The new issue of First things has this insightful reflection by Mary Eberstadt on Pope Paul IV's widely criticized Humanae Vitae.
Here are a few insightful excerpts.
"That Humanae Vitae and related Catholic teachings about sexual morality are laughingstocks in all the best places is not exactly news. Even in the benighted precincts of believers, where information from the outside world is known to travel exceedingly slowly, everybody grasps that this is one doctrine the world loves to hate. During Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States, hardly a story in the secular press failed to mention the teachings of Humanae Vitae, usually alongside adjectives like “divisive” and “controversial” and “outdated.” In fact, if there’s anything on earth that unites the Church’s adversaries—all of them except for the Muslims, anyway—the teaching against contraception is probably it.
"To many people, both today and when the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968, the notion simply defies understanding. Consenting adults, told not to use birth control? Preposterous. Third World parents deprived access to contraception and abortion? Positively criminal. A ban on condoms when there’s a risk of contracting AIDS? Beneath contempt.
"Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.
"The adversaries of Humanae Vitae also could not have foreseen one important historical development that in retrospect would appear to undermine their demands that the Catholic Church change with the times: the widespread Protestant collapse, particularly the continuing implosion of the Episcopal Church and the other branches of Anglicanism. It is about as clear as any historical chain can get that this implosion is a direct consequence of the famous Lambeth Conference in 1930, at which the Anglicans abandoned the longstanding Christian position on contraception. If a church cannot tell its flock “what to do with my body,” as the saying goes, with regard to contraception, then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.
"By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican Church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell her other members—married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual—not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals.
"Thus in a bizarre but real sense did Lambeth’s attempt to show compassion to married heterosexuals inadvertently give rise to the modern gay-rights movement—and consequently, to the issues that have divided their church ever since. It is hard to believe that anyone seeking a similar change in Catholic teaching on the subject would want the Catholic Church to follow suit into the moral and theological confusion at the center of today’s Anglican Church—yet such is the purposeful ignorance of so many who oppose Rome on birth control that they refuse to connect these cautionary historical dots.
"The years since Humanae Vitae have seen something else that neither traditionalist nor dissenting Catholics could have seen coming, one other development shedding retrospective credit on the Church: a serious reappraisal of Christian sexuality from Protestants outside the liberal orbit.
"Thus, for instance, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed in First Things in 1998 that “in an ironic turn, American evangelicals are rethinking birth control even as a majority of the nation’s Roman Catholics indicate a rejection of their Church’s teaching.” Later, when interviewed in a 2006 article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about current religious thinking on artificial contraception, Mohler elaborated: “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the Pill. . . . The entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there can be no question that the Pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”
"Mohler also observed that this legacy of damage was affecting the younger generation of evangelicals. “I detect a huge shift. Students on our campus are intensely concerned. Not a week goes by that I do not get contacted by pastors about the issue. There are active debates going on. It’s one of the things that may serve to divide evangelicalism.” Part of that division includes Quiverfull, the anti-contraception Protestant movement now thought to number in the tens of thousands that further prohibits (as the Catholic Church does not) natural family planning or any other conscious interference with conception. Such second thoughts among evangelicals are the premise of a 2002 book titled Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Re-Thinks Contraception.
"In fact, the disgrace of contemporary American Catholicism—the many recent scandals involving priests and underage boys—is traceable to the collusion between a large Catholic laity that wanted a different birth-control doctrine, on the one hand, and a new generation of priests cutting themselves a different kind of slack, on the other. “I won’t tattle on my gay priest if you’ll give me absolution for contraception” seems to have been the unspoken deal in many parishes since Humanae Vitae.
"Exactly one hundred years ago, for example, the Lambeth Conference of 1908 affirmed its opposition to artificial contraception in words harsher than anything appearing in Humanae Vitae: “demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.” In another historical twist that must have someone laughing somewhere, pronouncements of the founding fathers of Protestantism make the Catholic traditionalists of 1968 look positively diffident. Martin Luther in a commentary on Genesis declared contraception to be worse than incest or adultery. John Calvin called it an “unforgivable crime.” This unanimity was not abandoned until the year 1930, when the Anglicans voted to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases, and one denomination after another over the years came to follow suit."