While 2015 hasn’t been declared an official “year of the family” by Pope Francis, it’s been a major focus of his nonetheless. The World Meeting of Families — the primary reason for his apostolic visit to the United States — is just weeks away, and in October he’ll convene the ordinary Synod of Bishops to discuss pastoral challenges to the family. The importance of strong families has been a constant theme throughout his general audiences over the past year as well. It’s unsurprising then that almost any time the issue of Catholic family life comes up in conversation, so does the issue of family planning and, in particular, birth control.
Allow me to suggest that one way we might better understand the discussion on birth control and its implications for families is by revisiting its history — and its lingering effects.
Carl Djerassi, the Stanford chemist who created the birth control pill (and who died earlier this year), is widely remembered for the way his work transformed sexual practices and, according to many, liberated women. In a 1970 article, he wrote that “politics, rather than science, would play the dominant role in shaping the future of human birth control.” While politics are still plagued by debates over contraception, most notably the Health and Human Services mandate, more interesting is the legacy of his pill for those who are having second thoughts on the sexual revolution.
Of course, the Catholic Church has long been seen as the staunchest critic of birth control. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI shocked much of the world by refusing to join his Protestant brethren in embracing birth control as the solution for unwanted pregnancies and rapid population growth. Paul VI held firm — as have Christian thinkers throughout the ages — that sex was always to be confined to within the marital union. In the encyclical, he affirmed that “children are really the supreme gift of marriage,” and he went on to predict that any society that abandoned such a concept would eventually unravel.
In her widely acclaimed book “Adam and Eve after the Pill” (Ignatius, $15.95), Mary Eberstadt writes “the encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect of women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.” Almost 50 years later, it seems that Pope Paul VI should be lauded as one of the greatest sociologists of the 20th century.
Just three months before his death, Djerassi actually praised many of these social changes, adding that “by the year 2050 ... separation between sex and reproduction will be 100 percent” due to widespread use of in vitro fertilization and self-sterilization. By his view, sex is merely recreational. Why, then, the need for all of these rules imposed by the Church?
In the decades following the pill’s embrace, divorce rates have climbed to an all-time high. The resulting family breakdown has also led to an increase in domestic poverty: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40 percent of children raised by single mothers are living in poverty, compared to 8 percent of children raised by married parents.
Meanwhile, pornography is now a global $100 billion industry, resulting in hypersexualized adolescents, the rise of rape culture and sexual aggression, and an enterprise that is built on the commodification of men and women alike. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 500 million people ages 15-49 are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. As Dr. Miriam Grossman writes in “Unprotected” (Sentinel, $16), “40 years ago we, had two sexually transmitted infections to worry about — now we have 25.”
Across the board, the social science data confirms that the sexual revolution has been bad for women, men and children — and the pill has served as its enabler. The sheer weight of these statistics has been enough for many of the pill’s once-champions to think that the Catholic Church just may have been right all along.
In addition, recent health data has realigned the debate so that it’s no longer just a Catholic issue. Practicing Catholics have been joined by a growing number of evangelicals and even secular allies — who might best be labeled as the “Whole Foods, Whole Sex” crowd — who are opposed to presenting unnecessary risks to their bodies and to their future children. Many hormonal contraceptives continue to be ranked by WHO as Group 1 carcinogens — the same category that includes tobacco and asbestos. Other oral contraceptives carry the risk of stroke and blood clots, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Last year in an article for the Washington Post, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, highlighted the increased unease of evangelicals regarding contraception. For Mohler and many others, the “contraceptive culture” has eroded traditional values and is bringing about “the rise of a new urgency to recover a more biblical understanding of sex, gender roles, marriage and reproduction.”
During his visit to the Philippines in January, Pope Francis offered his strongest support of Humanae Vitae to date. In refusing to cave to rest of the world, Francis told those in attendance that Pope Paul VI “gave us something more.” Expect him to continue to reiterate such wisdom in the months ahead. For those reeling from the fallout of the pill, the Church’s teaching remains a much sought-after panacea for an invention that has otherwise proven poisonous.
Christopher White is the associate director of Catholic Voices USA and co-author of “Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church” (Encounter Books).