1968 ~ ‘Humane Vitae’ and the Family

1968 was not an especially good year to be 16 years old. I well remember the exceptional discord and violence that seemed to envelope society at every level. At 16 one naturally desires to be filled with hope in the future and the summer of ’68 evoked anything but hope. It did produce its lighter moments, however, and one of those happy moments was the release of a charming movie starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda called “Your, Mine, and Ours.” The story revolves around an engineered romance (Van Johnson playing Cupid) between two widowed parents on a naval base. The attraction is there alright, but the deal killer seems to be her eight children stacked up against his ten offspring. In the end their out-sized families are hilariously blended and they finally bond when #19 “Ours” arrives to flesh out the perfect family.

Paradoxically, MGM Studios released a movie extolling the joy, beauty, and happy chaos of large families at exactly that moment that the ‘second wave’ sexual revolution was just hitting full stride in America. (The ‘first wave’ being the 1920s jazz age.) And it was the new oral contraceptive ‘Pill’ that both exemplified and enabled this second revolt against traditional sexual morality. In fact, the Pill was being widely promoted as a marriage saver. I vividly remember engaging in lively debates with my more progressive friends at school about this very thing. Their general arguments went like this: Contraception is good for families for a variety of reasons. By limiting the number of children it not only reduces financial stress on parents but will assure better education and greater opportunity for the remaining children. Big families only use up valuable human and natural resources thus putting undue stress on an already overpopulated world. Healthier marriages will result. Parents will have more individual time for each other and for their optimal 2.1 children, thus making the family a happier, safer environment for all. Women’s bodies are put at physical risk by childbearing so contraception can only improve women’s health, etc.

But the merits (or lack thereof) of all such arguments effectively took a back seat to the main contention of a landmark 1965 Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, that an inherent ‘right to privacy’ forbad the state regulating a married couple’s use of contraceptives. Since then, Griswold has proven to be a recurring landmine, not so much because of its conclusions, but due to the questionable judicial reasoning behind it. For it was here that the high Court first discovered that ephemeral ‘right to privacy’ emanating like pixie dust from what Justice William O. Douglas described as the ‘penumbra’ of constitutional rights. Of course no such right is explicitly stated anywhere in our American Constitution, so its discovery came as a complete surprise to many legal scholars.

It is curious that Justice Douglas chose the term ‘penumbra’ to argue for this broad expansion of enumerated constitutional rights. Webster defines a penumbra as a space of partial illumination between shadow and full light, or a shaded region; a surrounding region in which something exists in a lesser degree. If a particular right exists only in the shadows and not the full light of day is it not fair to say that it lacks the full force, clarity, or intensity that other rights enjoy? Privacy, which we all value highly to be sure, makes a very tenuous argument when it comes to interactions with the state. If privacy were an absolute right as Justice Douglas assumed then no citizen should be required to file an income tax return, register, for the census, or be drafted into the military. Consequently this penumbral ‘privacy right’ has been interpreted with great inconsistency (post Griswold) so that a 13 year old girl, for example, could be searched and expelled from school for carrying a 2” pocket knife in her purse, yet that same 13 year old has the right to procure an abortion without her parents ever being notified.

Now I have no problem with the courts prohibiting the state from poking around in the bedrooms of married couples, and the Connecticut statute seemed to represent an intrusive legislative overreach into private marital affairs. And because government and common law have always recognized marriage as a privileged state which both benefits and underpins society, the state extends to married couples certain exclusive latitudes in family affairs, provided that individuals within the family are not being unduly harmed. Common sense dictates that among those privileges to which married couples are entitled is the right to plan their own families without government interference (unlike totalitarian societies, e.g. China where the state routinely coerces women into abortions). But in a free society the family is assumed to function under its own internal dynamic, free from undue governmental interference.

Had the Court left it at that and concluded that married couples are granted certain immunities from state interference in intimate matters, without defining a whole new category of rights, then Griswold would have served its purpose. Justices might have cited the 1st or even 4th Amendments (provisions against unreasonable searches.) But in proposing a general right (to privacy) never before recognized it opened up a Pandora’s box of new litigation which could extend well beyond the bounds of marital privilege. That is why Justice Hugo Black in his dissenting opinion warned that by such creative interpretations the Court was setting itself up as “a day to day Constitutional Convention.” Not surprisingly, this newly invented ‘right to privacy’ soon expanded its reach far beyond marital relations. Its selective application eventually extended privacy protections to accommodate the various sexual proclivities of any and all plaintiffs. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which gave any woman, married or single, the right to terminate her pregnancy was pointedly based on that recently found ‘right to privacy’ as were subsequent Court decisions which struck down laws against sodomy, gay marriage, etc.

But in 1965 the Catholic Church had not yet fully weighed in on the issue. She was still studying the question even as the sexual revolution was gaining momentum. After all, this was as much a moral issue as it was a legal one. Having come from a large family myself, my own moral sense was that contraception somehow was not a good thing for individuals, families, or society. In July of 1968 my intuition was seemingly vindicated when Pope Paul VI released the encyclical Humanae Vitae, definitively stating contraception to be intrinsically evil. The immediate reaction however was both loud and hostile, especially from the large academic Catholic quarter. High level moral theologians like Bernard Haring and Fr. Charles E. Curran at Catholic University were decrying Humanae Vitae even before the ink was dry on the paper. In fact, Paul VI had only reiterated what the Church had taught over the centuries, but this was 1968 and revolution was in the air. The dissent within the Church quickly went viral, reflecting the general social dissent in society at large.

Many theologians couched this dissent in terms of ‘primacy of conscience.’ German theologian Bernard Haring wrote, “Those who, with an honest conscience, cannot accept the teaching and requirements of Humanae Vitae must follow their honest conscience. When married couples, then, for good reasons and with a good conscience use methods of birth regulation which in their minds are the most suitable ─ abortion is obviously excluded ─ they need not mention it in confession.” Other theologians opposed Humanae Vitae by appealing to a consequentialist argument, namely that the morality of an act should be judged in part by its intended or actual consequences. This is simply another way of saying that the ends justify the means. Therefore, if one uses contraception to improve a family’s living standard, educational level, etc. that intended good would trump any potential evil in the contraceptive act itself.

But now that we have 50 years of documented consequences to study it is much easier to judge the real effects of widespread contraception. Despite Professor Haring’s carving out abortion as an exception, its acceptance, even among many Catholics, quickly followed upon the heels of widespread contraceptive practice. Humanae Vitae had also warned that contraception would lead to men disregarding the dignity of women and treating them as sex objects, which is precisely what the current #MeToo movement is belatedly realizing, and on an heretofore unimagined scale.

And as to the family unit which the hormonal contraceptive was supposedly designed to safeguard, where does it stand today compared with 1968? Well, the divorce rate had more than doubled by 1981 for starters. And today, births out of wedlock, fatherless children, child and spousal abuse have risen exponentially even as the marriage rate among millennials has plummeted when compared to previous generations. Homelessness and child poverty rates have exploded, so what happened? (If only I had had today’s statistics at my disposal back in high school when my classmates were insisting that the future of the family was never brighter, thanks to more effective contraceptives!)

In real time it would seem that access to hormonal contraceptives did very little to enhance the institutional family. On the contrary in its wake millions of families actually collapsed. Contraceptives greatly facilitated easy adultery by either partner, for example. While few experts back in ’68 were willing to foresee such an institutional collapse, hard experience now demonstrates the folly of the consequentialist arguments. Intended or not, the fact remains that a contraceptive mindset has ravaged the family by greatly diminishing the perceived value of permanent married relationships. And if (theoretical) ends are allowed to justify the means, then by the same token the actual ends (based on experience) should serve as an indictment of those same means. In retrospect it would seem that it was the Holy Father and not his many critics who had been right all along. The real observable consequence of widespread contraception, abetted by abortion (as its inevitable backstop), over the past half century clearly demonstrates why Pope Paul considered it to bHe an intrinsic evil. But why could the best minds back in 1968 not have foreseen such evil consequences?

The problem seems to have been a major disconnect in the popular narrative. It appears that most of the champions of the new contraceptive technology, including Catholic moralists, were viewing the whole debate through the exclusive lens of married couples. All the arguments, both pro and con, were being made within the context of married life. Even the Supreme Court in its Griswold decision had limited the sale and use of contraceptives to married couples. Many doctors, in fact, continued to refuse prescribing the Pill to unmarried women. The reality in society was quite different. For instance, the experts never imagined that marital fidelity might be compromised by the easy no-fault coupling up (‘afternoon delights’) which easy contraception facilitated. And as adultery soared so did the divorce rate. Sex, freed from the fear of pregnancy or marital commitment, seemed too good to be true and single persons took advantage of such enabling technology by the millions, so much so that the High Court had to revise its opinion later and give unmarried persons the same right to access contraceptives as the married. So in the end, the Pill didn’t save marriage and the family, it tended to undermine them. Not that every family suddenly fell apart, but within two generations more children would be born outside of wedlock than within it among those poor and working classes who had traditionally represented the strongest haven of family life.

In many people’s minds whatever is made legal becomes moral as well, and opinion polls over the past five decades bear this observation out. The legalizing of something like abortion or even drugs changes the attitudes of a great many people towards acceptance. And while the moral aspects of contraception among married persons can be endlessly debated, when the Court ruled in 1972 (Eisenstadt v. Baird) that states cannot prevent the sale of contraceptives to unmarried persons, it was passively validating and affirming teen sex, adultery, and even prostitution. Laws have a dual nature. On the one hand they reflect the prevailing moral climate, yet at the same time they also greatly impact a society’s ethical culture. They function as both causes and effects. Even an unenforceable statute has the ability to send a powerful message about the morality of certain things, especially for the young. For that reason alone it can still render a valuable social good.

But once the law, in any practical sense, no longer recognized a distinction between every variety of sexual liaison and formal wedlock, marriage lost its unique and privileged position in society. The family would eventually be redefined as any random association of persons sharing a dwelling place without regard to gender or blood ties. In 1968 the traditional family was still more or less intact, but who could foresee what the long term effects of the Pill and legal opinions such as Griswold would wreak upon it. People then were too busy enjoying their newfound sexual freedom to worry about such things. Fifty years later however, the social and moral anarchy that is euphemistically passed off as ‘inclusiveness’ has greatly damaged that primary institution of the family.

All is not lost, however. Even today there is a significant minority of determined young couples, both Catholic and Evangelical Protestant, who refuse to swallow the bait of hedonism offered by a contraceptive culture. And unlike the dire predictions of my high school companions back in 1968, large families have not ruined the world, caused mass starvation, or turned the spouses into impoverished drudges. I personally know many young families with five or seven, even nine children. No, it’s not a rose garden for any of them and the obstacles they face (many erected by state bureaucrats) are both substantial and aggravating. Nevertheless the one trait that these couples seem to exhibit universally is joy. Another quality they have in common is Faith which conceivably correlates with the fact that divorce is virtually unknown among this new class of counter-cultural warriors.

There is a young family in Nebraska who recently welcomed their seventh child into the family. Nathan, the dad, excitedly explained to me how they had just purchased a 12 passenger van so that now they can all drive to church together in one vehicle. I teasingly remarked that this also meant they had room for three more kids. Nathan simply beamed proudly and agreed. Now, this is hardly some wealthy professional but a young father of seven who actually labors in a wood-shop while his wife Anna home schools the younger children. Their true wealth is found not in their bank account but in the loving family they have created, and one can sense true value just being around their happy brood.

The real beneficiaries of such closely bonded families are the children who tend to be better educated, better adjusted, and better socialized than many of those ‘only’ children whose exclusive companions are too often dogs or cats. The institutional family may be badly wounded today, but it has not yet expired. For that we must be thankful to a sizable remnant of that younger generation who have rejected the false values of their peers ─ and the sexual revolution inherited from their parent’s time. These are the heroic 21st century manifestation of “Yours, Mine, and Ours” proving that 50 years later the traditional family still possesses relevance and value in the modern world.


Francis J. Pierson   +a.m.d.g.

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