A+ A A-

The Prophetic Vision of Blessed Paul VI


It is no exaggeration to say that "Humanae Vitae" was — and remains — one of the most globally rejected documents of the modern age.

paul6Blessed Pope Paul VI

In reiterating 2,000 years of Church teaching about human life, including the proscription against artificial contraception, the encyclical confronted a world where many men and women had already embraced "the pill," which had been approved by the FDA eight years earlier.

Yet to contemplate the Church's "controversial" stand on birth control 50 years after Humanae Vitae's publication is to encounter a great irony.  The document's signature predictions have been vindicated as few predictions ever are: in ways that its author, Pope Paul VI, could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written and by scholars and others with no interest whatsoever in its teaching.

Consider Humanae Vitae's specific apprehensions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread.  Articulated in section 17 of the document, these include a "general lowering of moral standards" and a loss of respect for women.

Fifty years later, pornography is ubiquitous; divorce, cohabitation, and fatherless homes are too; and the public square at this very moment is convulsed with sex scandals involving one prominent man after another — all of whom fell from grace because they took the sexual availability of women for granted.  What is the #MeToo movement but proof that contraception has emboldened predatory men?

It is also plain that the predicted "lowering of moral standards" would come to include disrespect not only for women but for the human fetus, too.  Legal reasoning justifying freedom to contracept would go on to be used as justification for freedom to abort, most notably in the United States.  It was only eight short years from Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v. Wade — and the logic used to justify abortion on demand depended entirely on the "right to privacy" established earlier regarding contraception.

Fifty years later, pornography is ubiquitous; divorce, cohabitation, and fatherless homes are too; and the public square at this very moment is convulsed with sex scandals involving one prominent man after another...

History also connects the causal dots between contraception and abortion in another way.  The push to liberalize abortion laws in countries around the world did not begin until the first third of the 20th century, as birth control devices came into wider circulation.  The United States and most other countries did not start liberalizing abortion laws until the sexual revolution was underway. Roe v. Wade comes after the pill, not before.  The mass use of contraception has plainly called forth the demand for more abortion, the worst "lowering" of standards of all.

In addition, Humanae Vitae warned of "the danger of this power [contraception] passing into the hands of public authorities."  This is exactly what happened subsequently in China via its long-standing, barbaric "one-child policy" between 1979 and 2016, replete with forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations.  Another example is the Indian government's foray into coercive use of contraception in 1976 and 1977.  A softer kind of coercion has also appeared in Western nations.  In the 1990s and beyond, for example, some U.S. judges backed stateimposed implantation of long-term contraceptives for women convicted of crimes.

Another proof of the encyclical's prescience could not have been foreseen 50 years ago, though it is well documented in social science today.  That is the explosion of "loneliness studies" in all the advanced nations — empirical studies showing how the shrinkage of the family has led to epidemic isolation and loss of human contact, especially among the elderly.  Without doubt, what unites these tragic portraits is what Humanae Vitae so prophetically resisted: the sexual revolution which has been operating at full throttle in Western nations for half a century now — driving up divorce rates, driving down marriage rates and emptying cradles.

Many well-intentioned people, including many Catholics, have joined the contraceptive culture with the idea that their decisions are merely private.  But with every passing year, perfectly secular social science shows the massive and deleterious public consequences of the sexual revolution itself.  Rejected though it may be by many, Humanae Vitae and its uncanny warnings are the single best explanatory model of our contemporary landscape.  And the teachings that it affirms remain, in the words of the document's prophetic author, "a sign of contradiction" (cf. Lk 2:34) and a path to creating "a truly human civilization" (18).


Contraception and the law: A brief history 

March 3, 1873
The U.S. Congress passes the Comstock Laws, criminalizing the publication and distribution of information promoting abortion or contraception.  States soon enact their own versions of the laws.

June 14, 1914
Margaret Sanger is indicted in New York for distributing information on contraceptives.  She flees to England rather than face a possible five-year jail sentence.  Two years later, she illegally opens the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn.  Planned Parenthood traces its origins to this event.  A Canadian physician, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, similarly establishes an illegal family planning clinic in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1932.

March 17, 1937
Six months after being arrested and charged for disseminating information about contraception in a poor area of Ottawa, Ontario, Dorothea Palmer is acquitted on the grounds that her actions were done in the interest of the public good.  Dissemination of birth control information remains illegal in Canada, but it is no longer prosecuted.

June 23, 1960
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the birth control pill as an oral contraceptive.

June 7, 1965
In Griswold v. Connecticut — a case prompted by Planned Parenthood opening a clinic in New Haven, Conn. — the U.S. Supreme Court rules that married couples have the right to use contraception.  The decision relies on a "right to privacy," which the court reads into the Constitution.

June 27, 1969
Canada decriminalizes the sale of contraceptives.  A month earlier, a related bill decriminalized homosexual acts and allowed abortion under certain conditions.

March 22, 1972
In Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court declares a Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to unmarried persons unconstitutional.

Jan. 22, 1973
In Roe v. Wade, the court strikes down state laws criminalizing abortion, citing the "right to privacy" argument in the Griswold and Eisenstadt cases.

Jan. 28, 1988
The Supreme Court of Canada, ruling in R. v. Morgentaler, overturns abortion provisions in the Criminal Code, thereby allowing abortion in all circumstances.

June 29, 1992
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms the central holding of Roe v. Wade, citing "the fact that for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail."

July 28, 1999
The FDA approves the Plan B emergency contraception "morning-after pill" as a prescription drug.  In August 2006, it is made available over the counter for consumers 18 and older.  In June 2013, age restrictions for over-the-counter sale are lifted.

Aug. 1, 2011
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandates contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.  The Supreme Court later rules in favor of religious liberty exemptions for Hobby Lobby Stores (June 2014), the Little Sisters of the Poor and others (May 2016).  A May 2017 executive order broadens exemptions to the mandate.



columbiajuly18Mary Eberstadt. "The Prophetic Vision of Blessed Paul VI." Columbia  (July 2018).

Reprinted with permission of Columbia.

The Author

eberstadt3smeberstadtaesm Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.  She is the author of It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism, Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes and the editor of Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys.

Copyright © 2018 Columbia
back to top