over here, the expression of love over there, the creation of a new life somewhere far, far away—all that inherent power within sex runs amuck, is turned in on itself, and does great harm. Not because sex is bad, but because (to put it baldly) we are bad, or at least somewhat so.
But, good news! Or rather, Good News. The way back is always there, the way to living out sexuality in a manner that is life-giving and love-creating is always there. It requires repentance, which is never easy, but the grace of God is not withheld from those who choose to embrace chastity and sexual integrity in our world today. We have made a mess of things, as the Pope said we would, but we can clean up that mess, with God’s help.