Friday, July 25, 2008

Humane Vitae turns 40, part II

In my rush to get out the door this morning I limited myself to providing the link for and encouraging you, dear reader, to look-up and read Mary Eberstat’s wonderful article on this encyclical. Now that I have a bit more time, I want to look at a few elements, or, more precisely, mine a few salient quotes that help make the points she makes so well. As I mentioned this morning, Humane Vitae, specifically number 17, warned about four consequences that would follow from the widespread use and easy availability of easy to use contraceptives:
“a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments” (Eberstat).
Let’s start with the last consequence by using the quote from historian Matthew Connelly’s book, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, employed in the First Things article:
"The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they knew it themselves. . . . The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the 'unfit,' or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to people with power because, with the spread of emancipatory movements, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That is why opponents were essentially correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished business of imperialism.”
Next, let’s tackle the lessening of respect for women by men. Here Eberhart quotes Archbishop Chaput of Denver from an article he wrote ten years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the encyclical, which gives more than due regard to feminist concerns: "Contraception has released males—to a historically unprecedented degree—from responsibility for their sexual aggression."

This leads us to the general lowering of moral standards and marital infidelity, which in the old fashion sense of adulterous relations continues apace, but also takes on a new dimension in what Eberhart herself calls "the Pill’s bastard child, ubiquitous pornography".
"’The onslaught of porn,’ one social observer wrote, ‘is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’ Further, ‘sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity. . . . If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so.’
Finally, we come to the late, great philosopher, student of my dear W, G.E.M. Anscombe, who wrote:
”If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here—not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behavior in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.”
Again, I appreciate very much that Eberhart dispenses with the secondary, juridical concerns surrounding this issue and deals with questions of truth. Rarely has a moral argument been so overwhelmingly vindicated by empirical evidence. So, love God and do what will, as St. Augustine urged. However, disregard sound moral teaching at your own and others’ peril.

Lest you think I have exhausted Eberstat’s observations, I assure you I have not. There is plenty more for the mulling. Near the end of the article she once again quotes Archbishop Chaput, who pointed out ten years ago that "If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself." This causes Eberstat to observe that
“This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record.”
If you care, you’ll read and ponder. I also highly recommend picking up a copy of Prof. Janet’s Smith’s book Why Humane Vitae Was Right: A Reader. Again, it is necessary to know in order to make judgments about to how to live.


  1. I hope this isn't a stupid question, but I've Googled and can't find the answer. What does "in vase indebito" mean? I'm not finding a translation of that phrase anywhere.

  2. It literally means in a vase not owed, or, in the context, sex in wrong orifice