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What’s changed since “Humanae Vitae”?

The Pontifical Gregorian University is hosting a series of lectures on the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, but some of the speakers aren’t defenders of Humanae Vitae—and one of the Church’s most brilliant analysts of the social and cultural impacts of contraception was not invited.

(Image of contraceptives: Simone van der Koelen/; Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome: Luigi Santoro/Wikipedia)

Throughout this academic year, Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University is hosting a series of lectures, billed as the “first interdisciplinary” study to mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The series promises to examine the “many problems” that have emerged in family life since Pope Paul wrote on the ethics of human love and the morally appropriate methods of family-planning. And that could indeed be useful.

Yet the roster of series speakers is not replete with defenders of Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae Vitae, and at least one of the lecturers has telegraphed his revisionist theological punch by suggesting that today’s “new situation” is quite different from that addressed by Humanae Vitae.

On that, at least, he’s right: the situation is far worse.

The Gregorian promises the involvement of both the social sciences and moral theology in its study, presumably to complement the work of a new historical commission on HumanaeVitae established by Pope Francis. So let’s look at some of the relevant social science.

Demographers tell us that a society must have a “Total Fertility Rate” (TFR) of slightly over 2.1 (the average number of children a woman has during her child-bearing years), if that society is to maintain its population over time. Here are the most recent Eurostat TFP figures for the countries of the European Union in 2014:

Austria: 1.47; Belgium: 1.74; Bulgaria: 1.53; Croatia: 1.46; Cyprus: 1.31; Czech Republic: 1.53; Denmark: 1.69; Finland: 1.71; France: 2.01; Germany: 1.47; Great Britain: 1.81; Greece: 1.30; Hungary: 1.44; Ireland: 1.94; Italy: 1.37; Latvia: 1.54; Lithuania: 1.63; Luxembourg: 1.50; Malta: 1.42; Netherlands: 1.71; Poland: 1.32; Portugal: 1.23; Romania: 1.52; Spain: 1.32; Slovakia: 1.37; Slovenia: 1.58; Sweden: 1.88.    Thus the TFR for the European Union as a whole in 2014 was 1.58, well below population-replacement level and heading toward the demographic Niagara Falls that demographers call “lowest-low fertility.”

Please note that no EU country was in a major war in 2014. Nor was any EU country beset by a devastating plague. Nor did Europe suffer a Vesuvius- or Krakatoa-like natural disaster. In other words, none of the causes of demographic collapse that have depleted populations throughout history was in play in the European Union in 2014. And insofar as I’m aware, European men have not suffered the loss of fertility that sets the stage for P.D. James’s brilliant novel, The Children of Men.

So from a strictly social-scientific point of view, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Europe’s infertility is self-induced. Which means that European infertility is deliberate and willful, not random and accidental. Which means that Europe is contracepting itself into demographic oblivion.

And that means that Paul VI has been thoroughly vindicated in his warnings, in Humanae Vitae, about the effects of a “contraceptive culture:” a culture in which love and reproduction are technologically sundered; a culture in which children become another lifestyle choice like the choice of vacation (the Dalmatian coast or Majorca) or automobile (BMW or Mercedes-Benz); a culture in which the family is redefined absent its most fundamental characteristic – the transmission of the gift of life and the nurturance of the young.

Now there’s something for our Gregorian social scientists to ponder with their theological colleagues over the next eight months. Yet the notable absence of Humanae Vitaeproponents among the lecturers does not fill me with confidence that the causal linkage between the contraceptive mentality and Europe’s demographic suicide will be seriously examined in this series of lectures.

Neither does the absence from the roster of lecturers of one of the Church’s most brilliant analysts of the social and cultural impacts of contraception, my friend Mary Eberstadt. Mrs. Eberstadt’s 2012 book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press), analyzes the real-world effects of ignoring Paul VI on men, women, children, values, and culture with greater insight than anything produced at the Pontifical Gregorian University since Humanae Vitae was issued; of that, I am quite confident. Yet Mary Eberstadt was not invited to participate in an examination of the “new situation” after Humanae Vitae.

And that, in turn, suggests that those who arranged this series of lectures are either woefully ignorant of what’s happening outside their intellectual silos – or that the Gregorian conference organizers have more than their elbows up their sleeves.

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. What has changed since 19687/68 is that the church is even more comfortable with the idea of adapting to modern trends and malleable doctrine, add to the recent acceptance of the breech between doctrine and practice.

    • God says in Luke 13:24 that “many” people go to hell. Additionally, God implies in Luke 13 that “many” people live their lives on earth thinking they are going to heaven, but after they die, they are thrust out of the Kingdom of God and into hell. Who are these people who think they are going to heaven but will realize they are going to hell when its too late? Because contraception is a very prevalent mortal sin (along with the mortal sin of spreading Islam through “refugee” re-settlement, propagating theft in the form of amnesty of illegal immigrants, voting in favor of liberal politicians, refusing to oppose liberal politicians, etc.), one can conclude that those priests, deacons, and bishops who refuse to oppose contraception as well as the “Catholic” contraceptors themselves are some of the most likely who think they are going to heaven but instead will be cast into hell when they stand before God.

  2. The Deposit of Faith still stands….for the moment.

    But we have a pope who is brazenly aware that he answers to no one and, by his continuous words and actions, shows contempt for the Moral column of the Church’s twin infallible promises concerning Faith and Morals.

    From the remarried on the Eucharist, contraception, capital punishment, and even homosexuality, this pope is open to “change.” And of late, Francis has been exhorting on how “wonderful” change is concerning doctrine and claims it is from God.

    Cannot wait for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and how it will be explained on how the Holy Spirit changed on infallibility should the illustrious Pope Francis take the fateful step(s).

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