Paul VI as Prophet: “Humanae Vitae” Made Some Bold Prophecies Two Decades Ago. Did They Come to Pass?

Prophecy is a tricky business. If a prophet predicts that something will happen and it does not, the prophet is discredited. But what if he predicts truly? Doesn’t the truth of his prediction give credence to the prophet’s insight, authority, reasoning—to whatever is the source of his ability to prophesy? Would we not be inclined to trust the one proven to be a true prophet?

Humanae Vitae 20 years ago “prophesied” that marriages and society would suffer if the use of contraception became widespread. Now the vast majority of spouses, as well as those who are unmarried, use some form of contraception. It seems a good time to evaluate the legitimacy of Humanae Vitae’s prophetic voice. For if the “prophecies” are true, if contraception has been responsible at least in part for many of the troubles we have today, the widespread neglect of this encyclical has been foolish, to say the least.

To be sure, the encyclical was not written to be a prophetic document. Rather, it was written to be a clarifying document, meant to present what the Church teaches about contraception. The encyclical does present this teaching clearly but has been little heeded in the last 20 years. Statistics show that few Catholics live by this teaching, and it seems safe to suppose that few Catholics have read Humanae Vitae or reflected upon it. Most simply accept the common view that using a contraceptive differs little from taking an aspirin. Furthermore, many theologians call into question the truth of the teaching and work to establish that Catholics have a “right” to dissent from it.

Indeed, when Humanae Vitae was issued, many were furious with the Church for continuing to maintain the retrograde view that sexual intercourse can be engaged in morally only when its procreative meaning is maintained. Many thought the Church was standing in the way of progress and human happiness. They “prophesied” that contraception would solve, or at least reduce, social problems such as overpopulation and pregnancy out of wedlock. Perhaps even more ardently, they believed that contraception would enhance married life by reducing sexual strain caused by the fear of pregnancy. As mentioned, Humanae Vitae “prophesied” quite the contrary. Whose prophecies were true? Has contraception had a good or bad effect on marriages and society?

Before we review the prophecies of Humanae Vitae, we must bear in mind that Pope Paul VI did not base his condemnation of contraception on predictions that its use would have bad consequences. Rather, he situated the Church’s teaching in the Christian view of the dignity of the human person and the meaning of marriage, and argued that contraception violates both. Christians understand marriage to be an elevated calling whereby God enlists spouses in the all-important enterprise of bringing forth new human life. The Church teaches that to use contraception is to reject God and his life-giving ways. The Church teaches not that contraception is wrong because it has bad consequences, but that because contraception is wrong, it will have bad consequences.

Paul VI made four rather general “prophecies” about what would happen were the Church’s teaching on contraception to be ignored (see Humanae Vitae, section 17). No one would be sadder than he to learn how true his predictions were.

First Prophecy

The Pope first noted that the widespread use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” That there has been a widespread decline in morality, especially sexual morality, in the last 20 years is very difficult to deny. The increase in the number of divorces, abortions, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and venereal diseases should convince any skeptic that sexual morality is not the strong suit of our age. It would be wrong to say that contraception is the single cause of this decline, but it would also be unthinkable not to count contraception among the contributing factors.

Consider the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy as one instance of a source of misery caused by contraception. By age 19, eight of every 10 males and seven of every 10 females has had sexual intercourse. Four of 10 teenagers have had at least one pregnancy. One of every four black babies is born to a teenage mother; nearly a third of black teenage mothers have a second baby before they are 20. Nearly a million and a half abortions occur each year and nearly a third of these (almost 400,000) are obtained by teenagers. More than one in seven teenagers has had at least one abortion.

These figures are chilling; so too is their meaning. It is disturbing that they seem to be self-perpetuating; consider that roughly 80 percent of girls who are mothers at age 15 are daughters of women who had babies when they were teenagers. Two-thirds of all teenagers who have children before they turn 19 drop out of school. Many young women who get pregnant out-of-wedlock regularly end up welfare mothers; their children grow up with no father at home, with an immature mother, and with all the handicaps of poverty. More than half of the women who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children were teenagers when they had their first child.

The long-term consequences for these young women, their children, and society are incalculable. We have hardly begun to realize the cost of sexuality run wild, the cost of single-parent households and broken homes. It is not speculation to think that much drug-dependency, crime, and sexual maladjustments can be traced to ailing family life. Children who do not have mature and loving parents have a hard time meeting the demands of life while resisting the call to easier pleasures and other modes of escape. And who can calculate the cost of the insecurity, the low self-image, and other psychological problems experienced by those who do not enjoy a secure childhood? These problems may not cripple one, but they certainly make life a good deal more difficult than it otherwise would be.

There is no question that contraception is behind a lot of this trouble. Contraception has made sexual activity a much more popular option than it was when fear of pregnancy deterred a great number of young men and women from engaging in premarital sexual intercourse. The availability of contraception has led them to believe that they can engage in premarital sexual activity “responsibly.” But teenagers are about as responsible in their use of contraception as they are in all other phases of their lives—such as making their beds, cleaning their rooms, and getting homework done on time.

Studies show that over 80 percent of young women who have had abortions are contraceptively experienced. They know all about contraception but choose not to use it for a variety of reasons: for instance, they do not like the side effects or they do not like to think of themselves as “prepared for sex.” Or they intentionally get pregnant to force the young man to declare his intentions. That ready access to contraception should reduce teenage pregnancy has been a standard argument for a long time; but in fact, contraception definitely seems to have exacerbated the problem. Indeed, studies show that in places where efforts to provide teens with contraceptives have intensified, there has been no clear decrease in teenage pregnancy, and in some cases there have been increases.

Teenage pregnancy is a major problem in our society, abortion an even worse problem. What is the connection between contraception and abortion? In the early days of the prolife movement most prolifers argued that abortion and contraception were quite distinct issues. This argument seemed to have considerable plausibility since abortion is the taking of a human life already begun, whereas contraception (which is truly contraceptive and not abortifacient) prevents life from beginning. Indeed, all will agree that the magnitude of moral wrong in abortion is much greater than that in contraception, but many now recognize that widespread use of contraception has paved the way for more abortions.

Most abortions are the result of unwanted pregnancies, most unwanted pregnancies are the result of sexual relationships outside of marriage, and most sexual relationships outside of marriage are facilitated by the availability of contraception. To turn this “progression” around; contraception leads to more extra-marital sexual intercourse; more extra-marital sexual intercourse leads to more unwanted pregnancies; more unwanted pregnancies lead to more abortions. Not many women intend to use abortion as a “back-up” to failed contraception, but it is undeniable that it is often so used.

Nor must we fail to consider how many abortions are the result of contraceptives working properly. There is much evidence to show that not all contraceptive pills work by stopping ovulation. With many forms of the Pill a woman may still be ovulating and thus may be conceiving. If she conceives when on the Pill, she will most likely self-abort. Since the contraceptive has made the uterine wall hostile to a fertilized egg, the fertilized ovum, the new young life, does not implant and dies an early death. The IUD, it is believed, nearly always works this way. Thus, IUDs and some forms of the Pill not only contribute to abortion, they in fact cause abortions; they are abortifacients. Is it not clear, then, that contraception is a leading cause of abortions?

Second Prophecy

Paul VI also argued that “the man” will lose respect for “the woman” and “no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” This concern reflects what has come to be known as a “personalist” understanding of morality: Paul VI is not just concerned that couples will be breaking some divine law when they use contraception (though this seems to be a fair concern for those who understand that they are showing their love for God by respecting His laws, which, after all, are for our benefit). The personalist understanding of wrongdoing is based upon respect for the dignity of the human person. The Pope realizes that the Church’s teaching on contraception is designed to protect the good of conjugal love. When spouses violate this good, they do not act in accord with their innate dignity and thus they endanger their own happiness. Treating their bodies as mechanical instruments to be manipulated for their own purposes, they risk treating each other as objects of pleasure.

Contraceptors do not even treat their bodies very respectfully as instruments. It seems truly prophetic that Paul VI should mention the dangers of contraception to a woman’s “physical and psychological equilibrium” at a time when these dangers were not well-known. They are still not fully known, but are becoming more widely recognized. The IUD has been taken off the market because of so many lawsuits stemming from harm done to women using them. The contraceptive pill has a list of “counter-indications” so long it’s a rare women who does not experience some of these. Indeed, some doctors who have studied the effects of the contraceptive pill state that they would never put their wives or one of their daughters on it. The disturbing increase in infertility among women is likely caused, at least in part, by the use of contraception, since contraception alters a woman’s delicate hormonal balance for many years. Another major source of infertility is the increase in the frequency of sexually transmitted diseases, an increase linked to greater promiscuous sexuality—which in turn is facilitated by the widespread acceptability of contraception.

Feminists, too, are beginning to warn women about the dangers of the Pill. Germaine Greer, a prominent feminist, has written a lengthy tome, Sex and Destiny, which rebukes women for their careless use of the Pill. I heard her speak some 10 years ago at a feminist conference where she chastised the women in the audience for taking the Pill, the effects of which were not known. She ridiculed women for taking massive doses of chemicals daily to counteract an event—fertility—that occurs only a few days a month, and very predictable days at that. She was even more angry that contraception was being pushed on women in the Third World who did not have the education required to know the dangers of the “medication” being forced upon them.

What are the dangers to the “psychological” equilibrium of women who use contraception? Certainly, one of the side-effects of the Pill is depression, but I think more is involved than that. Paul VI warned of “the man” losing respect for “the woman.” He saw that the use of contraception encourages “the man” to look upon “the woman” not as a special woman with her own needs and desires, not as a female with a marvelous procreative faculty, but as an object. He can easily come to look upon her as one from whom he can derive sexual pleasure without risking the personal bonding that comes through participating in sexual intercourse open to procreation.

The bond created by sexual intercourse open to procreation needs to be more fully understood. Young girls often have a preference for “unprotected” intercourse for they feel they are thereby giving themselves more fully, are showing their love more completely, to their boyfriends. There is something fundamentally right about that “feeling.” Few (surrogate mothers notwithstanding) are willing to have “procreative” sex with someone whom they do not love, with whom they are not willing to share a lifetime of responsibilities. “Recreational” sex admits a large number of partners for they are partners only for momentary sexual pleasure, not for sharing in a lifetime project. The possibility of procreation obviously points to child-bearing, which in turn points to lifelong responsibilities. Thus, engaging in “procreative” sex bespeaks a commitment much more profound than engaging in sex that is closed to procreation. In procreative sexual intercourse the man and woman are potentially engaging in a lifetime project with each other and are expressing a willingness to effect such a lifetime bond.

There is rarely “mutuality” in the use of contraception. Most often the woman bears the responsibility for it and she must suffer most of the unpleasant “side-effects” of its use. Natural family planning (NFP), on the other hand, needs the cooperation of both spouses to succeed. Whereas men who engage in contracepted sexual intercourse often come to view women as objects and desire to have them always at their disposal, men using natural family planning learn self-mastery and begin to appreciate the woman and her cycles and needs. Natural family planning is based on respect for both female and male fertility and requires a loving and respectful relationship for successful use. More will be said about the differences between natural family planning and contraception momentarily, but this difference of mutual responsibility based upon respect is in itself indication of a profound difference between the two. Disenchanted former users of contraception and converts to natural family planning are often the most avid and eloquent defenders of the difference between them.

Interestingly, the incidence of divorce among couples who use NFP is almost negligible. Certainly, these couples have a commitment to the indissolubility of marriage that other couples may lack, but surely most couples when they marry hope never to divorce. Yet nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. That the increase in the number of divorces coincides with the increased use of contraception makes one suspect a causal connection of some kind. Surely, contraception makes infidelity easier, and infidelity leads to divorce. Lowering the barriers to infidelity may not, though, be the chief reason for the incredibly higher rate of divorce among contraceptors. The above analysis suggests that couples using NFP communicate better and experience much stronger bonds with each other. Contraception, then, rather than being a source of happiness in a marriage may be assisting in its breakdown.

Third Prophecy

Paul VI also observed that the widespread acceptance of contraception would place a “dangerous weapon…in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.” The history of the family planning programs in the Third World is a sobering testimony to this reality. In Third World countries many undergo sterilization unaware of what is being done to them. The forced abortion program in China shows the stark extreme to which governments will take population control programs. Moreover, few are willing to face the increasing evidence that many parts of the world now face not a problem of over-population but of under-population. It will take some time to reverse the “anti-baby” legislation and attitudes now entrenched in many societies. France and West Germany, for example, have tried without much success to pass legislation making child-bearing more attractive to their citizens.

Fourth Prophecy

The final warning Paul VI gave about contraception is that it would lead man to think that he had limitless dominion over his own body. Again, the Pope did not specify what he had in mind, but his worry seems well-grounded. For instance, sterilization is now the most widely used form of contraception in the U.S.; individuals think it so appropriate that they have control over their own body that they are not hesitant to alter its very make-up. Again, we have not begun to realize the long-term physical and psychological ramifications of widespread sterilization. We are tampering unthinkingly with one of the chief sources of human pleasure and happiness: the ability to have children.

The desire to have unlimited dominion over one’s body extends beyond contraception. We see it in many areas of life. The making of babies in test tubes is another indication of a refusal to accept the limitations of the body, as is euthanasia and the use of organs for transplantation from the nearly dead. We want to adjust the body to our needs and desires and timetables rather than adjusting ourselves to its needs and timetables.

For each of these problems there are undoubtedly a host of contributing factors, but I think it is not unfair to say that the use of contraception is one of the contributing factors. Ironically, contraception was predicted to help solve some of these problems.

Positive Prophecies

In Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI made positive as well as negative prophecies. He sketched out the good that comes from abiding by the Church’s teaching on contraception. He acknowledged that spouses may have difficulty in acquiring the self-discipline needed to practice methods of family planning that require periodic abstinence. But he thought this was possible, especially with the help of sacramental graces. In section 21, he remarked that

the discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties.

This passage of Humanae Vitae is rarely studied. John Paul II, however, is one commentator who recognizes its deep wisdom. It plays the central role in his reflections on Humanae Vitae. He focuses on the importance of “self-mastery” for the proper use of sexuality, and explains the meaning of the human body and the human person as these bear upon our sexuality.

Fundamental to his understanding of man is the distinction between what he calls man’s “original condition” and his “historic” condition. In his commentaries on Genesis, the Pope explains that man and woman were created to be a loving community with each other. In this original condition man and woman did not experience lust or any disorder in their passions. Thus they were able to love each other authentically without the troublesome emotions and disordered passions men and women now experience.

After the fall, however, a great deal of selfishness entered into human relationships; individuals easily exploit one another in the realm of sex, as well as in every other realm. For man and woman to regain the authentic loving relationship for which their hearts yearn, they must learn to control their disordered passions. If they do not do so, they will be expressing lust rather than love in their sexual relationships. Rather than giving themselves as gifts and receiving the other as a gift, they will be imposing themselves on each other and using one another. But if they learn the self-mastery spoken of in Humanae Vitae they will find tremendous fruits for their own conjugal relationship and for the other relationships of their lives, especially those within the family.

The passage cited earlier from Humanae Vitae indicates what some of these “fruits” are. It claims that spouses will develop especially the spiritual dimensions of their personalities. It speaks of the “serenity and peace” that come with discipline, a discipline that flows over to other areas of one’s life. Perhaps most important, spouses become unselfish; they begin to be concerned more about the well-being of their spouses rather than of themselves. Not to be underestimated is the value of the witness they give their children and other young people.

One practitioner of NFP told me what a great witness his commitment was to the young males at his workplace, to whom he was trying to counsel restraint in sexual behavior. They were impressed with his argument, that if he could sleep in the same bed with the woman he loved and control his sexual desire, they could control their sexual desire for the women they were dating. Young people sense the attitudes about sex held by adults; if their parents have a reverence for the meaning of sex, if their parents have learned how to exercise self-control, they are more likely to be responsible about their own sexuality.

Some think there is little difference between the use of NFP and contraception since both contraceptors and practitioners of NFP want to have control over their fertility. But users of NFP gain this control by self-mastery, by attaining internal control over themselves; contraceptors seek this control by technological mastery of their bodies. Indeed, users of contraception and users of NFP agree that there is a great difference between the two; neither switch easily or readily to the other. Contraceptors are generally reluctant to try NFP because they fear that they will lose control over a very important part of their lives, that they will be casting their fate to the winds—or to their fertility, as it were.

They do not take a lot of comfort in the reassurances that NFP is every bit as effective a form of family planning as the most effective form of contraception. One senses, however, that what they don’t trust is not the method, but themselves and the strength of their marriage. Even though they may have had to abstain many times in their marriage for reasons of illness or prolonged separation, they do not think it is wise deliberately to plan to abstain.

Practitioners of NFP, on the other hand, are repulsed by the thought of using contraception. Although they may experience powerful sexual desires during the periods of abstinence, the thought of purchasing and using a contraceptive is repugnant to them. For them, contraception understood as something that violates human dignity is not some elevated abstract phrase, but is nearly a physical feeling. Certainly, most of them have struggled with NFP and with their sexual desires. Those who have been chaste before marriage and have never contracepted have an easier time of it. But many struggle with the irritability abstinence may cause; they struggle with trying to live with their frustration without taking it out on their spouses. Eventually, they learn to communicate better with their spouses about their sexual feelings, in fact about all of their feelings. They begin to gain the virtue of self-mastery. Once progress is made, they assure others that self-restraint enhances rather than harms one’s love life; that it improves rather than harms one’s relationship with one’s spouse.

John Paul II recently spoke of the Church’s teaching on contraception as part of the “permanent patrimony” of the Church. Twenty years of neglecting Humanae Vitae have produced enough unpleasant consequences to enable us to recognize how foolish and dangerous it is to waste this patrimony. The successful marriages and happiness of couples who use NFP suggest that once we reclaim this patrimony, we shall begin to experience joys and benefits we have nearly forgotten. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae implored priests, doctors, educators, and spouses to promote the teaching of the encyclical. John Paul II has reiterated this plea. It is time we all do what we can to answer it, for the benefits will be ours and will be great.

Janet Smith

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Janet E. Smith is a professor of moral theology and the Fr. Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Issues at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She previously taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. She is a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family.

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