Forty years ago, on 25 July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his seventh and last encyclical letter, which was addressed not only to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church, but to all people of good will. The letter was on “the regulation of birth,” and its promulgation was eagerly awaited.
A new and instantly popular method of contraception had appeared ten years earlier –- the Pill was introduced in 1958 –- and many fervently hoped the pope who oversaw the Second Vatican Council, in which the Church had thrown open its windows to the modern world, would now signal his approval of its use.
Their hopes were dashed. Humanae vitae reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the Church: acts of artificial contraception are “intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.”
The outcrywas overwhelming and is said to have broken the Pope’s heart. Among christian leaders of international standing, only the Ecumenical Patriarch rose to his defence. Most protestant denominations -- starting with the Anglicans at their 1930 Lambeth Conference -- had begun making their peace with artificial contraception some years earlier.
So of course had many Canadian Catholics, including the Québécois, who were already enjoying their Quiet Revolution. (Between 1959 and 1971 the birth rate in Quebec plunged from Canada’s highest to its lowest.) Consternation was felt right across the country. On September 27th, barely two months after the encyclical’s promulgation, Canadian bishops released their Winnipeg Statement as an act of damage control.
The Winnipeg Statement made an enormous concession, one that belied the bishops’ professed solidarity with the Pope. Persons, they said, who “have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives … may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” It is safe to say that the vast majority of Catholics took the bishops at their word and continued their trips to the pharmacy.
Forty years on, however, it is Humanae vitae -– not the Winnipeg Statement -- that has stood the test of time. Study after study has documented the uncanny accuracy of the Pope’s much scoffed-at predictions, which stand out sharply against the failures of the preferred prophets of the day, such as Paul Erhlich, who in the same year published his famously misguided book, The Population Bomb.
Among those predictions were the marked increase in adultery and fornication (what we have learned to call “casual” sex); the corresponding increase in alienation between men and women (which we now refer to as the gender wars); the weakening of the family (for which we no longer have even a working definition); and especially the intrusion of the state into “the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy” -- that is, into the very processes of human reproduction.
On this last point, Paul VI presciently warned that rulers might even begin to impose on their people “the method of contraception which they judge to be the most efficacious.” This prediction, heavily ridiculed at the time, has found its sorriest fulfillment in China, which not only permits contraception, sterilization and abortion as legitimate means of regulating births, but systematically enforces them.
Canada’s embrace of the contraceptive mentality (we don’t think much of “the serious duty of transmitting human life”) has produced the problem of too few people, so our own rulers are not tempted to be quite so draconian. Yet through the United Nations Population Fund Canada participates in a wide variety of manipulative, not to say murderous, “family planning” policies, including those of China. And its policies at home, particularly in the area of sex education, about which the Winnipeg Statement was so absurdly hopeful, are only marginally less manipulative. The Canadian bishops never imagined mandatory programs teaching Catholic children how to experiment in all manner of “sterile” sex, including sodomy, or how to appreciate the fact that “families” come in all sizes and shapes. Nor did Catholic politicians foresee the skyrocketing divorce and abortion rates, or their multi-billion dollar annual price tag, when in 1968 they moved to adapt our legal system to the contraceptive era with Bill C-150.
Humanae vitae, however, did not content itself with predicting the dissolution of family life on the shoals of the contraceptive mentality. It did indeed condemn contraception as a violation of natural law that, in picking apart the unitive and the procreative dimensions of human sexuality, must also pick apart the very social bonds it was supposed to protect. But it also recognized that the acceptance of artificial contraception would dissolve ecclesial bonds, too, by ripping a large hole in the Church’s sacramental vision of marriage. For proof of that we need look no further than the Anglican Communion, meeting this month for its 2008 Lambeth Conference in the vain hope of saving its sinking ship.
Paul VI was not unaware that Catholics, not to mention the other “men of good will” to whom he addressed his letter, would have great difficulty accepting the teaching of Humanae vitae. He knew, however, that the proper way for the Church to address the modern world was no different than the way it had addressed the ancient world. It had to speak the truth in love, whatever the cost. “The Church,” he said, “is not surprised to be made, like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction.’” That is how the Church herself survives the test of time.
Humanae vitae contradicted not so much through its condemnation of contraception as through its constructive vision for marriage. Those who trouble themselves to read this infamous document during its fortieth anniversary will discover, to their surprise, that it sets out an attractive view of spousal love and responsible parenthood. Integrating the principles of charity, chastity, and “the intervention of intelligence” in marital life, it lays the foundation on which John Paul II would later build with supreme pastoral skill. In consequence of its courageous intervention there is today a new generation of Catholic faithful who are learning to wrestle with their own call to be a sign of contradiction in Canadian culture. May their tribe increase, as doubtless it will.
Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Nation of Bastards.
• Read the Pope's encyclical
• The Winnipeg Statement
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