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Much is being made these days of former vice president Al Gore’s Oscar award-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Rumor has it that it might just gain him a Nobel Prize one of these days. However, we Catholics have our own “inconvenient truth” that has consequences far more dire that those of global warming. The Church’s inconvenient truth is its stand on birth control.
For most Americans the birth control controversy is over. And that is true for American Catholics, too. As they say about the law, it is a “settled” matter. Ninety percent of all women in this country capable of becoming pregnant use contraceptives. It’s been reported that 85 percent of American Catholics ignore the Church’s teachings that artificial birth control is morally wrong and sinful. Leaving oneself open to pregnancy and not being in control of one’s own body is an ultimate in “inconvenient.”
Various methods of birth control have been around since Biblical times. However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s, when “the pill” came on the market that “sex without consequences” fundamentally changed the way we live. Together the new free and open attitude toward sex and the rise of radical feminism in the 1960s and 70s fueled the widespread availability of the oral contraceptives. This openness to birth control was applauded as the key to liberating women from their status as “barefoot, pregnant and chained to the kitchen stove.”
Swept up in the heady social turmoil of the times, many Catholics quickly decided to ignore the Church’s stand against artificial birth control. Many others learned that Pope Paul VI, had established an ecclesial commission to study birth control. After long deliberation, the commission is reported to have urged the pope to ease the Church’s stand against it. He did not. Instead the pope issued the much reviled [but almost never read] encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
The pope’s message was treated like a sand castle pounded by a strong, incoming tide. Public opinion washed right over it and, except for a few valiant voices, the birth control battle was over. A major contributor to the rejection of the Church’s message was hysteria over the “Population Bomb.” Our newspapers, magazines and airwaves were ringing the alarm bell of overpopulation. China’s one child policy was hailed as a brave new example for the rest of the world.
In the aftermath, in the nearly 40 years since the publication of “Humanae Vitae,” the Church has been officially steadfast in its teaching, and at the same time enormously timid. Few are the pulpits that instruct the faithful on the issue. Few are the Catholic schools that inform the young on this and a whole range of sexual issues (i.e., masturbation and the rules of pre-martial sexual behavior). And many are the Pre-Cana Marriage Preparation programs which present artificial birth control as “an option.” All of this has gone on against a background perception that “the Church has lost all credibility about matters of sex.”
With the Church seemingly mute about these matters, the entertainment media has taken over the instruction of our children. They have helped create for the young a sexual free-fire zone. Currently, in the U.S. 61 percent of high school seniors report having had sex. Forty-two percent of boys and 33 percent of girls between 15 and 17 have had intercourse. Eighty-five percent of the one million U.S. teen pregnancies each year are unplanned. One in 12 children is no longer a virgin by age 13. Tellingly, 23 percent of teens think it is embarrassing to admit they are virgins.
A wag once said, “The World abandons an idea about the time the Church accepts it, and the World accepts an idea about the time the Church abandons it.” This seems to be the case with birth control. The “sex without consequences” dogma is exploding in our collective faces. Our wholesale tampering with the natural order of things sexual and procreative has brought forth a whirlwind of trouble from a 50 percent divorce rate, a 30 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate, sex-drenched popular culture and a plague of sexually transmitted diseases. Annually, U.S. teens contract approximately 3 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with gonorrhea and chlamydia being the most commonly acquired disease. If and when these young people marry, they bring these physical and psychological consequences with them to their wedding beds.
What the world is waking up to, however, is not the spiritual and physical damage done by our taking God out of the procreative process. Our secular leaders are becoming aware that the West’s massive shift to birth control is fundamentally and quite immediately threatening the very foundation of civilization: our survival.
Europe, the World’s leader in birth control and abortions, is a case in point. Once Catholic nations, such as Spain and Italy, now have fertility rates of 1.2 and 1.1 per couple. Since a rate of 2.1 children per couple is needed, demographers project, for instance, by 2050 that 60 percent of Italians will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no uncles and aunts. Talk about a revolutionary change in family and social life!
This trend toward fewer and fewer babies is now firmly established, but its implications are just beginning to sink in. A friend has predicted that Europe will soon be little more than a theme park of Asians. This projected future is being countered by data showing the explosive birthrates of Europe’s Muslims and future predictions about how long before the EU is an Islamic organization.
While it will be a “hard sell” in our current pro-birth control world, the Church’s position has been right. It has been right that we are not to play God with our bodies. It has been right to proclaim the co-creation of children as a primary purpose for marriage. The Church’s steadfast stand may be an “inconvenient truth” to the modern couple beginning a marriage. However, don’t ask the young mother bringing her baby home from the hospital. Don’t ask the father at his daughter’s first Communion. Don’t ask the couple on their children’s wedding days. Inconvenience may be their road to true happiness.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.