The Prophetic Vision of Saint Pope Paul VI

By Mary Eberstadt — for Columbia Magazine / August, 2018

It is no exaggeration to say that Humanae Vitae, issued in August of 1968, was and remains — one of the most globally rejected documents of the modern age. 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. 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.

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).


Reprinted from the Bulletin of St. Isaac Jogues, October 7, 2018