In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued a major document rejecting artificial birth control titled Humanae Vitae ("On Human Life"), thereby creating a virtual firestorm in the Catholic Church. Most Catholics (including priests) rejected the document outright. (It is said that Paul VI never recovered from the onslaught of criticism he received after issuing Humanae Vitae.)
Church teaching on artificial birth control continues to be rejected today by a great majority of Catholics. The matter is very rarely mentioned in Confession, and priests (including me) are very shy of ever mentioning it in a homily.
But have we learned anything in the past nearly 50 years that would make us reconsider Humanae Vitae? I think we have.
Many thoughtful commentators who at first rejected the teaching of Paul VI have had second thoughts. The reason: Artificial birth control facilitated, and continues to facilitate, the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s, but is now in shambles, having left in its wake a path of destruction – mostly for women.
The founding proponents of the modern contraceptive movement prophesied dramatic and entirely positive effects through the use of artificial birth control, specifically in the areas of overpopulation and unwanted pregnancies. The new birth control methods were expected to enhance married life, bring about greater personal freedom, liberate women from nature, and bring about sexual equality between men and women.
Humanae Vitae and its adherents prophesied the opposite: Contraceptive technology would facilitate the general lowering of sexual morality; encourage promiscuity and marital infidelity; enable irresponsible sexual behavior both in and out of marriage; cause the abandonment and impoverishment of women and children; lead young people to sexual activity at an early age (Among high school and college students today there is the phenomenon of "hooking up" and having "friends with benefits" –casual sexual encounters with numerous partners without any emotional strings or commitments). Not least, artificial birth control imposes a masculine sexual agenda on women (Women must always be "prepared" for male sexual needs).
The reality is that the sexual revolution has left many people emotionally and spiritually strung out. There is today real confusion among Catholics about sexuality in general: when it is "right" and when it is "wrong." Many young unmarried adults are under the enormous pressure of having to act sexually according to popular sexual norms about which they have serious misgivings. They search desperately for a moral compass in this area.
There are notable non-Catholic voices who express serious concerns about the birth control movement. Pierre Chauvure, a French sociologist and historian, has described the demographic effects of modern contraception on Europe as akin to the Black Plague – reducing populations to dangerously low levels. Nowhere in Europe are populations replenishing themselves.
In her book Sex and Destiny, Germain Greer, one of the "mothers" of modern feminism, argues that women are adapting their sexuality to the needs of men, and are exposing themselves to serious psychological and physical dangers by the wholesale use of "the pill."
The teaching of Paul VI deserves a second look and an open attitude to the many positive things he has to say about marriage and sexuality.
In the short term, how are the objective principles of Humanae Vitae to be dealt with pastorally? What if married persons confess the use of artificial contraception in the Sacrament of Penance or in counseling? We are faced here with the tension between Church teaching and individual conscience. If, after real self-education and a thorough examination of conscience, married couples continue to use artificial contraception, then pastors have to respect their stance, while at the same time continuing to challenge them in a respectful and non-patronizing manner, never making them feel like they are second-class citizens in the Church.