Antidote to selfishness

Some days you cannot forget. For me, the morning of July 26, 1968, stands out. It was the morning after Pope Paul VI issued his now famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

At the time, I was a student at The Catholic University of America. Communication was far less sophisticated than it is today. There was no CNN. There was no Internet. Of course, the three television networks reported the encyclical's publication on their evening newscasts, but no copy of the actual document was available until the next morning.

The next morning was July 26, and the reason I remember the day so well is that I anxiously and deliberately rose at 5:30 a.m. to get a copy.

The university's bookstore stocked The New York Times. I reasoned, correctly, that the Times, considering itself the nation's "journal of record," would print the entire text. So, I very much wanted a copy of the July 26 issue. However, the bookstore got only 20 copies a day.

The store opened at 7. I knew that I had to be among the first customers. When I arrived soon after 6 in the morning, 11 people already were in line. Being the 12th, I finally got my copy of the Times and was ready to discuss in classes during the day. (No one was talking about anything else.)

The reason why everyone was talking about the encyclical wasthat artificial contraception was already a way of life in Western civilization. It was a way of life for American Catholics.

Several factors contributed to this development -- the changing social circumstance where even married women were involving themselves in careers other than homemaking or parenting. This change began with World War II, when many women had to take jobs outside the home to drive along the war effort.

The war ended, and with the new prosperity lifestyles changed. Families needed more income. Wives and mothers had to work.

Finally, the emerging feminist movement led women to develop skills and pursue interests.

At about the same time, the birth control pill was invented. This arguably was the main cause of change. It made artificial contraception easy, allowing women more than ever before to control their ability to conceive.

Catholics, as much as other Americans, came very often to look upon the "regulation," or actually the limiting, of births of children as a way to secure better lives and opportunities for their offspring, and of course a way to reduce anxiety for the parents themselves.

This was the more noble incentive. The pill also made sexual intimacy not necessarily an expression of mutual and deep love, but entertainment.

So sex now, in this culture, is entertainment first. Love may or may not be involved. Procreation has become something almost to be feared, an inconvenience at best, certainly carefully accepted, and accepted often for not the most unselfish reasons.

The situation generally in the Church of 1968 did not improve the atmosphere. An ongoing series of changes after the Second Vatican Council caused many Catholics to wonder what was essential in their religion and what was not. Establishing a papal commission to study contraception reassured the average Catholic about the permanency of the Church's teaching about birth control or even the natural law itself.

We may not have fully outgrown this mindset in the Church. Regardless, we are now in a culture that sees sex not only as entertainment. Face it, often selfishness has replaced love. If "unwanted pregnancies" occur, we abort. We "cohabitate." We watch and buy pornography, etc.

The ancient Hebrew prophets said we create the troubles in our societies. Ignoring the Church on contraception, we have helped in reaping the whirlwind.

Humanae Vitae was not a heartless prohibition, but instead a blueprint for sane and humane living. Read it online.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.