November 18, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: ‘Humanae Vitae’ was prophetic

John F. Fink(Seventeenth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about Pope Paul VI and his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”) which, I said, was widely rejected and put the authority of the pope in crisis. It would not be fair, though, to leave it at that in a series about the 20th-century Church. More than one theologian has pointed out that the encyclical was prophetic.

Toward the end of the 20th century, for example, Dr. Janet Smith published two books about why “Humanae Vitae” was right and prophetic. She also wrote articles on the same subject, and what follows is from one of them.

She wrote that the encyclical “prophesied” that marriages and society would suffer if the use of contraception became widespread. Now, of course, it has.

She noted that Pope Paul made four “prophecies” about what would happen if the Church’s teaching on contraception was ignored. First, widespread use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality” (#17). That there has been a widespread decline in morality, especially sexual morality, is difficult to deny.

Contraception made sexual activity a much more popular option than it was when the fear of pregnancy deterred men and women, young and old, from engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. The availability of contraception has led them to believe that they can engage in such sexual activity “responsibly.”

Second, Paul VI argued that “the man” will lose respect for “the woman,” and “no longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium” and will come to “the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion” (#17).

The pope realized that the Church’s teaching on contraception is designed to protect the good of conjugal love. When spouses violate this good, they do not act in accord with their innate dignity and thus endanger their own happiness. Treating their bodies as mechanical instruments to be manipulated for their own purposes risks treating each other as objects of pleasure.

Third, Paul VI observed that the widespread acceptance of contraception would place a “dangerous weapon … in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies” (#17). The history of the family-planning programs in the Third World is a sobering testimony to this reality. Pope Francis has repeatedly decried in recent years as “ideological colonization” how developed countries in the West tie international aid to developing countries to their acceptance of such programs.

In Third World countries, many people undergo sterilization unaware of what is being done to them. The forced abortion program in China shows the stark extreme toward which governments will take population programs.

Fourth, Pope Paul warned that contraception would lead humans to think that they had unlimited dominion over their bodies. Sterilization is now a widely used form of contraception in the U.S. Individuals are so convinced of their rights to control their own bodies that they do not hesitate to permanently alter even their own physical make-up.

The desire for unlimited dominion over one’s body extends beyond contraception. The production of “test-tube babies” is another indication of the refusal to accept the body’s limitations. We seek to adjust the body to our desires and timetables, rather than adjusting ourselves to its needs. †

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