"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, August 11, 2008

Humanae Vitae at 40: the joke's on them

When Pope Paul VI's courageous, landmark encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, came out in late July 1968, I was thirteen years old. Providentially, I had just learned "the facts of life." Yet the reaction of most Catholic adults to said document, including those of my parents' circle, was that the exercise was a cruel joke. "We" had been led to believe that the Pill was OK and was going to be OKed, but we were snookered by that dried-up, out-of-touch old celibate in the Vatican. For reasons I needn't elaborate, the Church has not been the same since. Catholicism still lives, effectively, in a state of internal schism across the board--and the majority are not on the papacy's side. The defining moment was the general reaction to HV, just a few years after Vatican II closed.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, now head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome and then a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has just offered a hard-eyed, unblinking look at what happened. The story is so compelling that I shall let it speak mostly for itself. I shall say only that he is right to point out that the West, clergy as well as laity, did not want and therefore did not get the right response to the final petition of the Lord's Prayer on this topic. Thus we have paid a steep and wide-ranging price for ignoring, even ridiculing, the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. We have let, in Paul VI's words, "the smoke of Satan" into the Church, and it is choking us.

Indeed, as Mary Eberstadt points out in the current issue of First Things, that pope's dire predictions about what would happen if the contraceptive mentality became widespread have been so thoroughly borne out that the joke is now on HV's opponents. That includes especially feminists, who complain bitterly about male disrespect for women at a time when women, in the West at least, are ostensibly more privileged than ever before. All one can say is that, when sterile sex is deliberately made the norm, then lust sooner or later wins out over love. We see that everywhere today; it's just Human Nature 101. But the funny thing is they still don't get it. As my first wife was fond of saying, illicit sex "fries the brains." Her mother was a Catholic philosopher from whose paper "Contraception and Chastity" (1972) Eberstadt sees fit to quote at length.

By all means read all three articles I've cited, starting with the last. All is not lost: it's a good sign that even a few Princeton undergraduates, in addition to a growing minority of educated young Catholics, now get it. That would have been inconceivable when I was in college. There is still hope. The hope will be justified by a Church that, perforce, will be smaller but purer.
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