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A text reduced to silence

· ​Why Paul VI was not understood ·

If ever there is a text that was not understood it is precisely the Encyclical Humanae vitae, published by Pope Paul vi in July 1968. Prohibiting recourse to artificial methods of contraception, this text marked a fracture in the Catholic Church and contributed to a haemorrhage of the faithful. Today it is impossible to speak of Humanae vitae in a society in which over the past 50 years contraception has become a habit. The Encyclical is unknown to the wider public and, for those who still remember it, the Catholic Church’s position has been largely vanquished by the facts. The statistics are unequivocal: in France more than 97 per cent of women of reproductive age have recourse to contraception of which the natural methods account for a minimal percentage. The average age at which women have their first sexual relations is 17 and they have their first child at about the age of 28, while marriage takes place only after they are 30. In 2017, about 60 percent of children were born out of wedlock, thus creating a gap between peoples’ lives and the Church’s teaching. However, it is equally impossible to speak of Humanae vitae in the Church. As soon as this subject is mentioned the most conservative elements cry scandal and protest about the way doctrine has been abandoned. Theologians thus have no wish to undertake a task of updating that would expose them to harsh criticism in the Church and that would be of no interest to society.

Humanae vitae isthus reduced to silence. But does this Encyclical really have nothing else to tell us? Over and above the formulated prohibition, Paul vi expresses his concern about the risk of dehumanizing relations between men and women, of seeing women reduced to objects, to mere instruments for pleasure. This risk is still present, as the recently founded movement #MeToo testifies. Why did people fail to understand this message from Paul vi? And how can it be brought up to date today? Can the Church still resume a dialogue with society? Amoris laetitia has begun this process. An analysis of the limitations of Humanae vitae can enable it to be continued.

Dina Bellotti “Paul VI”

Humanae vitae shows us a Pope who is worried. Paul vi anticipated the risk that love, sexuality and procreation would be separated and he was right. He thus forbade recourse to methods of artificial contraception, just as a father would forbid a son to play with a box of matches – a prohibition which was made with the best of intentions in order to prevent the child from hurting himself. Pope Paul vi does not seem to have foreseen that the faithful can become adults in faith. It was first and foremost this paternalistic attitude that was rejected in a period of social change in which slogans such as “it’s forbidden to forbid” flourished. Paul vi was not the only one in his generation to have failed to understand this change of epoch. Not even General de Gaulle managed to understand these events. If the Encyclical had taken the form of a simple warning, entrusting the ultimate responsibility to the illuminated consciences of married couples (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 50), it might have continued to foster conversations and debates. The prohibition made all discussion impossible, superfluous. It was a question of taking or leaving it, so many people preferred to leave both the Encyclical and the Church. Today the Church admits that she has been called to form consciences, not to replace them (cf. Amoris laetitiae, 37). This is a first step, necessary but not sufficient, to making ourselves heard on the other side of the divide!

Humanae vitae describes to us a virtual marriage: there are no sick children or financial difficulties or stress linked to work or to the lack of work. There is only a couple who love each other tenderly. This is a text not rooted in reality, a text from which life, and above all women, are absent. Where is the burden of repeated motherhood and of dependence on men which our mothers and grandmothers had to endure? Where is the price paid by so many women who dared one day to love a man outside wedlock? Women have always paid very dearly, far more dearly than men, for the slightest deviation from social conventions. The very fine film made by Stephen Frears in 2013, Philomena, shows the extent to which the Church condemned, punished and stigmatized those women. In the collective unconscious of women, fear and shame live on for a long time. Thus it is not surprising that in 1968 they saw the pill as a means of liberation, as well as a means of restoring balance to the relations between men and women. Paul vi did not perceive this aspiration of women to greater equality, nor did he understand their fear and their anguish. Paul vi mentions women only to express the hope that men might respect them as beloved companions. His kindness is undeniable but does not take the feminine experience into account. Hence the displeasing impression of a text written by men who intend to regulate the intimate life of women. This impression is strengthened by the fact that the virtue of continence is merely transposed from celibacy to marriage, without any awareness of the complexity of a relationship in which two people, with their own personal histories, do not always spontaneously unite. Homage should be paid to the effort of Amoris laetitia to insert the reality of families and sexuality into the Church’s discourse. The question of contraception was not touched on there; and the Church cannot talk about it without taking women’s viewpoint into consideration.

Franco Gentilini “The Engaged Couple in the Garden” (1975)

Today Paul vi’s fears have materialized. Love, sexuality and procreation are completely disassociated, to the point that many young people today have no idea of the meaning of marriage. Before any other question concerning contraception, the Church has before her the challenge of presenting Christian marriage as an authentic means of humanization and a source of deep joy. Women’s aspirations have been realized in part. Birth control, together with paid work, has changed the balance between men and women once and for all. And yet the equality of men and women is not a fait accompli everywhere, and other questions are being asked. Young people today do not think of living the anguish of the past generations but refuse to bear alone the burden of contraception and for ecological reasons are ever more wary of hormonal treatments. In France contraception is a topic that is not dealt with by the couple but rather by the woman and her doctor. Men have let themselves be deresponsibilized. By explicitly entrusting the choice of contraceptive methods to the couple, the Church could help spouses to resume the dialogue on this subject and thereby also involve men. To this end however she must admit that, even if the products of technology are not neutral (cf. Laudato si’, 107), they always afford the opportunity for a discernment in conscience in order to determine their proper use.

Young people today also aspire to a more concrete equality between men and women. They reject the male chauvinist attitudes and the glass ceiling which all too often still obstruct their professional future. The #MeToo Movement shows that sex, power and money are always interconnected. All too often the Church passes over this situation in silence, which makes her teaching ineffective. Especially since she still has the leeway for important progress. The Church calls herself mother, yet reserves for men alone the task of embodying her motherhood! The words of women do not have the same weight in the Church as those of men, since it is only the words of the clergy, hence of men, which bind this institution. This is a situation which could recover its balance in the Synodal Church which Pope Francis keenly hopes for but for which the bishops show scant enthusiasm.

The risk of the dehumanization of relations between men and women will always exist. It is the task of Christians to show that the covenant is possible and that the war of the sexes is not inevitable. The Church can actualize Paul vi’s preoccupation by making room for people’s consciences and responsibility and working out a realistic discourse anchored in life. At the price of a self-critical attitude she will thus be able to cross the divide and pick up the dialogue with society.

Monique Baujard




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 25, 2020