Open to life 1 December, 2010

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This past year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the approval of the birth control pill by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Time celebrated with a cover story in May, pointing out that the Pill was simply “the most convenient and reliable form of birth control ever invented – but it quickly became much more. Arriving at a moment of social and political upheaval, the Pill became a handy proxy for wider trends: the rejection of tradition, the challenge to institutions, the redefinition of women’s roles.” As the controversy over Pope Benedict’s recently published interview begins to die down (in which he reaffirmed the truth and continuing relevance of Humanae Vitae), we might take a moment to reflect on that anniversary, and what has happened since 1960. (You’ll find some relevant articles in our Christianity section, and a discussion in the Forum pages. See my “Liturgy and Trinity” in the Articles section for an explanation of how the contraception debate is connected to Liturgical Reform. Look under “Theology of the Body” on the Links page for further institutions and programmes that teach this important subject.)

The Pill is taken every day by 100 million women around the world. The Time article by Nancy Gibbs spent a lot of time exploring the sociological effects of the Pill worldwide, but also the “backlash” from those concerned that the marriage bond is being weakened by the separation of sex from procreation. (Even Raquel Welch wrote an article on the Pill’s anniversary for CNN arguing that it was largely to blame for undermining marriage, which is the “cornerstone of civilisation, an essential institution that stabilises society, provides a sanctuary for children and saves us from anarchy”.) Testimonies from women who have stopped taking the Pill because of social, physical and psychological side effects are commonplace. Should we be surprised to think that there might be spiritual side-effects too?

With the failure of the old approaches to evangelization, Pope Benedict is very concerned with how the Church might reach out to those outside, and be heard in places where her voice has up to now been dismissed. He has rightly perceived that there are elements of goodness and truth outside the Church, and that the Church will only be listened to if she has something to say about these. But can we address these elements without implying “that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man” (as John Paul II warned in Veritatis Spendor)? Benedict states that “The perspectives of Humanae Vitae remain valid, but it is another thing to find humanly accessible paths.” The teaching is indeed an “ideal”, in the sense of something to strive for, but not in the sense that it is impossible to achieve or live. Man has the help of grace, and his concrete, natural possibilities are not those assumed by our post-Freudian culture.

We are supernatural organisms. If this is the case, we can confidently hold up the Church’s teaching on contraception not only as an ideal but as reflecting the full truth of human sexuality. There are many examples of couples who live that ideal and find happiness and peace in doing so. It is Christ, the concrete universal, who overcomes the false dualism between ideal and reality. It is no longer the case that the real will always fall short of the ideal, or that morality must always be based on compromise between extremes. And yet, if Christ holds up the ideal, and makes it possible for us in union with him to attain it, there is a sense in which the rest of us may yet fall short, and are in constant need of mercy. We are not all perfectly integrated with Christ, even if we have the grace of baptism and the sacraments. Those outside the Church do not even have those advantages, and yet they too may be trying to find their way to a better way of life from within a desperately complex situation, having grown up in a culture of vice.

Pope Benedict’s comments in Light of the World have been taken by some to represent a shift in Church teaching on condom use or even more generally on contraception, which they certainly are not. But they do represent a shift in something. They were not a gaffe, or an unfortunate misstep, undermining the work of the Church to stem the spread of AIDS. They were not the announcement of a new morality. What they show is an increased willingness to enter imaginatively within the world of the sinner (whether Catholic or not) and encourage him towards the light, nurturing the slightest tendency to seek truth, goodness and beauty. As the Pope says in that interview, “We are sinners. But we should not take this fact as evidence against the truth, when that high moral standard is not met. We should seek to do all the good possible, and sustain and support one another.”