STAMFORD—Fifty years after Blessed Pope Paul VI issued what one historian has called the most reviled and misunderstood Catholic document in modern history, a group of experts gathered to reexamine the encyclical Humanae Vitae in light of the social upheaval that has occurred since the sexual revolution.
The symposium, “Making Room for God’s Love: Humanae Vitae at 50,” was held at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, and featured talks by leading Catholic thinkers, along with a presentation by a panel of medical experts.
“Fifty years later, we have a great opportunity to discuss this encyclical and what it means for us today,” Father Andrew Vill, the organizer of the event, said.
Pope Paul VI’s seventh and last encyclical, issued July 25, 1968, upheld the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control, reaffirmed the sanctity of life and marital love, and emphasized the importance of responsible parenthood. The encyclical incited an immediate controversy among theologians, the laity and the clergy.
However, there is a growing appreciation for the lessons it offers … and what many believe were prophetic warnings that have come true since the sexual revolution erupted in the 1960s.
The encyclical described the “Consequences of artificial methods,” which included rampant infidelity, the deterioration of moral standards, a loss of respect for women, contraception as a form of population control, and the prevalent belief we have unlimited dominion over our bodies.
An examination of the encyclical in light of modern culture shows Blessed Paul VI was correct in predicting what would happen with the widespread use of artificial birth control, the experts concluded.
Mary Eberstadt, essayist, Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute and author of several books about religious freedom and faith, talked about what she called the “prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae.” She said that based on “a mass of empirical evidence,” our culture has been plagued by the disintegration of the family, broken homes, cohabitation, casual sex, public policies that oppose the sanctity of life, and the exploitation of women.
Eberstadt, author of “Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,” said that while the encyclical is the most reviled in the modern era, “It is the most explanatory document of our time.” Increased use of contraception, contrary to the thinking 50 years ago, has led to increased abortion even though the prevailing view back then had been “reliable birth control would prevent unwanted pregnancy.”
There was also a seismic shift in male attitudes in the post-pill era, she said. Because of the toxicity of the sexual revolution,” pregnancy has become a woman’s responsibility alone.
Eberstadt said there is growing concern particularly among Africans, who are resisting new technologies used by governments to keep down population rates—a trend foreseen by Blessed Paul VI who predicted birth control would evolve into a social justice issue in which the strong held the advantage over the weak. She cited examples from China with its forced abortion and sterilization and one-child policy.
Instead of making modern women “happier and freer than before,” the pill and the sexual revolution led to isiveness between the sexes, proliferation of sex abuse scandals, and women “going it alone.” In countries like Japan and France, there are “epidemics of loneliness” because of the extreme isolation of the elderly due to low birth rates and the breakup of families.
Eberstadt concluded the Church was right to stand alone on the issue of birth control and that now Protestant denominations are recognizing the validity of Catholic moral teaching.
Mary Hallan FioRito, an attorney who specializes in human life issues and is the Cardinal Francis George Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says there is a “General lack of understanding among Catholics about what Humanae Vitae says and means” and that the encyclical has been surrounded by “myths and misconceptions.”
The prevailing attitude when the FDA approved oral contraception in 1960 was that “it would free women and the planet would be better off because fewer people would be polluting it.” At the same time, opponents of abortion were told they should support contraception because it would make abortion unnecessary.
“However, the outcome was different,” FioRito said. Instead, hormonal birth control has adverse side effects, there is sexual objectification, gender inequality and record low birth rates. In addition, abortion for purposes of sex selection has become commonplace, causing a serious imbalance between the number of men and women in countries like China.
FioRito also said there have been environmental crises linked to the release of estrogen into the water supply, a continued decline in male fertility rates, an increase in child abuse and foster care and coercive tactics in developing countries, where economic assistance is often tied to population control.
George Weigel, columnist and author of best-selling biographies of St. John Paul II and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said John Paul II recognized that one of the most urgent questions of our age involved love and the family.
Weigel’s decades-long personal friendship with the pope led to what he calls a triptych of works about John Paul II’s life, including the most recent “Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II.”
He talked about the role of John Paul II in drafting Humanae Vitae and developing the “theology of the body,” which has influenced Catholic thought in recent decades. “It restores a sense of sacramentality to the body, which is not a machine, but an expression of who we are,” he said. “The body makes visible the spiritual dimension of the human person.”
The controversy over the encyclical intensified because Paul VI accepted the minority view of a commission studying artificial contraception, which included a contribution from John Paul II, then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow. Wojtyla had examined a draft of the encyclical and was critical of the document that had been prepared for Paul VI because it was a compilation of previous papal statements, Weigel said.
Wojtyla realized the encyclical had to emphasize the importance of marital love and not just procreation and that it should stress “family planning is the means most congruent with human dignity, especially of women.”
Weigel said, “The encyclical landed at the worst possible moment in 20th century history.” The sexual revolution had begun, and represented “a new kind of Galileo crisis for the Church, which demanded a response that had to be fresh and imaginative,” he said.
Fundamental to John Paul II’s theology was the belief that “Our love is a truly human love when it is a gift of myself to another … and not the use of another,” which is the type of exploitation that characterizes the modern world’s view of sexual relations.
Weigel told the audience, “We need to say on this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae that we are the ones who take this seriously….We need to ask ‘how do I live a life of sexual love that conforms to my dignity as a human person?’”
He urged Catholics to give witness on the issue and said that “Our answer to the culture should be ‘Every time the Catholic Church says no to somebody, it is based on a higher yes.’”
A panel of medical experts was moderated by Angela Marchetti, a Creighton natural family planning practitioner. They discussed the adverse effects of hormonal birth control, natural family planning and natural procreative technology to monitor women’s health.
Participants for the symposium were selected after Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni suggested reaching out to Weigel, who was a former classmate of his. In his introduction, Weigel praised Msgr. DiGiovanni as “one of the great priests of his generation.”
In his concluding comments, Father Vill said Catholics must make a choice between “the cheap love the world offers rather than the great love that God is offering.”
He pointed to the necessity of defending Catholic values in a culture that denigrates them. “We have to teach virtue, we have to teach what real love is about,” he said. “We have to tell people that what the Church offers and what the world offers are not the same. We have to convince people of the reality and truth of our faith and go forth with this message.”