Humanae Vitae at 50

A Perspective from a Martial Artist

One of the best parts of being involved in martial arts is the ease in which one can prove whether or not a technique works, or at least has the possibility of working. When a person is learning a martial art, it requires a lot of conjecture and guesswork as to what it will be like to actually use these techniques in an adversarial situation. This can, and does, lead to self-delusion – thinking that you are better than you actually are.

Usually at this point the budding martial artist enters what I like to call the “crucible of combat” which is typically a friendly sparring match (though the term can refer to actual self-defense engagements). In this place, our hypothetical student gets to try and use the techniques he’s been taught and he usually discovers one (or two) of several things:

(1) The technique is mostly useful

(2) The technique is sometimes useful

(3) The technique does not work.

(4) He cannot use the technique because of

(a) lack of skill

(b) lack of practice

(c) misreading his opponent

(d) lack of strength or flexibility.

When the match is over, the students get a chance to reflect and discuss what they learned and how to grow their skills and improve.

So, what does this have to do with Humanae Vitae you ask?

Throughout the 1960’s, the movement towards recognizing contraception both inside and outside of marriage as morally licit was growing and gaining strength. Even the advisors to the Pope chose to recommend going along with the rest of world instead of maintaining traditional Catholic moral teachings. Then this seemingly unstoppable train hit something. That something was Pope Paul VI under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In July of 1968, Paul VI promulgated the encyclical that he titled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) to speak to the faithful and the world about the dangers of contraception.

At the time, many chose to ignore this teaching, causing great scandal in the Catholic Church. The fallout from these events from 50 years ago are still with us today and continue to morph into new moral problems.

The mark of a strong, viable martial art lies in its ability to actually be used in real life situations with a reasonable rate of success. This obviously makes sense. If someone were to approach you as a master of some new self-defense system, but every time he (or she) got into a sparring match with someone else they lost, it would not inspire confidence in their system. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of people who do this every year, pretending to have created some system of martial arts. When these “systems” are put to the test, they fail, usually rather dramatically (

In a similar way, we can look at the moral and societal predictions that were given by Pope Paul VI. When Humanae Vitae was published the Church entered into the “crucible of combat” in regards to the culture and morality. Unfortunately, since the warnings of this encyclical went largely unheeded, we should be able to see the results of this moral crucible: Either the encyclical was totally wrong, or it was a brilliant and prescient success at determining what happened to our culture.

Pope Paul VI made four general “prophecies” about what would happen if the Church’s teaching on contraception were ignored. Let’s look at these predictions in comparison to our current societal situation:

Prediction 1 – Infidelity and Moral Decline

Pope Paul VI first noted that the pervasive use of contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”

Current Situation for Prediction 1

I do not think it can be argued that there has not been a widespread decline in morality, especially sexual morality, in the last 25 years. The dramatic increase in the number of divorces, abortions, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and venereal diseases should persuade any doubter that sexual morality is not the forte of our modern age.

Upon further examination, it seems easy enough to point to contraception as being behind much of this trouble. The widespread acceptance and use of contraception has made sexual activity a much more popular option that it was when the fear of pregnancy gave a great number of young men and women pause, reducing the number who engaged in premarital sexual activity. The availability of contraception has introduced the concept of “responsible premarital sexual activity”  as a viable choice. But adolescents 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.

Prediction 2 – Loss of 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.” We call this a personalist approach to morality, where 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.

Current Situation for Prediction 2

The mutual loss of respect and caring has negatively impacted marriages and relationships throughout the culture. When someone no longer makes us happy or fulfills some need in the moment, we are immediately looking elsewhere to satisfy our selfish need. Also in this quest for pleasure without consequences, babies are no longer considered to be connected with the sexual act. So when they come along, it becomes a “problem” that needs a “solution,” which in many cases results in an abortion.

Prediction 3 – Abuse of Power

Paul VI observed that the widespread approval of contraception would place a “dangerous weapon…in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.”

Current Situation for Prediction 3

Studying the history of the “family-planning” programs instituted in the Third World is a testimony to this reality, where many people undergo sterilization unaware of what they are doing. China’s once child policy created a forced abortion program which shows the extremes that governments will go to in regards to population control programs. Not to mention that few people are willing to recognize the growing body of evidence that many parts of the world are not facing problems from overpopulation, but rather from underpopulation. The truth is that it will take many years to reverse the “anti-child” mentality now entrenched in many societies and then to have enough population growth to fully combat underpopulation.

Prediction 4 – Unlimited Dominion

The final warning given in Humanae Vitae was that contraception would lead people to think that they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies.

Current Situation for Prediction 4

Sterilization is now the most widely used form of contraception in the United States. Individuals are so convinced of their rights to control their own bodies that they do not hesitate to alter even their own physical makeup.

But unlimited dominion does not simply stop with contraception. Once this attitude is entrenched in one part of a person’s life, it cannot help but to be extended into other areas. We produce “test-tube babies” in a refusal to accept the body’s limitations. We no longer wait for a person to be dead before performing an organ transplant, just “nearly dead.” We now try to change our external sexual organs to match how we feel. People are exercising unlimited dominion over their bodies by trying to change the physical body to accommodate personal desires and timetables rather than limiting, adjusting, or controlling their desires for their own personal good. Because, in the end, we do not merely “own” our bodies: We are both body and soul. We must think of the relationship between body, soul, and intellect more as stewardship of the gifts given by God.

Wrapping it up

Based on what we’ve seen in society over the past 50 years, it is clear that the predictions of Pope Paul VI were eerily, and completely, accurate. Very few understood (and most still do not understand) how the “simple” act of contraception would lead to a general unraveling of morality in regards to sexuality and how we view our own bodies.

In the crucible of combat, the sword fighting techniques of Europe in the Medieval and Renaissance periods were proven to be excellent forms of armed self-defense. Similarly, in other parts of the world, local crucibles proved the worthiness of unarmed forms such as Karate, Judo, and Tae-kwon do.  In the crucible of combat that has been the culture wars over the past 50 years, it can be said that the teachings of Pope Paul VI as contained in Humanae Vitae have been proven to be true. Where we go from here as a society depends on whether we choose to blindly follow a system that has proven a disaster, or whether we change our system to match God’s plan for humanity.



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