Humanae Vitae and the Contraceptive Mentality

In 1908, the Anglican Lambeth conference called for a national recognition of  the dignity of motherhood, and advocated the prohibition of the preventative method, as well as all ‘neo-Malthusian’ (i.e.; geared towards population control) devices. In 1920, the following conference again spoke out against the use of unnatural contraceptive methods, and condemned any teaching which ‘encouraged married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself’. The conference of 1930 however decided that:

Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.

Prior to this, opposition to birth control amongst Christians was virtually unanimous; thereafter, opinion in the Protestant world swiftly moved in the opposite direction. A gate had been opened, and a great many cultural changes flooded through. The Lambeth statement (though unfortunately heavily influenced by the prominent eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger – see here) was primarily issued out of pastoral concern for families undergoing economic strain, and restrained in its provisions. Noone there envisaged the cultural revolution that would follow in its wake.

There was an immediate response to the Lambeth statement by Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Casti Connubii, where he pretty much argued the exact opposite – namely that, whatever socio-economic reasons may be put forward in favour of contraception, such measures remained against nature and therefore no good could come of them. It was not until 1968, amid fervent debate within the Catholic Church (the first oral contraceptives having become widely available in 1960), that Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae, which contained some greatly prophetic words:

Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Humanae Vitae, 17.

            In the decades since the Pill was made available, all these things have happened – increase in marital infidelity; lack of respect for the moral law, to the point where modern sexual morality is almost devoid of content; and a decrease in men’s respect for women, with the concomitant increase in men seeing women as objects. With the Pill, sex and love were divorced from one another, and ‘liberation’ meant the possibility of mutual objectification between the sexes.

All this stems from the contraceptive mentality that Pope Paul VI was so concerned to warn the faithful about back in 1968. In the period between 1930 and 1960, attitudes to sexual fidelity had already begun to shift, but the ease with which fertility could be eliminated from sex by the Pill took things to another level. As the number of women using the Pill increased, a great barrier had been removed – sex could be enjoyed as an activity without consequences.

Ironically, given that the feminist movement embraced the Pill so wholeheartedly (and still does), it seems to have left women less empowered than before. Once procreativity had been taken out of the equation, there was no longer any need for men to worry about consequences, and thus no need for commitment; also within marriage, it became much easier to commit adultery. This anti-responsibility attitude then carried over into other relationships – a wider cultural mentality emerged wherein faithfulness and commitment were gradually undermined, regardless of whether contraception was used in each individual case. This inevitably resulted in a great increase in divorces, leaving many women having to raise any children produced to do so alone.

A further consequence of the contraceptive mentality was that, as the ‘barriers’ that bound people to monogamy and faithful relationship were removed, and the tendency to promiscuity increased, more children were conceived in situations where the parents (whether married or not) did not want them – thus, the ‘right’ to abortion was invoked. It is one of the great ironies of the abortion debate that pro-choice advocates so often criticise Catholic teaching on contraception, claiming that if people could contracept more easily there would be fewer ‘unwanted’ children and thus fewer abortions, when it is precisely the mentality produced by easy-access contraception which has led to the widespread use of abortion as a back-up contraceptive method.

Another consequence is that in the debates over same-sex marriage, its advocates will point to the fact that, given the wide-spread use of contraception amongst heterosexual couples, homosexuals are in the same position as voluntarily sterile heterosexuals, and so the argument linking marriage to procreation is undermined. Whilst I do not think the procreation angle to be the only argument against homosexual relations, these advocates do make a very good point, and inadvertently highlight the consistency of Catholic teaching in this area. In practical terms, the removal of the procreative aspect of heterosexual relationships has indeed rendered heterosexual and homosexual relationships similar enough in most people’s eyes that the path towards same-sex marriage was made significantly easier.

The two issues I have just mentioned were not mentioned in Humanae Vitae, but can be seen to be part of a wider dissolution in sexual morality and interpersonal relationships that Pope Paul VI wisely predicted back in 1968. The clarity with which he saw the problems that would develop should legitimacy be given to artificial contraception is remarkable given how much had yet to occur, and the courage he showed in issuing such a document in the face of opposition both within and without the Church was admirable. As one final example, here is another passage, which in the light of recent developments in the USA seems equally prophetic:

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.


            It is beyond the scope of this post to comment on the ins and outs of what has been happening in the USA due to the HHS Mandate, but it does seem that Pope Paul had been blessed with a tremendously clear prophetic vision here, and his words are a reminder for us all today of how important it is to ‘hold fast what is good’ and trust the Church’s judgement, especially when public opinion would have us do otherwise – she sees farther than we do, oftentimes providing the only safe and sane place in a world tossed every which way by the winds of change, and where ‘slippery slope’ arguments are so often dismissed with a sneer and the wave of a hand.


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