What’s changed since Humanae Vitae?

George Weigel

Throughout this academic year, Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University is hosting a series of lectures, billed as the “first interdisciplinary” study to mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The series promises to examine the “many problems” that have emerged in family life since Pope Paul wrote on the ethics of human love and the morally appropriate methods of family-planning. And that could indeed be useful.

Yet the roster of series speakers is not replete with defenders of Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae Vitae, and at least one of the lecturers has telegraphed his revisionist theological punch by suggesting that today’s “new situation” is quite different from that addressed by Humanae Vitae.

On that, at least, he’s right: the situation is far worse.
The Gregorian promises the involvement of both the social sciences and moral theology in its study, presumably to complement the work of a new historical commission on Humanae Vitae established by Pope Francis. So let’s look at some of the relevant social science.

Demographers tell us that a society must have a “Total Fertility Rate” (TFR) of slightly over 2.1 (the average number of children a woman has during her child-bearing years), if that society is to maintain its population over time. Here are the most recent Eurostat TFP figures for the countries of the European Union in 2014:

Austria: 1.47; Belgium: 1.74; Bulgaria: 1.53; Croatia: 1.46; Cyprus: 1.31; Czech Republic: 1.53; Denmark: 1.69; Finland: 1.71; France: 2.01; Germany: 1.47; Great Britain: 1.81; Greece: 1.30; Hungary: 1.44; Ireland: 1.94; Italy: 1.37; Latvia: 1.54; Lithuania: 1.63; Luxembourg: 1.50; Malta: 1.42; Netherlands: 1.71; Poland: 1.32; Portugal: 1.23; Romania: 1.52; Spain: 1.32; Slovakia: 1.37; Slovenia: 1.58; Sweden: 1.88. Thus the TFR for the European Union as a whole in 2014 was 1.58, well below population-replacement level and heading toward the demographic Niagara Falls that demographers call “lowest-low fertility.”

Please note that no EU country was in a major war in 2014. Nor was any EU country beset by a devastating plague. Nor did Europe suffer a Vesuvius- or Krakatoa-like natural disaster. In other words, none of the causes of demographic collapse that have depleted populations throughout history was in play in the European Union in 2014. And insofar as I’m aware, European men have not suffered the loss of fertility that sets the stage for P.D. James’s brilliant novel, The Children of Men.

So from a strictly social-scientific point of view, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Europe’s infertility is self-induced. Which means that European infertility is deliberate and willful, not random and accidental. Which means that Europe is contracepting itself into demographic oblivion.

And that means that Paul VI has been thoroughly vindicated in his warnings, in Humanae Vitae, about the effects of a “contraceptive culture:” a culture in which love and reproduction are technologically sundered; a culture in which children become another lifestyle choice like the choice of vacation (the Dalmatian coast or Majorca) or automobile (BMW or Mercedes-Benz); a culture in which the family is redefined absent its most fundamental characteristic – the transmission of the gift of life and the nurturance of the young.

Now there’s something for our Gregorian social scientists to ponder with their theological colleagues over the next eight months. Yet the notable absence of Humanae Vitae proponents among the lecturers does not fill me with confidence that the causal linkage between the contraceptive mentality and Europe’s demographic suicide will be seriously examined in this series of lectures.

Neither does the absence from the roster of lecturers of one of the Church’s most brilliant analysts of the social and cultural impacts of contraception, my friend Mary Eberstadt. Mrs. Eberstadt’s 2012 book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press), analyzes the real-world effects of ignoring Paul VI on men, women, children, values, and culture with greater insight than anything produced at the Pontifical Gregorian University since Humanae Vitae was issued; of that, I am quite confident. Yet Mary Eberstadt was not invited to participate in an examination of the “new situation” after Humanae Vitae.

And that, in turn, suggests that those who arranged this series of lectures are either woefully ignorant of what’s happening outside their intellectual silos – or that the Gregorian conference organizers have more than their elbows up their sleeves.

COMING UP: A museum for which to be thankful

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On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principle speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

“In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God…”

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

“But this… did not exhaust the teachings of this Bible,” Secretary Acheson continued. “For it taught also that the fear of God was the love of God and that the love of God was the love of man and the service of man.”

At this perilous moment in our national history, when contempt and hatred seem far more characteristic of our civic life than charity and solidarity, it’s worth pondering how far we have come, and why. To claim that “the Book is All” today would be risible. On the contrary: As Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, remarked at a pre-opening celebration of the splendid new Museum of the Bible in the nation’s capital, the Bible has been systematically “bleached out” of our national life over the past several decades. And that bleaching has not produced a more tolerant people, but a far more intolerant civic life, of which the recent awfulness in Charlottesville, Virginia, may stand as a vile symbol.

At Thanksgiving-2017, too many voices in America seem to suggest that some of us must hate others of us if America is to flourish, even survive. But the great Dean Acheson had an answer for that essentially totalitarian claim, too: “In order to love our country we do not have to hate anyone. There is enough to inspire love here…Out of many, [Americans] are one. [Ours] is a unity [amidst a] great and vigorous diversity based on respect for man, the individual…And this, indeed, is the source of our strength, and of the lasting power of our society. For the solidarity which is built, not upon servility, but upon the common loyalty of free men, is resilient and enduring.”

We may, and should hope, that Secretary Acheson’s confidence in the resilience of America has not been falsified by the secularist “bleaching” of which Cardinal Wuerl spoke. That hope has been strengthened by the opening of the Museum of the Bible on November 17. Three blocks from the U.S. Capitol, we now have a striking witness, in architecture, art, and artifact, to the enduring power of the Word of God. The museum is thoroughly ecumenical and interreligious; all of the people of the Book, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Jewish, will find much to learn there, in a series of both classic and interactive displays that nourish the mind and soul. Anyone who cares about the Bible owes the donors who made this striking facility possible, and the men and women who designed it with evident care, an enormous vote of thanks.

For if it succeeds in its mission, the Museum of the Bible will help reverse the bleaching out from our culture of what is arguably its deepest, noblest, and most important wellspring: the Word of God, molding the lives of the readers of the Book.

Featured image by Alex Wong | Getty Images