A synod of Catholic bishops recently discussed ways of giving pastoral support to lay people as they struggle to live out the Church’s perennial teachings regarding sexuality. Meanwhile, a new book has appeared on The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig. A review of this book by Henry Allen (in The Wall Street Journal) credits Mr. Eig with giving an even-handed treatment of the subject. In examining the prominent role played by Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist whose central aim was to limit the reproduction of the “unfit,” Mr. Eig writes that “neither she nor anyone else could have imagined how birth control would also contribute to the spread of divorce, infidelity, single parenthood, abortion, and pornography.” This matter-of-fact statement is a welcome acknowledgment of what has become abundantly clear—namely, that ready access to contraception has indeed contributed to the rapid increase in all these destructive evils.
It is not the case, however, that no one could have imagined that birth control would have such negative results. In fact, Catholic moral theologians readily imagined these disasters and predicted them. Most prominent among those wise persons who warned the world was, of course, Pope Paul VI, to whom fell the thankless task of reaffirming the Church’s unchanging teaching regarding contraception when the pill became available in the 1960s and many were clamoring for a change in church teaching. In a short encyclical letter published in 1968 and entitled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), Pope Paul explained patiently, sympathetically, and lovingly why the Church could not change her teaching on this matter. One section of the letter comes under the heading “Grave Consequences of Methods of Artificial Birth Control,” and it was there that the Holy Father foresaw the destructive effects on family life that widespread use of the pill would bring about. He calls upon people of good will who were contemplating the use of birth control to consider “how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” Many scoffed at this prediction, but in retrospect its mild tone only hinted at the destructive tendencies that we have since witnessed.
From the beginning, the pill was touted as offering freedom to women, but the increasing freedom of women to pursue education and careers came to be identified completely with a freedom from childbearing, from life. As Mr. Allen puts it: “A cult of youth worship and elitist alarm about overpopulation made parenthood unfashionable and, with the pill, unnecessary.” The separation of marriage from its essential purpose of procreation devalued marriage and family, resulting in a trend toward childbearing without marriage and marriage without childbearing. The promised benefits for women came (when they came at all) at a high price. Pope Paul again predicted that contraceptive practices would have negative consequences for women: “It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” Feminists have found themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma as this prediction was verified: They reveled in the sexual freedom offered women by the pill but found that women were increasingly objectified and used by men, many of whom embraced the revolution for their own selfish purposes. Once again, the pope’s warning was prescient.
One consequence of the pill which Pope Paul did not predict (one he probably found inconceivable at the time) was the acceptance of homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality, worthy of being considered marriage. Mr. Allen quotes Margaret Wente, who states with admirable clarity that “the pill decoupled sex and marriage, and it also decoupled marriage and procreation. The purpose of marriage was mutual satisfaction, not children. And once that happened, gay marriage probably became inevitable.” As heterosexual couples embraced the new contraceptive technologies in service of our own comfort and pleasure, we did irreparable damage to the fundamental concept of marriage and family, so that when homosexuals claimed a right to marry, most heterosexuals had no cogent reason to deny their demand—having themselves redefined marriage to the exclusion of its natural and normal aim.
One of the ironies of this social history is that the scientific discoveries that produced the pill also made possible a form of natural family planning that is far more reliable than the old “rhythm method,” so that today it is quite possible for couples to regulate the number of children in their families without recourse to artificial contraceptives. Paul VI called upon scientists and physicians to develop such natural methods, and they did. But these methods do involve some regular periods of abstinence from conjugal relations, and most Catholics, along with most people of other persuasions, were simply unwilling to accept that inconvenience. Some studies have shown a very small divorce rate among couples practicing natural family planning, while the divorce rate among contracepting Catholic couples is the same as for the culture as a whole. Perhaps a re-evaluation of the sexual revolution will yet occur. Perhaps the conclusions of the synod of bishops will foster that rethinking. Perhaps it is not too late for us to remember what human sexuality means.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.