We now approach the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church document, Humanae vitae, which Pope Paul VI promulgated on July 29, 1968. Catholics at the time were flush with excitement and hope because of the recent Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which served to “open the [Church’s] windows and let in the fresh air,” and thereby give the Church much-needed updating. If the Church was going to follow the signs of the times, however—the 1960’s were a churning sea of sexual liberation—then surely it must announce a change to its ancient teaching and practice on sexual and marital morality. Everyone else was now permitting the practice of contraception. Why not us Catholics?
But to the consternation of most, the document failed to move us forward. It reaffirmed the ancient ways, and marched the Church right back into the middle ages. Boo-ooo-ooo.
Paul VI’s insistence in the document was that the two main features of sexual intercourse, that which emotionally unites the couple and that which makes possible their becoming parents, must remain intertwined in sex, and not severed one from the other (Humanae vitae, paras. 10–11). But his concern was not only that contraception ruptures the intrinsic nature of sex; he also worried about the consequences of widespread adoption of contraception. He was afraid 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 (Humanae vitae, para. 17)
My happy assignment this past spring was to teach an online MA-level course on Christian morality, our “Introduction to Theological Ethics,” during which we read Humanae vitae. In student discussion posts most dissatisfaction with the document—though some satisfaction—centered upon Paul’s argument regarding the intrinsic nature of sex, which tracks with the reaction against Humanae vitae 10–11 that one sees in academic theological literature. But some students found fault with Paul VI’s consequences-argument in Humanae vitae 17, as they could not imagine anyone being persuaded by it.
In the hope that it may prove interesting, here is an edited and slightly-amplified version of my original response to them.
Dear [student name 1] and [student name 2],
Teaching has its serendipitous moments. I read with appreciation your comments about Humanae vitae 17, and see the force of your concerns. This topic has personal meaning.
As a lapsing-Catholic sophomore back in 1981 I worked construction in Dallas, Texas, and would listen with envy to my workmates describing their weekends at Billy Bob’s Texas, the mega honky-tonk, serially bedding women they met there. One white co-worker named Milt was as racist as you could be, yet he justified his frequent sexual congress with black women by reminding us that “we’re all pink on the inside, Sparky.” Another co-worker mesmerized us with how he took a girl home, put a sock on the doorknob as The Secret Sign for his roommate, ushered her out in the morning only to run into his roommate, and then flat-out forget her name when he tried to introduce her. Our uproarious laughter signaled to him our deep approval. Well done, amigo.
God was merciful. That poor woman’s treatment stuck with me. Not that I would have let the chance go by to have been in my co-worker’s shoes, mind you. I was a red-blooded college sophomore, whose thoughts all too easily turned to sex. But I also genuinely liked women, enjoyed being with them, and wanted one day to marry one. There were no women working at our construction factory, so no protest arose to the notion that it didn’t matter that the soul who was my co-worker’s anonymous one-night-stand was in truth a thing, indeed a function, and not a person. No protest from me.
Over time my co-workers’ reduction of women did gnaw at me, though it would have been hard to detail my discomfort. For a moment I thought myself better than they because I was at least uneasy with the inattentiveness to how women would feel about such attitudes and treatment. But I came down at the realization that my difference from my co-workers was one of degree, and not of kind; my attitudes were theirs, and the difference was that they had more opportunity than I to engage in these things. I went home at night. They were at Billy Bob’s, closing the deal. Mutato nomine…
An upcoming Catholic summer softball league had me attending an organization meeting at my father’s parish in Dallas, All Saints Church. Arriving early to the church’s vestibule, I discovered a copy of Humanae vitae, and stood there, absorbing the whole thing. What passage do you think it was that nailed me, then and there? Yup, Humanae vitae 17. I was Humanae vitae 17.
I had to change my thinking and my heart. Confession and mass attendance followed, along with changing my major from music to philosophy and theology, and a redirection of my career plans to graduate school and Catholic academe. My being a Catholic today—and a Catholic academic today—is because of Humanae vitae and not in spite of it. And I am probably among the most conservative Catholic moralists in the county on matters of marital and sexual morality.
So at the very least know this: this country boy got schooled by Humanae vitae 17, big time.