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Paul VI, Prophet

Does anyone doubt that, in the last fifty years, we have seen a profound attenuation of marital fidelity? Could anyone possibly contest that the last half century has witnessed a significant breakdown of the institution of marriage?

Paul VI at an audience in October 1977. (Ambrosius007/Wikipedia)

This coming July, we will mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s deeply controversial encyclical letter Humanae vitae. I won’t bore you with the details of the innumerable battles, disagreements, and ecclesial crises that followed upon this text. Suffice it to say that this short, pithily argued letter became a watershed in the post-conciliar Catholic Church and one of the most significant points of contention between liberals and conservatives. Its fundamental contention is that the moral integrity of the sexual act is a function of the coming together of its “procreative and unitive” dimensions. That is to say, sexual intercourse is ethically upright only in the measure that it is expressive of love between married partners and remains open to the conception of a child. When, through a conscious choice, the partners introduce an artificial block to procreation—when, in a word, they separate the unitive and procreative finalities of the sexual act—they do something which is contrary to God’s will.

Again, within the context of this brief article I won’t detail the arguments for and against this position. But I would like to draw particular attention to a remarkable passage in Humanae vitae, namely section 17, in which Paul VI plays the prophet and lays out, clearly and succinctly, what he foresees as consequences of turning away from the Church’s classic teaching on sex. Though he is convinced that artificial contraception is morally bad in itself, he’s also persuaded that it would, in the long run, adversely affect general societal attitudes regarding sex. Here is a first observation:

Let them 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.

Does anyone doubt that, in the last fifty years, we have seen a profound attenuation of marital fidelity? Could anyone possibly contest that the last half century has witnessed a significant breakdown of the institution of marriage? Is anyone so blind as not to see that during the last five decades “a lowering of moral standards” has taken place? To be sure, there are multiple causes of these declines, and certainly not all the blame can be ascribed to artificial contraception. However, Paul VI was intuiting something of great moment, namely, that once we commenced to redefine the nature of the sexual act, we placed ourselves on a very steep and slippery slope toward a complete voluntarism, whereby we utterly determine the meaning of sexuality, of marriage, and even of gender. And the rapid rise in pornography use, the sexual exploitation of children, and human trafficking are functions of this same arbitrariness. What was only vaguely envisioned and feared fifty years ago is now accepted more or less as a matter of course.

In that same section, Paul VI continues to prophesy:

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.

In the post-Weinstein era, we hear practically every day of another celebrity who has treated women with disrespect, turning them indeed into objects for his own use and manipulation. The entire society is rightly outraged at this behavior, but precious few cultural commentators have noted the link between this kind of objectification and the conscious disassociation of the twin ends of the sexual act. When we are permitted casually to separate love from procreation—or as one analyst had it, to sever the link between sex and diapers—we place ourselves on a short road to reducing sexual intercourse to a form of self-indulgent recreation.

Section 17 of Humanae vitae concludes with a startling act of prescience regarding the political implications of countenancing artificial contraception:

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

What might have seemed exaggerated, perhaps even slightly paranoid, in 1968 is now a commonplace. The HHS Mandate, which would require even Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients, has been so aggressively pursued that even the Little Sisters of the Poor found themselves battling for their rights in court. Pope Francis, an ardent admirer of Paul VI, has picked up on this theme, bemoaning the “ideological colonization” that takes place when the Western powers attempt, through threat of economic sanctions, to impose their sexual program on the underdeveloped world.

This coming 50th anniversary year would be a good time to take another look at Humanae vitae. I might suggest we commence with section 17.

About Bishop Robert Barron 128 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

19 Comments

  1. “This coming 50th anniversary year would be a good time to take another look at Humanae vitae. ” – I’m affraid that might be just what the pope is thinking, but not in a good way.

    • Wow, does anyone else notice Bishop Barron’s watered down language? No mention of “intrinsically evil” or “gravely disordered” – indeed, Bishop Barron is attempting to “seize the narrative” of Humanae Vitae, much like the current evil persons in the Vatican, and he is taking the gravely evil approach of watering down the language. (“ethically upright”, “contrary to God’s will” replace “gravely disordered” and “intrinsically evil.”)

      Sorry, folks, within the USCCB there are many Canis Iunis-es in Ovis aries’ clothing. The above article is eye-opening in its subtle-but-evil change of language, all while appearing to be propagating Church teaching. Bad fruit, bad tree.

      • Yes, I notice that regularly from this pastor. I think he wants to be loved, more than love. Terrible thing to say, but extremely worse if in fact true.

  2. So, Paul VI is a prophet for pointing out the obvious natural destruction that would result from sexual misdeeds. Meanwhile, no one cares about the theological destruction of marriage, which has suffered ambiguity, excessive personalism, and absent teleological themes since the glories of the 60s reforms. Interesting that all the theological newspeak on marriage doesn’t help the situation either, huh?

  3. “Though he is convinced that artificial contraception is morally bad in itself…”
    No Contraception is bad in itself. The word literally means to act against the beginning in order to then have sex without children who are then considered to be disease. It’s an act against God and nature, and act against marriage, against creation.
    The words natural and artificial are meaningless defining what contraception actually is. A couple knowing that they are fertile an abstaining is not an act of contraception. The church teaches that contraception is immoral, not because it’s artificial but because it’s contraception.

    • David, that’s actually not true. The Catholic Church does permit contraception in certain cases, and thus it is not intrinsically evil. For example, if a young woman is raped, undergoes testing, and is there is reasonable certainty that she is not yet pregnant, but possibly will be (since sperm can live for up to 5 days in the female reproductive tract), she may be given contraceptive treatment that will prevent the sperm from fertilizing her egg.

      This is not immoral since the contraceptive is not meant to sever a consensual sexual act, but is used to prevent further attack (via the sperm) of an unjust aggressor.

      This is one example that shows contraception is not bad in all cases, or in formal language, “intrinsically immoral.”

      • Brandon Vogt, does the Church teach contraception or is it just a group of Bishops who does so.

        The USCCB teaching on this is contrary to Church teaching which teaches that contraception is an intrinsic evil.

        If the woman is certainly not yet pregnant, to give this woman contraception is to basically say that the life that would have been formed had they not given the contraception is NOT WORTH IT. So the church is saying that the child conceived in rape should not be allowed to live.

        This is the problem with the Church now, where her teaching on sexual morality is in schism with itself.

        If a child conceived in rape must be contracepted, why should they not be aborted?

        • There is no child at all empirically or in reality prior to the rapist semen reaching the victim’s egg. Keep that difference foremost.

    • The Catholic church NEVER condones “contraception” in any form. It does say that couples are to act responsibly, and they may space their children or even in serious situations decide not to have more children. But it NEVER condones the use of contraception. NEVER

  4. “… it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that [moral] law.”
    Does that phrase apply/pertain to the controversy in Ch 8 of Amoris Laetitia?

  5. “Pope Francis, an ardent admirer of Paul VI, has picked up on this theme, bemoaning the “ideological colonization” that takes place when the Western powers attempt, through threat of economic sanctions, to impose their sexual program on the underdeveloped world.”

    Pope Francis, in fact, has given those who desire to impose their sexual program on the underdeveloped world a platform at the Vatican:

    https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/speaker-tells-vatican-conference-reducing-population-is-best-solution-to-cl

    https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/vatican-welcomes-contraception-pushing-population-council-to-biological-ext

  6. Bishop Barron has been vilified by many on Catholic websites for opinions predilections [I too wish there were no eternal punishment though like Barron believe it’s doctrine]. Who will question his orthodoxy now? How many prelates have openly and clearly defended Humanae Vitae and delineated the moral debacle that ensued when the vast majority of Laity and Clergy repudiated Pope Paul VI on contraception [he requested then Cardinal Wojtyla to insert a theology of human love]? Paul VI is also impugned by some over the liturgy during a time when the Church especially in Am was careening out of control. He did his best to keep it intact. I can’t say the same today.

  7. I applaud your effort. However, I cringed when I read, “…one of the most significant points of contention between liberals and conservatives.” This is not a political battle. This is between faithful Catholics and not-so faithful Catholics. And the vast majority of priests stand on the side-line and remain in their guilty silence (ref Casti Connubii, Para 56 & 57). Come Holy Spirit. Pierce the hearts of Your priests with Your Light of Truth. Instill in them the strength and courage, the wisdom and fortitude to always preach the Fullness of Your Truth. Amen.

  8. Its also worth noting that contraception has contributed to the deChristianization of the West through lowering birth rates and thus uncontrolled immigration from nonChristian countries to make up the apparent gap.
    God gave humanity one order, ‘be fruitful and multiply…” He is certainly punishing us for disobeying this law.

  9. Bishop Baron is always great food for thought. I add by suggesting a link between family wealth and promiscuity. The poorer 90% have just 14.4% of family wealth in the U.S. The poorer 50% have just 0.5% of family wealth – a small slice of the pie that was three times larger in 1989. As family wealth declined so did the rate of marriage. Today only 26% of the poor marry but 20 million STDs are added. Obviously sex continues outside of marriage and people wrongly think that the free Obamacare birth control will prevent venereal disease. We need tax reform that restores family wealth to prevent further destruction to family values.

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