Pope Paul VI As Prophet
HAVE HUMANAE VITAE'S BOLD PREDICTIONS COME TRUE?
by Janet Smith
25 years ago "prophesied" that marriages and society would
suffer if the use of contraception became widespread. Now the vast
majority of spouses, as well as those who are unmarried, use some form of
To be sure, the encyclical was not written to be a prophetic document.
Rather, it was written to be a clarifying document, intending to explain
what the Church teaches about contraception. The encyclical does present
this teaching clearly, but it has been little heeded during the last 25
years. Statistics show that few Catholics live by these teachings, and it
seems safe to suppose that few Catholics have read .
Christians understand marriage as an elevated calling, whereby God enlists
spouses in the all-important enterprise of bringing forth new human life.
The Church teaches that to use contraception is to reject God and his
life-giving blessings. The Church teaches not merely that contraception is
wrong, but that because contraception is wrong, it will have bad
Pope Paul VI made four rather general "prophecies" about what would happen
if the Church's teaching on contraception were ignored.
The Pope first noted that the widespread use of contraception would "lead
to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." That there
has been a widespread decline in morality, especially sexual morality, in
the last 25 years, is very difficult to deny. The increase in the number
of divorces, abortion, our-of-wedlock pregnancies, and venereal diseases
should convince any skeptic that sexual morality is not the strong suit of
There is no question that contraception is behind much of this trouble.
Contraception has made sexual activity a much more popular option that it
was when the fear of pregnancy deterred a great number of young men and
women from engaging in premarital sexual intercourse. The availability of
contraception has led them to believe that they can engage in premarital
sexual activity "responsibly." But teenagers are about as responsible in
their use of contraception as they are in all other phases of their lives-
such as making their beds, cleaning their rooms and getting their homework
done on time.
Lost Respect for Women
Paul VI also argued that "the man" will lose respect for "the woman" and
"no longer (care) for her physical and psychological equilibrium" and will
come to "the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish
enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion." This
concern reflects what has come to be known as a "personalist"
understanding of morality. The personalist understanding of wrongdoing is
based upon respect for the dignity of the human person. The Pope realized
that the Church's teaching on contraception is designed to protect the
good of conjugal love. When spouses violate this good, they do not act in
accord with their innate dignity and thus they endanger their own
happiness. Treating their bodies as mechanical instruments to be
manipulated for their own purposes, they risk treating each other as
objects of pleasure.
Abuse of Power
Paul VI also observed that the widespread acceptance of contraception
would place a "dangerous weapon... in the hands of those public
authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." The history of the
family-planning programs in the Third World is a sobering testimony to
this reality. In Third World countries many people undergo sterilization
unaware of what they are doing. The forced abortion program in China shows
the stark extreme toward which governments will take population programs.
Moreover, few people are willing to recognize the growing evidence that
many parts of the world face not overpopulation, but underpopulation. It
will take years to reverse the "anti-child" mentality now entrenched in
Pope Paul's final warning was that contraception would lead man to think
that he had unlimited dominion over his own body. Sterilization is now the
most widely used form of contraception in the U.S.; individuals are so
convinced of their rights to control their own bodies that they do not
hesitate to alter even their own physical make-up.
The desire for unlimited dominion over one's own body extends beyond
contraception. The production of "test-tube babies" is another indication
of the refusal to accept the body's limitations; so too are euthanasia and
the use of organs transplanted from those who are "nearly" dead. We seek
to adjust the body to our desires and timetables, rather than adjusting
ourselves to its needs.
In Pope Paul made some positive predictions as well. He
acknowledged that spouses might have difficulty in acquiring the
self-discipline necessary to practice the methods of family planning that
require periodic abstinence. But he taught that self-discipline was
possible, especially with the help of sacramental grace. In Section 21, he
....the discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming
conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands
continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife
fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values.
Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and
facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's
partner-, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true
love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.
While this passage of is rarely studied, Pope John Paul II
is one commentator who recognizes the depth of its wisdom. It plays the
central role in his reflections on ; he focuses on the
importance of "self-mastery" for the proper use of sexuality, and explains
the meaning of the human body and the human person as these bear upon
John Paul II has spoken of the Church's teaching on contraception as a
part of the "permanent patrimony" of the Faith. Twenty-five years of
neglecting have produced enough unpleasant consequences to
help us recognize how foolish and dangerous it is to squander that
Janet Smith is professor of philosophy at the University of
Dallas. This piece is edited from an article in the Sept. 1988
issue of . A translation and commentary of by Janet Smith is available for $1.50 + $1 S&H from the
Institute on Religious Life, P.O. Box 41007, Chicago, IL 60641.
Taken from the September 1994 issue of "Religious Life,"
published by the Institute on Religious Life, P.O. Box 41007,
Chicago, IL 60641-0007. Subscriptions are $10.00 per year.