Mary Kenny examines the legacy of Humanae Vitae for present-day Catholics and finds that with hindsight that Paul VI's encyclical makes more sense in the context of today's "automatic" contraceptive culture.
I AM FRIENDLY with a young married couple in their 20s, who have one young child. They are by way of being political refugees, and they are an admirable pair, earnest, hardworking, brave, having known much sorrow in their young lives.
They live in rented accommodation, which they have decorated with ingenuity and they are just about okay, financially. But until one of them has a steady job, at least, I can see that to have a second child, in their present circumstances, would be a tremendous worry to them.
They are resourceful and they might manage. But we know how thin the line can be between "managing" and slipping into that bracket unpleasantly called "the underclass".
This is, in our time, the poverty line. Their child is such a blessing to them, the young mother remarked, once that "at the darkest hour, it is Irina who keeps us going we have to think of the future for her sake".
Yet I can also see that it would be much better if they do not conceive another child for a few years more. I can see, too, that if another child was to be conceived, the first reaction of the Health Service would be to offer an abortion, considering the circumstances. My practical instinct is to hope that the young couple are using some form of effective contraception.
Of course, the better alternative as people in the pro-life movement (where you still find genuine socialists) always emphasise is to change the social conditions, rather than filling women up with hormonal drugs (the Pill) or introducing the unromantic artefacts of the rubber industry into the marriage bed.
Create a society where young couples are not threatened with poverty just by having a second child. There is some constructive thinking to be done in this area, and people like the sociologist Patricia Morgan are doing it suggesting that the kind of individualistic consumer capitalism in which we live is often anti-family. But until social conditions change, you are still faced with the practical problems. I can see all these practical problems for young couples. I can also see that in past times women sometimes were worn out with childbearing, in a way that was detrimental to their health and to their family life.
There were heroic, self-sacrificing mothers: but it is also right for us to use our reason and consider "responsible parenthood", as Humanae Vitae indeed underlined.
All these arguments were there when the controversial encyclical was
published (or, first, leaked) in 1968, and it seemed to me at the time ridiculous that men should dictate issues of maternal health in this way.
All the arguments are still there, and the case for effective contraception remains quite strong. Except that, with the benefit of hindsight, and experience, we can now see that this matter is much more complicated than at first it looks. Contraception is not just about maternal health. It is not just about "responsible parenthood". It is about a whole culture, which is only just beginning to be apparent.
The current secular debate about contraception, for example, centres on the question of whether girls of 14 and 25 should "automatically" go on the Pill. Among my contemporaries now the women of fortysornething, and mothers of teenagers the worrying discussion centres on the pressures being put on teenage girls to have a promiscuous sex life. And the very bad effect all this instant sexuality has had on young men, too: that young men expect instant sex from women straight away, without courtship.
The head of a girls' college at Oxford even wondered aloud the other day if the young plunge into excessive drinking and drug-taking so easily now because they have no language of courtship any more. This may be speculation, but it is certain that the "instant sexuality" which the Pill somehow ushered in has altered all kinds of relationships and social, not to mind sexual, intercourse. History has a curious way of producing paradox: things never turn out exactly as planned — there are contradictions full of piquant ironies.
While my generation, when young, castigated the Pope and the bishops for being aloof and patriarchal in their approaches, today, you could construct a feminist argument against the Pill mentality, and define chastity as an affirmation of female empowerment against (this sounds like Roger Scruton) the aggressive phallus.
Jungians might argue that the hierarchy were guided by their "anima" their female side in approaching "human life" with this reverence. The characteristically male approach would be to encourage women to be more available to men which is how the Pill mentality has affected society.
Birth control was originally concerned with marriage: that was Marie Stopes's obsessive concern.
She believed that the control of fertility would enhance married life. Humanae Vitae, too, was quite poetically focused on marriage.
But contraception itself has moved very quickly from "responsible parenthood" to the agenda of personal choice in sexual behaviour and the "right" to casual sex for all. In this scenario, women are always the losers, since biology has equipped men with a far greater capacity for to put it brutally mindless sex. So the birth control scenario shifted from a focus on married love to a focus on free sex.
You would never guess, in a month of Sundays, who it was who made the most chilling prediction that contraception would inevitably produce promiscuity (and then decadence): Madame Jeannette Vermeersch, wife of the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez.
It was Thorez, who, at every turn "strongly opposed contraception on the grounds that it would encourage free love, a petty-bourgeois failing unworthy of a communist," according to one study of French social history. Jeannette lived to uphold Humanae Vitae, as a Communist, rather than as a Catholic, mother piquant irony indeed.
God moves in mysterious ways, to be sure, and sometimes we learn lessons from the most unexpected sources. The first inkling that I had that there was more to contraception than the mechanics would have us think came from a conversation with an Orthodox Jew, a married woman with four children. After more than 20 years of married life she confided to me that her marriage had remained "deeply erotic".
And what was the secret of this source of conjugal joy? The couple kept the Jewish law of abstinence, she said. This forbids sexual contact for seven days after the end of the menstrual period: and it was purely the fact that they were not permitted to have sex whenever they pleased that kept the spice in their relationship! This made me consider that perhaps effective contraception is precisely what makes so many couples so bored with each other. When there are no restraints, tedium soon sets in. Perhaps natural fertility control had a lot more going for it than people imagined.
Today, I could refrain from having any dogmatic approach to the questions that Humanae Vitae asked: we are living in history and we are still learning. We often do not know what the consequences of our theories are to be: and there is wisdom in thinking in centuries.
But for young couples, like my friends, faced with the practical problems of family spacing today, "thinking in centuries" is hardly the answer. I can see their dilemma perfectly: I can also see the way that our society abuses sexuality and women, partly because the contraceptive mentality has coarsened attitudes. In an ideal world, natural family planning is, as my Jewish friend revealed, very probably the most romantic, as well as the most holistic, form of fertility control.
But my experience is that most human beings, most of the time, fall short of the ideal. Yet Humanae Vitae does represent a very important kind of ideal indeed.