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Sunday, June 24, 2018
The problem with prophecy
The problem with prophecy
This summer is the 50th anniversary of the anti-birth control papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, and a clamour of voices is to be heard declaring that Pope Paul VI’s teaching was “prophetic”. It offered an ideal of love between a husband and wife that in the context of the way the Catholic Church usually spoke about marriage in 1968 was certainly uplifting. Yet to describe the document as “prophetic” is distinctly problematic.
The one accurate prophecy made in 1968 about the impact of Humanae Vitae was not made by the Pope but by his critics, who predicted that its teaching would be widely ignored and trigger a sharp decline in respect for the magisterium. And what Paul VI predicted is not what is now being said he predicted.
The Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, has congratulated the signatories of a letter published in the Catholic Herald, said to number about 500 priests, who wrote in support of the view that Humanae Vitae was prophetic. Pope Paul, they say, “had predicted that if artificial contraception became … commonly accepted by society then we would lose our proper understanding of marriage, the family, the dignity of the child and of women, and even a proper appreciation of our bodies and the gift of male and female”.
In a pastoral letter to his diocese earlier this year, Bishop Egan also summarises Pope Paul’s prophecies. If his teaching was ignored, he writes, “there would be catastrophic consequences for persons, families and society. Years on, we can now see exactly what he meant in broken family relationships, the reduction of sex to a casual activity, the trafficking of people for prostitution and pornography, the sexualisation of the young and the explosion of addictive behaviours.”
But none of these predictions are Pope Paul’s, unless they are covered by his unspecific warning of “a general lowering of moral standards”. What did he actually say would be the result of contraception being accepted? “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity,” he declared. The Pope is apparently saying that what discourages adultery is not the depth of the relationship between the husband and wife but the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. He goes on to argue that young people, in particular, “need incentives to keep the moral law”, which the availability of contraceptives would remove. Again the “incentive” he is referring to is the threat of an unwanted pregnancy.
Does this not demean women – and babies? Hidden between the lines of Humanae Vitae lurks a fear of female sexuality. Pope Paul also predicts that use of contraceptives may lead men to “forget the reverence due to a woman”. However worrisome relations between the sexes remain, the status of women over the last 50 years has seen a dramatic improvement.
Pope Paul’s final prophecy was that governments would “intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife” by imposing contraception by law. Where has this happened? As prophecies go, Humanae Vitae does not score highly. There is something else those speaking up for Humanae Vitae fail to point out. To prevent its dire warnings coming true, Paul VI urges governments not to “tolerate any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God”. The demand that the use of contraceptives be criminalised is presumably one part of the encyclical from which even they would dissent.