We have all done things about which we are not proud. A college buddy caught a student sticking a cherry bomb in the coin return box of our dorm pay phone. I sat as judge during our dorm’s disciplinary hearing. There was no reason to disbelieve my friend. There was every reason to disbelieve the guy. But he and his pals were thugs, and I felt intimidated by them. So instead of doing the right thing, I let the guy off the hook. In the process, I sold out a friend.
This year has marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The year came and is now almost gone with little fanfare and even less discussion about the encyclical. It’s not surprising. Humanae Vitae has been virtually ignored from the start. It was written in 1968, a turbulent year in a revolutionary era. We were in political and social upheaval over Viet Nam and racial civil rights. Cities were burning; leaders were being killed. And we were jumping headfirst into a rapidly growing sexual revolution. The Pope’s message ran counter our culture’s if-it’s-fun-do-it lifestyle, so we rejected it. But by not listening we sold out our own generation, and unfortunately we’ve been repeating the same mistake with others.
Humanae Vitae addressed the use of artificial contraception in the modern world. The Pope explained that in God’s plan, sexual intercourse has two intertwined dimensions: unitive and procreative. It unites husband and wife physically, emotionally, and spiritually and allows them to cooperate with God’s outpouring of love through His creation of children. The problem with artificial contraception, and its danger, is that it allows intercourse to serve a purely selfish end, one that thwarts God’s plan. Effectively, it removes God from the couple’s sexual relationship.
When we take God out of anything, what follows is never good. Because artificial contraception makes children preventable, marriage has ceased to operate as the social requirement for sexual intercourse. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Intercourse has become the casual sport of virtual strangers. “Free love” means free sex. Couples enter into live-in relationships, willing to share beds but unwilling to share binding commitments. After all, why buy a cow when milk is so cheap? And the availability of artificial contraception has removed the floor on the age for sex. Kids as young as ten, and not just a few, engage in sexual intercourse. Everything the Pope predicted in Humane Vitae has come true: marital infidelity, the lowering of moral standards, and the breakdown of respect for the physical and emotional needs of women.
The impact of our contraception lifestyle has been devastating. Sexually transmitted diseases (STD) run rampant. Even with contraception, about 8,000 new cases among teenagers are reported daily. Many teens will be left permanently sterile. Births to unwed mothers are staggering: about 1.65 million in 2006, up 20% from just 2002. By age eighteen, 55% of teens have had intercourse. By age 20, about 34% of all girls have been pregnant. And two-thirds of all abortions are obtained by unwed women. Teens account for 750,000 pregnancies and almost 190,000 abortions annually.
Unfortunately, our current sex-education solutions contribute to the problem. We may tell the young to abstain, but we teach “safe sex” and make contraceptives available in schools. It’s like telling kids to not play with guns, but to point them away if they do. As to sex, the message heard is that contraceptives are safe. It’s the wrong message. Condoms have a 15-21% failure rate. Most contraceptives do not prevent STDs. The contraception message also wrongly tells our singles that they cannot be expected to achieve something better. By selling them short, we sell them out.
Instead of teaching contraception, we must teach the virtue of chastity, which is more than preaching abstinence. It’s the difference between telling a diabetic to never eat sweets and teaching him how to live better by eating healthier. Chastity teaches that true love is not a mere feeling or sexual impulse. It is an act of self-giving, a sacrifice for another’s good. Chastity disciplines us to regulate our appetites that we may see the dignity and true worth of the other person. For the unmarried, chastity helps those brought together by normal sexual attractions to develop self-giving rather than self-gratifying relationships. Love is patient. For the married, chastity protects spouses from the hurts of infidelity, deepens their love, and opens them to the blessing of children. In all ways, chastity uses our human sexuality to bring the love of God back into our relationships. His love, lived to the full, does not have a failure rate.
The word “virtue” means strength or courage, and chastity requires both. Our enemy is not human sexuality. It is a culture that uses sex to sell, confuses lust for love, and mocks those trying to live chastely. As parents, teachers, and Church, as single and married Christians, we must not let it intimidate us. We must refuse to participate in what can and does cause harm. We must remove from our homes, schools, and lives whatever lures us to seek self-gratification rather than to give true love. We must stand up to our kids when they unwittingly want what is bad for them. We must stand by them as they face the struggles of chaste living. And whether single or married, we must live in ways that bring God into our relationships. This is the challenge of Humane Vitae.
In His mercy, God gives us second chances. May God have mercy if we don’t use them to learn from Humane Vitae. It’s always wrong to sell out a friend.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.
© Paul V. Esposito 2009. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us on the web at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/