240. From Humanae Vitae to the TOB Pt. 1: The Crack In the Dam

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[NOTE: This is the first of two excerpts from Christopher West’s new book, Eclipse of the Body: How We Lost Sight of the Meaning of Sex, Gender, Marriage, and Family and How to Regain It. This short, easy-to-read book connects the dots between Pope Paul VI’s prophetic Humanae Vitae letter, St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (developed as a defense and flowering of HV) and how they provide the antidote to today’s sexually chaotic culture. Order your first copy free + shipping or in bulk for your parish here.]


How did we as a culture come to forget—or, rather, dismiss—the fact that genitals are meant to generate? Since the beginning of history men and women have sought ways—usually crude and ineffective ways—of thwarting the generative power of their genitals. However, only with the vulcanization of rubber in the mid-1800s, and then with the invention of the Pill a century later, did we have consistently reliable ways of doing so.

Still, if a true contraceptive revolution was to occur, it needed not only new technologies, but new mentalities. As difficult as it may be for us to imagine today, contraception in much of the Western world was not only frowned upon at the turn of the twentieth century as immoral; it was also illegal. Those who campaigned for its acceptance knew they would make little progress without the “blessing” of Christian leaders. Few today realize that, until 1930, all Christian denominations were unanimous in their firm opposition to any attempt to separate genitals from generating. That year, the Anglican Church succumbed to pressure and opened the door to contraception at its Lambeth Conference. In doing so, it became the first Christian body to break with the continuous teaching of the early Church, the saints throughout the ages, and all the Reformers from Luther to Calvin and beyond.

Within a matter of weeks, Pope Pius XI responded as follows:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church … raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and … proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature. [On Chaste Marriage, paragraph 56]

In the years that followed, every major Protestant denomination shifted from condemning contraception to not only accepting it, but advocating it. Unimaginable global pressure was now being put on the Catholic Church to follow suit, and it seemed to many that it was having its desired effect. In the early 1960s, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated that they reserved judgment on certain “questions which need further and more careful investigation.” These “have been handed over … to a commission for the study of population, family, and births, in order that, after it fulfills its function, the Supreme Pontiff may pass judgment.” [Gaudium Et Spes 51:endnote 14]

The point in question was the birth control pill, a new technology at the time that seemed to some not to qualify under the traditional teaching against contraception. The council’s tacit admission of uncertainty on this point gave people the impression that a papal blessing on the Pill was forthcoming. In fact, the majority of the papal commission studying the question advised Pope Paul VI not only to accept the Pill, but to follow the lead of other Christian communities and change Church teaching on contraception all together. When the Majority Report was leaked to the press in early May 1967, there was a sense of certainty that a change in teaching was immanent. One week later, Paul VI visited Fatima. He came on Our Lady of Fatima’s feast day (May 13) and prayed specifically against “new ideologies” that were threatening the Church by introducing a “profane mentality” and “worldly morals.” [See Paul VI homily at Fatima, May 13, 1967]

A little over a year later, on July 25, 1968, Paul VI shocked the world when he issued his encyclical letter Of Human Life (Humanae Vitae), reaffirming the traditional Christian teaching against contraception, including the Pill. Although he was mocked and scorned globally—both from outside and, sadly, from within the Church—his words were prescient. He warned that a contracepting world becomes a world of rampant infidelity; a world where women and childbearing are degraded; a world in which governments trample on the rights and needs of the family; and a world in which human beings believe they can manipulate their bodies at will [Humanae Vitae 17]. In other words, Paul VI showed himself to be an “astronomer” who understood the power of contraception to eclipse the meaning of the body, casting a dark shadow over the meaning of the gender difference itself, and hence, the meaning of marriage and the family.

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