“The watershed issue for Catholics is not abortion but contraception.”

A suggested trilogy for those wondering, "What’s the deal with the Pill?"

That is not a recent soundbite, nor is it a remark made in response to the HHS mandate. It is from the 1995 book, The Church and the Culture War (Ignatius Press), written by the now-retired Dr. Joyce Little, who taught for many years at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. The book is now out of print (with a few used copies available on amazon.com) and some of its examples and references are, not surprisingly, a bit dated. But it is a timely book, with a nearly endless stream of insights into the theological confusion and cultural wars of the past several decades. It is one of my favorite Ignatius Press books.

And it occurred to me, as I was recently re-reading passages in the book (one of which is below), that Dr. Little’s book could well be the middle volume of a relatively short, highly engaging Ignatius Press trilogy that, once read, will provide people with an education both wide and deep about The Pill, the sexual revolution, and the resulting crises upon us today.

The first book of that trilogy is of The Right to Privacy by Janet Smith, which

presents a critical look at the meaning of the “right to privacy” that has been so often employed by the Supreme Court in recent times to justify the creation of rights not found in the Constitution by any traditional method of interpreting a legal document. Smith shows how these inventions have led to the legal protection of abortion, assisted suicide, homosexual acts, and more.

You can get a good sense of Smith’s approach in this excerpt from my 2009 Ignatius Insight interview with her about the book:

Ignatius Insight: If Roe v. Wade was the poster child (no pun intended) for the “right to privacy,” what was Griswold v. Connecticut? Why was that 1965 decision so significant?

Janet E. Smith: I suppose Griswold v. Connecticut was its grand debut. In that decision the courts attempted to find some basis on which they could overturn laws against the sale, distribution and use of contraception. For nearly a century many states and the federal government had had laws against contraception. Planned Parenthood assiduously challenged those laws but they were repeatedly affirmed by legislatures and courts.

In 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court found constitutional protection for the sale, distribution and use of contraceptives—by married couples. As is well known, there is no “right to privacy” in the constitution nor were the justices clear on which amendment implied a “right to privacy” that would guarantee access to contraception. A short two years later the court expanded that right to the use of contraceptives by the unmarried. In 1973, the court found that the right to privacy extended to the right to have an abortion. There, too, laws of all fifty states were overturned by the votes of a few justices.

The right to privacy has become a very elastic right; it has been used to legalize contraception, abortion, assisted suicide and homosexual acts. Virtually no one can give a coherent explanation of what this right is and what it legitimately protects. It has become a wild card that permits the courts to advance a very liberal not to say libertine agenda, often overriding the decisions of state legislatures and courts.

While Smith’s book presents the history and legal philosophies at work, Little’s book dives, with real profundity and even elegance, into the theological and cultural roots of the culture of death, drawing upon Scripture, natural law, Humanae Vitae, the writings of Bl. John Paul II, Chesterton, Guardini, and many others.

The third book of this trilogy is the just published Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution by Mary Eberstadt, which is a combination of cultural critique, sociological exposition, and disaster site investigation. Eberstadt opens her excellent book with this:

Time magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception. Moreover, there is good reason for their agreement. By rendering fertile women infertile with nearly 100 percent accuracy, the Pill and related devices have transformed the lives and families of the great majority of people born after their invention. Modern contraception is not only a fact of our time; it may even be the central fact, in the sense that it is hard to think of any other whose demographic, social, behavioral, and personal fallout has been as profound.

Read the entire Introduction. All three of these books, might I note, are written by very intelligent, well-educated, and erudite women. This trilogy could not be construed (at least, ahem, not by reasonable people) as part of a mythical male-operated attack on women and “women’s rights”, a mythology that Eberstadt dismissed so well in this recent Wall Street Journal essay.

Which brings me to the excerpt from Little’s book. Personally, I am tiring of hearing—from Catholics and others—that the HHS mandate situation “has nothing to do with contraception” but is “all about religious freedom”. I understand what is being said, but I think it is short sighted and ultimately incorrect. Yes, the immediate problem, especially within the realm of political rights and proper religious autonomy, is about religious freedom. But, but, but—the deeper, darker, and more difficult problem (in part, as it is not so immediate or obvious) is the contraceptive mentality addressed so well by Smith, Little, and Eberstadt. And that problem is going to require a moral awakening, much soul searching, and some stepping up to the hard plate of reality on the part of, first, Christians but also of other people of good will who seriously wonder, “What went wrong?”

A CULTURE OF LIFE OR DEATH? by Dr. Joyce Little, from The Church and the Culture War (Ignatius Press):

The watershed issue of our society today is abortion, for whether or not we accept it tells us whether or not we are prepared to accept death itself as a tool of social policy and as a means of solving social problems. Accused of being obsessed by the issue of abortion, Pope John Paul II recently responded:

I categorically reject every accusation or suspicion concerning the Pope’s alleged ‘obsession’ with this issue. We are dealing with a problem of tremendous importance, in which all of us must show the utmost responsibility and vigilance. We cannot afford forms of permissiveness that would lead directly to the trampling of human rights, and also to the complete destruction of values which are fundamental not only for the lives of individuals and families but for society itself. Isn’t there a sad truth in the powerful expression culture of death? [4]

When the freedom of some human beings is upheld by bringing about the deliberate death of other, innocent human beings, freedom itself becomes·simply another form of tyranny.

Abortion gives the lie to the notion that freedom can be the right to do anything we wish as long as we don’t hurt anybody else. The lie resides and always has resided in the fact that those who claim the right to do as they wish also reserve for themselves the right to define what hurts others. Those who claim the freedom to abort also claim the right to define out of existence those whom they abort and thus deny that anyone has been hurt.

In the movie Gettysburg, one of the soldiers fighting for the South asks a northern officer why those in the North cannot just live and let live. A lot of fuss would be avoided, he says, if only the two sides could simply agree to disagree. The problem, of course, is that to let live those Southerners who own slaves is to allow those Southerners to live and to exercise their freedom at the expense of those slaves. One simply cannot live and let live when it involves letting some live at the expense of the freedom and lives of others.

For Catholics, however, the roots of a culture of death strike deeper than abortion. The watershed issue for Catholics is not abortion but contraception. For contraception places before us the central issue of our age—who has dominion over man? Man himself or God? In Genesis, God gave man dominion over nature (Gen 1:28), but he reserved dominion over man to http://books.google.com/books?id=X8ISAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&img=1&zoom=1himself, as exemplified in his one command to Adam and Eve. Is the human body a part of that realm over which God gave man dominion, or is the human body indissociable from the human being over whom God reserved dominion for himself? That is the unavoidable question raised by contraception. To divorce sex from procreation is to divorce man from his role as co-creator with God in order to set man up as the sole lord of even his own existence. It is to reduce sex to the level of a simple biological function which, as such, belongs to the nature over which man has dominion. In doing this, man gives himself the warrant to define for himself what is good and what is evil in all matters pertaining to sex-and thus to life and death. To the man, and even more the woman, who claims contraceptive control over his or her own body, abortion is but the logical and even necessary corollary to such a notion of control.

Because contraception involves us in a false assertion of freedom vis-À-vis God, by claiming a prerogative which rightly belongs to God, and because abortion involves us in a false assertion of freedom vis-À-vis both God and other human beings, by taking a life which God has given to another person, women, who are the primary target of those advocating contraception and abortion, must take the lead in renouncing the culture of death which such techniques produce. Women must recognize within themselves that unique capacity for giving life which defined Eve as “mother of all living” and Mary as Mother of God. A culture of death can prevail only at the expense of motherhood itself: and women must work to see that the female capacity to conceive and bear children is not treated as somehow disordered or flawed.

This means two things above all else. It means, first, that women must actively resist that contraceptive mentality which supposes that the chemical suppression of the capacity of a normally-functioning female body to conceive a child or the physical disruption by barrier methods of the marital act itself are good things. It means, second, that women must actively combat that attitude which suggests that the woman who does actually conceive a child might be regarded as having contracted a disease. Thinking of the female body and the marital act as flawed and therefore in need of a contraceptive “fix” and viewing pregnancy as a disease in need of the “cure” of abortion are two of the most vicious aspects of a culture of death. Without these mistaken concepts, no such culture could ever flourish. If women must take the lead here, this does not mean that men have no role to play. Indeed, a culture centered on contraception and abortion works in the final analysis as much against fatherhood as against motherhood, for it strikes at marriage and the family precisely because it divorces freedom from love and that responsibility which is intrinsic to love. As the Pope points out, “Responsible parenthood is the necessary condition for human love, and it is also the necessary condition for authentic conjugal love, because love cannot be irresponsible. Its beauty is the fruit of responsibility. When love is truly responsible, it is also truly free.” [5]

The only way, in short, to subvert a culture of death is to embrace freely and joyfully the hierarchy or sacred order of the sacrament of marriage by which man is able to become the living image of God and thus sustain within this world the trinitarian order with which God has invested it and without which there can be only a world of tyranny and a culture of death. But this means something else of which both Vatican II and the current Pope have been most insistent. This means the laity must assume a much greater responsibility for the mission of the Church in this world. (pp 164-67)


[4] Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 207-8.

[5] Ibid, 208.

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About Carl E. Olson 1230 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.