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It is a well established fact that the Church is out to lunch on matters of sex. As a result, Catholics are known to be personally repressed and collectively responsible for a wide assortment of social ills. We hold back progressive legislation which promises to neutralize the looming Population Bomb. We have given a bad name to therapeutic abortions, a safe and reasonably simple medical treatment that can save women inconvenient and embarrassing pregnancies. We bottle up the beautiful and natural desires of young people to engage in recreational sex.
Until relatively recently, the Church’s various positions on sexual matters were, in general, aligned with what other churches and the views of social oracles. Sex outside of marriage was frowned on. Pornography was for the twisted. Masturbation was considered weak and self-indulgent. The various sexual activities between people of the same gender were called “unnatural acts.” Abortion was a high crime and to call a doctor an abortionist was to risk a punch in the nose and a law suit. As Catholics, we were part of the mainstream, but then the sexual dam burst.
Commentators claim that the pressure that was released by the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s had been building for years. However, it was the coming of the oral contraceptive, or as it is commonly called, “the pill,” that really burst the dam. Coupled with the general “freedom movement” of the era, the idea of casual, fear-free sexual relations fundamentally altered the mores of the country. The medical profession, the courts, the schools and certainly the entertainment industry all bought into the new movement for “more and better sex.”
The Church’s sexual views and regulations were marginalized even by many Catholics. These rules purportedly are “medieval,” “outdated,” and the mean-spirited work of celibate old men. Indeed, they are the prime justification used by many lapsed Catholics for leaving the Church. We make Muslims look like free spirits.
As Mary Eberstadt writes in an excellent article entitled “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” (First Things, Aug/Sept 2008), the cause of all this procreational chaos was Pope Paul VI. In 1968, having carefully studied the situation, the pope issued an encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.” This much defamed document was, in fact, a reiteration of traditional Christian thought on human sexuality. However, it was arguably one of the worst examples of timing in recent history.
That same year, the telegenic and charismatic scientist, Paul Ehrlich, published his blockbuster, “The Population Bomb.” His chilling, doomsday message, coming as it did, with the recent popularity of the pill, presented a perfect problem-solution scenario: Adopt birth control and save the planet. With purple prose and arresting graphs, Ehrlich asserted that civilization would shortly be coming to an end as a result of over breeding...just the thing we Catholics were so good at.
In the name of saving humanity from the devastation of over population and some lesser motives, such as fewer children and more money for adult toys, many, many Catholics headed for the doctrinal sidelines. The Church’s traditional teaching was quite publicly challenged by 600 theologians, including such luminaries as Georgetown University’s Charles Curran. In the face of this powerful pro-birth control message, pulpits went silent on the issue. It is currently estimated that 80-plus percent of married Catholics use birth control.
One of Humanae Vitae’s most mocked claims was about the anticipated impact of the widespread use of birth control technology. Pope Paul predicted the lessening of respect for women by men, a massive increase of infidelity, a general lowering of moral standards, and the coercive use of reproductive technologies. Forty-one years later, is there a Catholic, let alone a serious social scientist, who can with a straight face refute these dire predictions? In fact, some of the most respected voices now affirming traditional Catholic marital and sexual teachings are atheist and agnostic scientists. Who knew?
First, the Population Bomb premise for the birth control bandwagon has imploded. In what is clearly a titanic shift in scientific opinion, the over-population myth has been turned on its head. Now the reality in Europe, Russia and China is that their contraceptive policies and practices are leading directly to their demise. By mid-century, their “birth dearth” policies will have wrought a devastating toll on their people. Government policy makers, too often navigating with old maps, are launching “baby bonus” plans and other birth-incentive schemes.
Second, the pope’s prediction of widespread infidelity and divorce has come true with shocking impact on individual husbands and wives, but especially on children. Divorce has become so pervasively widespread in our country that one cannot talk publicly about its corrosive impact without offending some portion of listeners. Almost everyone has been touched by it. However, among the groups most critical of our relaxed marriage bonds are feminists, who have come late to the realization that when families are abandoned by men, women bear a huge parenting burden on greatly reduced incomes. Life without a man around the house is not all roses.
Third, the forces released by birth control and the sexual revolution have led directly to our society’s darkest dirty little secret: addiction to pornography. It is said to account for 40 percent of all Internet use. Men and boys, particularly, are addicted and, as such, are increasingly adapting views of women as exclusively sexual creatures, biologically and psychologically designed to satisfy their real or imaginary sexual hunger. One side result is that we have never had a higher percentage of unmarried men!
The evidence is clear. The Church was right all along. Now is the time for all of us to acknowledge our mistakes and get to work correcting them.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.