Humanae Vitae at 40

Abundant contemporary literature from the social sciences
confirms Pope Paul VI’s warnings about contraception.

July 25, 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s great encyclical Humanae Vitae. In this document he reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church that contraception is an intrinsically evil act.

He wrote that this teaching, “often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection established by God that man on his own initiative is not allowed to break between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning inherent to the conjugal act” (no. 12, par. 1). In a footnote of great significance that has unfortunately been almost totally ignored, Pope Paul calls attention to the truth that contraception is an anti-life act. In footnote 14, given in no. 14, par. 1, where he speaks of unlawful methods of birth control, he refers explicitly to the teaching of The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent. The text of the Catechism to which the footnote refers states: “It follows that most grave is the crime of those who, joined in marriage, use medicines either to impede conception or to drive away (abort) the conceived: it is the impious conspiracy of murderers” (Humanae Vitae’s footnote is to Catechismus Romanus Concilii Tridentini, Pars 2, c. 8, no.13).

In a significant passage of his encyclical, Pope Paul said that “responsible persons will immediately see the truth of the Church’s teaching if they consider consequences that will follow from the methods of contraception and the reasons given for its use.” He went on to say that it would be easy for many to justify actions leading to marital infidelity or a weakening in the discipline of morals, noting that “not much experience is needed to understand human weakness and see how human persons, especially the young, are susceptible to temptation and need encouragement to keep the moral law and that it is not right to make it easy for them to violate it.” He also said that “it is to be feared that husbands who become accustomed to contraception will lose respect for their wives” and that “dangerous power will be put into the hands of rulers who care little for the moral law…. Who will prevent public authorities from favoring what they believe to be the most effective contraceptive methods and from mandating that everyone must use them when they consider them necessary?” (no. 17, par. 1).

Pope Paul was immediately attacked for speaking like this, but as I will show later, contemporary socioeconomic studies demonstrate how prophetic he was. Before doing so, however, I want to call attention a remarkable passage from George Gilder’s 1973 book Sexual Suicide, in which he raises serious questions about the terrible consequences of severing the bond between the procreative and unitive meanings of genital sex. Gilder wrote:

… procreative genital intercourse stands at the crux of sexual differentiation. It provides both a practical agenda and symbolic pattern of male initiative and female receptivity…. If it is the normative pinnacle of sexual relationships, “to which all other sexual energies aspire and from which they flow,” then our sexual differences are of supreme importance, attempts to damage them will founder on the irreducible realities of the sex act itself. To state the question directly: Does sex that is fully counter to the procreative pattern—that violates its genital focus and long-term horizons— ultimately reduce sexual energy and undermine love? Does the separatist ideal of polymorphous pleasures so fail to correspond to the inner syntax of sexuality that it strains the bonds of human personality, becoming disintegrative, not integrative, of body and mind and spirit? (New York: Signet Books, 1973, p. 36).

Gilder himself argues that sex fully counter to the procreative pattern does undermine love and is disintegrative of body, mind, and spirit. As I will shortly show, abundant contemporary literature from the social sciences shows just how right Pope Paul and Gilder were.

While contraception has led to abandoned women, divorce, and fatherless families, it has paradoxically—when coupled with in vitro fertilization— also managed to make men dispensable. It is important to note that July 25, 1978—10 years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae—was the birthday of Louise Brown, the first child conceived in vitro to live to see the light of day. Hundreds of children so conceived had failed to survive the journey from a Petri dish through a woman’s womb to birth. Thus was born a new industry: that of “new reproductive technologies,” made possible by severing the bonds between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act. All this, as shown by Lionel Tiger, a sociologist from Rutgers University, has made men superfluous for contemporary feminists; their major role now is to be sperm vendors, not husbands or fathers (Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Woman [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999]).

I will now turn to evidence provided by contemporary social sciences that fully supports Catholic teaching on human sexuality and marriage, and then to evidence showing that contraception was the gateway to the “culture of death.”


There can be no doubt that, as a result of the widespread practice of contraception since the late 1960s, the institution of marriage—and with it, the family—has been under constant attack. The authors of The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs, published in 2006, describe the scope of these attacks:

Around the world, the two-person, mother-father model of parenthood is being fundamentally challenged. In Canada … the controversial law that brought about same-sex marriage quietly included the provision to erase the term “natural parent” across the board in federal law, replacing it with the term “legal parent.” … In Spain, after the recent legalization of same-sex marriage the legislature changed the birth certificates for all children in that nation to read “Progenitor A” and “Progenitor B” instead of “mother” and “father.” With that change, the words “mother” and “father” were struck from the first document issued to every newborn by the state…. In the United States, courts often must determine who the legal parents are among the many adults who might be involved in planning, conceiving, birthing, and raising a child….successes in the same-sex marriage debate have encouraged group marriage advocates who wish to break open the two-person understanding of marriage and parenthood…. Nearly all of these steps, and many more, are being taken in the name of adult rights to form families they choose. But what about the children? (Elizabeth Marquart et al., The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs [New York: Institute for American Values, 2006], pp. 5-6)

In the book’s conclusion the authors note:

When society changes marriage it changes parenthood … the two-natural- parent, mother-father model is falling away, replaced with the idea that children are fine with any one or more adults being called their parents, so long as the appointed parents are nice people…. Those of us who are concerned can and should take up and lead a debate about the lives of children and the future of parenthood. As we launch this conversation, a guiding principle could be this: When there is a clash between adult rights and children’s needs, the interests of the more vulnerable party—in this case, the children— should take precedence. A great deal of evidence supports the idea that children, on average, do best when raised by their own mothers and fathers (Ibid., pp. 32-33).

Let us now see the evidence supporting the thesis that children, in general, do best when raised by their own mothers and fathers.

This evidence is summarized by the team of social scientists, headed by W. Bradford Wilcox, that issued Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences in 2005. In their study they list 26 conclusions, divided into four major areas, to support the importance of traditional marriage:


1. Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers and mothers have good relationships with their children.

2. Cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage.

3. Growing up outside an intact family increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents.

4. Marriage is virtually a universal phenomenon.

5. Marriage, and a normative commitment to marriage, foster highquality relationships between adults, as well as between parents and children.

6. Marriage has important biosocial consequences for adults and children.


7. Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers.

8. Married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples.

9. Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children.

10. Minorities benefit economically from marriage.

11. Married men earn more money than do single men with similar education and job histories.

12. Parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children’s risk of school failure.

13. Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve highstatus jobs.

Physical Health and Longevity

14. Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health on average than do children in other family forms.

15. Parental marriage is associated with a sharply lower risk of infant mortality.

16. Marriage is associated with reduced rates of alcohol and substance abuse for both adults and teens.

17. Married people, especially married men, have longer life expectancies than do otherwise similar singles.

18. Marriage is associated with better health and lower rates of injury, illness, and disability for both men and women.

19. Marriage seems to be associated with better health among minorities and the poor.

Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being

20. Children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological distress and mental illness.

21. Divorce appears to increase significantly the risk of suicide.

22. Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers.

23. Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

24. Marriage appears to reduce the risk that adults will be either perpetrators or victims of crime.

25. Married women appear to have a lower risk of experiencing domestic violence than do cohabiting or dating women.

26. A child who is not living with his or her own two married parents is at a greater risk for child abuse (Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences [New York: Institute for American Values, 2005], pp. 10-11).

Social science studies also show the truth of Pope Paul VI’s affirmation in Humanae Vitae that the practice of contraception would cause serious harm to families, women, and children. W. Bradford Wilcox has demonstrated this in several masterful articles (for example, “Social Science and the Vindication of Catholic Moral Teaching,” in The Church and the Family [South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007], pp. 330-340). Wilcox shows that the findings of such social scientists as Robert Michaels and George Akerlof definitely support Pope Paul’s positions in Humanae Vitae. Wilcox focuses on two important essays by Akerlof in which this leading sociologist details findings and advances arguments that vindicate Paul VI’s prophetic warnings about the social consequences of contraception for morality and men.

In the first, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1996, Akerlof asked why there was such a dramatic increase in illegitimacy in the United States from 1965 to 1990—from 24 percent to 64 percent among African- Americans, and from 3 percent to 18 percent among whites—even though “public health advocates had predicted that the widespread availability of contraception and abortion would reduce illegitimacy, not increase it.”

So what happened? After noting that “technological innovation creates both winners and losers,” Akerlof showed that “in this case the introduction of widespread effective contraception … put traditional women with an interest in marriage and children at ‘competitive disadvantage’ in the relationship ‘market’ compared to modern women who took a more hedonistic approach to sex and relationships. The contraceptive revolution also reduced the costs of sex for women and men, insofar as the threat of childbearing was taken off the table, especially as abortion became widely available in the 1970s.”

As a result of this, “the norm of premarital sexual abstinence all but vanished in the wake of the technology shock.” Women felt free or obligated to have sex before marriage. For instance, Akerlof found that the percentage of girls 16 and under reporting sexual activity surged in 1970 and 1971 as contraception and abortion became common in many states throughout the country.

Thus, the sexual revolution left traditional or moderate women who wanted to avoid premarital sex or contraception “immiserated” because they could not compete with women who had no serious objection to premarital sex, and they could no longer elicit a promise of marriage from boyfriends in the event they got pregnant. Boyfriends, of course, could say that pregnancy was their girlfriends’ choice. So men were less likely to agree to a shotgun marriage in the event of a pregnancy.

Thus, many traditional women ended up having sex and having children out of wedlock, while many of the permissive women ended up having sex and contracepting or aborting so as to avoid childbearing. This explains in large part why the contraceptive revolution was associated with an increase in both abortion and illegitimacy.

In his second article, published in The Economic Journal in 1998, Akerlof argued that another key outcome of the contraceptive revolution was the disappearance of marriage—shotgun and otherwise—for men. Contraception and abortion allowed men to put off marriage, even in cases where they had fathered a child. Consequently, the number of young men who were married in the United States dropped precipitously. Between 1968 and 1993 the percentage of men 25 to 34 who were married with children fell from 66 percent to 40 percent. Accordingly, young men did not benefit from the domesticating influence of wives and children. Instead, they could continue to hang out with their young male friends, and were thus more vulnerable to the drinking, partying, tomcatting, and worse activities that are associated with unsupervised groups of young men. Absent the domesticating influence of marriage and children, young men—especially men from workingclass and poor families—were more likely to respond to the lure of the street. Akerlof noted, for instance, that substance abuse and incarceration more than doubled from 1968 to 1998. Moreover, his statistical models indicate that the growth in single men in this period was indeed linked to higher rates of substance abuse, arrests for violent crimes, and drinking.

From this research, Akerlof concluded that the contraceptive revolution played a key role in the dramatic increase in social pathology and poverty this country witnessed in the 1970s, precisely because it fostered sexual license, poisoned the relations between men and women, and weakened marriage. In Akerlof’s words: “Just at the time, about 1970, that the permanent cure to poverty seemed to be on the horizon and just at the time that women had obtained the tools to control the number and the timing of their children, single motherhood and the feminization of poverty began their long and steady rise.” Furthermore, the decline in marriage caused in part by the contraceptive revolution “intensified … the crime shock and the substance abuse shock” that marked the 1970s and 1980s.


Earlier I noted that contraception is an anti-life kind of act. In addition, the anthropology undergirding the defense of contraception is dualistic, regarding the person as the conscious subject aware of itself as a self and capable of relating to other selves. For defenders of contraception the “personal” meaning of human sexuality is its ability to relate two conscious subjects in a special intimacy; for them, its procreative meaning is, of itself, subpersonal, part of the subhuman world of nature over which the person, i.e., the conscious subject, has been given dominion. Germain Grisez demonstrated this brilliantly in his 1977 essay, “Dualism and the New Morality” (in L’agire morale, Vol. 5, pp. 323-332 of Atti del congresso internazionale Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo settimo centenario [Naples: Edizioni Domenicane Italiane, 1977]). Pope John Paul II noted this in a significant passage in Familiaris Consortio, 32, where he said that the “difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle, is much wider and deeper than is commonly recognized … it is a difference ultimately rooted in irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”

John Paul II, also in Evangelium Vitae, no. 19, identified as one of the roots of the culture of death the mentality that requires some minimal exercise of cognitive abilities as a criterion for personhood. And that is precisely what is at the heart of the culture of death. That this is so is dramatically revealed in current debates over human embryonic stem cell research. Those championing killing human embryos to obtain their pluripotent stem cells frankly acknowledge that the entities they are willing to destroy are human embryos, i.e., living human beings. Were they to propose killing embryonic dolphins or pandas or chimpanzees, moral outrage would greet them and PETA and other animal rights’ groups would immediately condemn such a barbaric proposal.

Today, scientists have discovered several ways of obtaining pluripotent stem cells by methods other than killing living human embryos—from adult skin cells, from mice, etc. Father Thomas Berg, LC, in an interview published by the news agency Zenit, reported that two studies released in November 2007 showed that through “reprogramming,” adult skin cells can be induced to produce pluripotent cells that possess the properties of human embryonic stem cells.

Despite such discoveries, enthusiasts for human embryonic stem cell research still clamor for the right to kill human embryos for their stem cells and are unfortunately gaining more and more support for public funding of such research, with several states (such as California) already offering such support.

A major slogan of the culture of death is “no unwanted baby ought to be born,” and the way to avoid this tragedy is to make use of contraception and, should this fail, abortion. The truth at the heart of the culture of life is that no person, from the unborn to the disabled and elderly, ought to be unwanted.


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About William B. May 0 Articles
William B. May is president of Catholics for the Common Good.