The teaching of Humanae Vitae just turned 50. A smattering of conferences have been held to commemorate it here and there. A few articles and blog posts. Not much in the way of media attention.
Penned in 1968 by Blessed Pope Paul VI after a long delay, Humanae Vitae is the most controversial, challenging, most broadly ignored document in Church history. Since the teaching is true because it comes from Christ and the apostles, despite the arm’s length treatment it still gets in most quarters of the Church, it’s not going anywhere. So how to convey and convince people that it tells the truth about love, sex, and marriage?
Yes, priests can give homilies, writers can produce books and articles, and of course, couples can joyfully live out the truth of it. Don Johnson did something outside the box: he created a documentary film that chronicled his own path from rejection to acceptance. The result is titled Unprotected: A Pope, the Pill, and the Perils of Sexual Chaos.
Full disclosure: Johnson, the former Relevant Radio radio host and convert to the Faith, asked me to contribute to the movie as an interview subject because of my own focus on the teaching of Humanae Vitae in my book The Contraception Deception: Catholic Teaching on Birth Control. I was honored to participate, and further honored to speak with him recently about the story behind the story and to let CWR readers know how they can see it.
Patrick Coffin, for CWR: As with your previous documentary, Convinced, you chose to approach the subject through a personal narrative structure in which the viewer is invited to identify with your questions and your discoveries. Why not do a more conventional “omniscient Ken Burns voiceover” style movie?
Johnson: Well, other than the fact that I don’t have the gravitas (or the patience) to make the five-hour, Ken Burns-style [documentary] the topic would require, I wanted to try to share with the viewer why I care about this subject so much. And I do think it is something that most people can connect with.
I became interested in the sexual revolution when two of my daughters became teenagers. I was shocked at just how much toxic sludge they have to deal with every day, and how pervasive the sexual objectification of women is in our culture. As I researched and uncovered the roots of that poison, I knew it was something I had to share with everyone, because I know my family isn’t the only one struggling with this.
CWR: You are a convert to the Catholic Faith who came from a vibrant Evangelical Protestant ministry background. Was the teaching of Humanae Vitae an obstacle to you as you started investigating what the Church really teaches?
Johnson: At the beginning of my journey toward the Church, Humanae Vitae wasn’t so much an obstacle as it was a non-issue. I didn’t know anything about the encyclical itself, and with what little I was told about the Church’s view on contraception, I assumed it was a very minor point of teaching, and frankly one that could be ignored without consequence. It was only after I actually became familiar with the document—and the story around it—that everything changed.
Not only did I begin to realize just how central this teaching is to everything else I was studying, both theologically and socially, but it became a huge draw for me toward Catholicism. I realized that not only was the Church right about this but that this truth was supremely good and beautiful.
CWR: Unprotected draws from a very wide array of sources: history, statistics, social science data, personal experience, biblical and philosophical content. How did you narrow down that morass of information into a story thread the viewer could follow?
Johnson: That was a function of me trying to make sense of it for myself. I genuinely didn’t know what specific direction the film would take when I started researching and shooting. However, as I dug into the topic, certain themes rose to the top and a plot line started to crystalize. Thankfully, it turned out to be a really interesting one that fit naturally into a classic movie outline.
For example, this film is filled with accounts of sex, lies, and conspiracies by large companies to make money off of the suffering of others. All the basic ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster. It also contains a third act in which a hero rides in from some obscure outpost of a falling kingdom to save the day. Again, a storytelling staple. But the beauty of this story is that it is all true, and I was thrilled when I realized how nicely it all fit together.
CWR: One thing stressed throughout Unprotected is that the norms contained in Humanae Vitae are not disciplines, like fasting from meat or priestly celibacy. Rather, the encyclical is getting at something essentially human, correct?
Johnson: Right, exactly. I like the way you phrased the question, because Pope Paul VI was getting at the essence of what it is to be human. As I try to show in the movie, the debate over contraception is really about the meaning of sex and the meaning of love, and that discussion is ultimately about the meaning of life.
CWR: How did you raise the initial capital to begin pre-production? That’s the age-old dilemma, right—no money without a movie, no movie without the money.
Johnson: Ah, yes, the whole funding thing. Well, I started with a crowd-funding campaign that, frankly, didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. However, just when I was about to throw in the towel on this project, I received a donation out of the blue from someone I didn’t know for $10,000. Not nearly enough to make the movie, but enough to encourage me to keep going. From that point, basically the entire film has been made that way—one stage at a time, with God providing what we need at just the right moment. He has opened one door after another, using individual donors and investors, connectors, and the wonderful people at Ignatius Press to make it happen.
CWR: With Unprotected, you didn’t create something catechetical or even evangelical, per se, but essentially let the facts and personal stories speak from themselves. Tell me about the audience responses so far.
Johnson: I’ve been so thankful for the overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve been getting, including from non-Catholics. One of the benefits of just telling the story without preaching is that it opens it up to a whole new audience, so I am particularly grateful for that.
Simply telling the story also allows the audience to more freely connect with its various aspects. I’ve noticed that different viewers, depending on their personal background experiences, are deeply affected by different parts of the movie, which is immensely satisfying. We hit a lot of touchy subjects in the film, from abortion to divorce; but because it isn’t preachy, even those in the audience that struggle deeply with the various issues are able to use the film to positively work though some things.
CWR: I know you’re still (sort of) a baby Catholic, but in this stage of your journey to—and now into—the Catholic Church, are you surprised or annoyed—or scandalized—by the low level of information most Catholics are operating under, especially when it comes to the issue of contraception?
Johnson: I think somewhere between sad that a) more Catholics don’t know the beauty of their own teaching, and annoyed that b) they haven’t been taught better over the past several decades. It’s like owning a Da Vinci that you hide in the hall closet. How can we have this amazing truth, with its ability to set people free from all manner of dysfunction and sorrow, yet not teach it?
CWR: At what point did you learn that all Protestant denominations vehemently rejected contraception, until the Anglicans broke the dam in 1930 and wrecked the unity of Christendom on this issue?
Johnson: This revelation came quite late in my journey toward the Catholic Church, and it served as one of the final puzzle pieces to fall into place for me, both in terms of accepting the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics but also of accepting the authority of the Church itself. The fact that the Catholic Church was the only one to stand strong on this—and turned out to be right—made me all the more convinced that I made the right call in becoming Catholic.
CWR: As a film producer myself, I know that a thousand things that are supposed to be smooth go wrong; and then you’re stunned when something amazingly fortuitous happens out of the blue, as you said with the $10,000 gift. Call them bombs versus blessings. Can you share an example of each?
Johnson: You couldn’t be more right. My first rule of film-making is that you have to be willing to fight for your movie, because projects like this one don’t come easy. They’re going to involve a lot of pain and unforeseen trouble.
That seemed especially true in this case, perhaps because of the subject matter. From equipment failure to weather events that hindered shooting to huge license fees I didn’t expect, we had our share of the usual mishaps. The biggest hurdle on this film actually turned out to be more personal, though. Right in the middle of production, due to a variety of factors out of our control, my wife and I moved our family to a different state; obviously that was disruptive on many levels.
On the other hand, we have been blessed during this production in innumerable ways as well. One of my favorite incidents involved the film’s motion graphics. I had been shopping around the country for a post-production company without much success when, through a “chance” meeting with a friend of a friend, I learned about a group in Michigan that would meet our needs perfectly. They gave me a fair bid on the work and explained that they only had a small window between projects and they would need to start the following Monday. That was great, but the problem was that even with their reasonable bid, I didn’t have enough money. I told them that I would think about it over the weekend and let them know.
That Friday night, unsolicited, I got an email from a woman I didn’t know very well. She had heard about the movie and wondered if there was anything she could do to help. Hesitantly, I told her that our main need at the moment was to get the graphics paid for. Honestly, I expected that she might send $50 or $100 and I would have been thankful for that. When she wrote back, she explained that she had been left an inheritance and that every year she tried to make one donation to a worthy project. God is good: This year she had decided to pay the entire bill for the motion graphics.
CWR: Now that the Church is reliving the “Long Lent of 2002” all over again the scandal of predator priests—today’s circumstances are worse than even the Archdiocese of Boston debacle back then—do you see any connection between dissent from Humanae Vitae and all this sexual sin and chaos within Church leadership?
Johnson: They sure seem to go together. Dissent from Humanae Vitae involved a) a refusal to submit to the authority of the Church and b) a rejection of the Church’s teaching regarding sexual ethics. Those two things are pre-requisites for the evil that has occurred within Church leadership. There may not be causation, but correlation seems obvious.
CWR: For skeptics reading this, what is a brief way to explain that part of the answer to the evil of abortion is not “better birth control,” but none?
Johnson: I guess first I’d want to confirm with the skeptic that he or she thinks abortion is actually evil. The more I’ve studied the rise of the contraception/abortion industrial complex, the more skeptical I am of those arguments for contraception that appeal to a supposed reduction in abortion.
The fact is that abortion and contraception go together historically, philosophically, and psychologically. The more people use contraception in a society, the more abortion that society will have.
As Christopher West explains so eloquently in the film, the logic of this is quite simple. When you have culture of people engaging in promiscuous sex who have already determined by their use of contraception that they don’t want that act to result in a child, what happens when that contraception fails? There is a demand for abortion to back up failed contraception. That is why, historically, the most ardent supporters of contraception such as Margaret Sanger and Betty Friedan, are also the most vocal proponents of abortion.
CWR: Is there an ideal setting where you envision Unprotected being watched? RCIA class? Family living room? Local theater? College dorm?
Johnson: All of the above! The movie is general interest enough to fit well in your local theater or secular dorm, but also Catholic enough to watch in your parish hall or with your RCIA class.
CWR: Apart from recommending Unprotected to their pastors, how can readers of this interview encourage their priests to preach boldly (or at all!) about the beauty and truth of Humanae Vitae?
Johnson: As a filmmaker, I am a big believer in the power of storytelling to move people. One way might just be to be very open about telling your story, both to your priest or anyone else who will listen. As more people learn how following the Church’s teaching leads to joy, more will accept it. Then, if you are able, encourage your priest to either tell those stories during his homily, or allow his parishioners some time to tell their own stories.
CWR: My last question is just an invitation to share any additional thoughts on Unprotected, the main takeaway, and so on. More importantly, how people can get the documentary into the hands of as many hearts and mind as possible?
Johnson: We are debuting Unprotected in multiple stage releases, and the more people involved at each stage, the better. First, we are currently scheduling screenings of the film all over the country.
You can host Unprotected at your parish or a local theater, and there are several great screening packages available from Ignatius Press at http://unprotectedmovie.com. You can also download resources for hosting and promoting an event. Personally, I find the group screenings the premiere way to watch the film.
Down the road, we will release the film for personal use on DVD and digital download, as well as on streaming services.