Forty Years in the Desert of Error

Forty Years in the Desert of Error

By John Mallon

The number forty is very significant in biblical tradition and Sacred Tradition. In that tradition forty years denotes the span of a generation. Moses and the Chosen People spent forty years in the desert seeking the promised land. Jesus spent forty days in the desert in preparation for His public ministry. We recall both these events in the forty days of Lent. Modern popes have also shown a pattern of commemorative encyclicals and other documents on the forty year cycle. For example, the great landmark encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891) was followed forty years later by Quadragesimo Anno from Pope Pius XI in1931 followed by Octogesima Adveniens, an apostolic letter by Pope Paul VI, in 1971.

So, forty years, the span of a generation, has passed since the release of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that deals specifically with human generation. There is nothing new about contraception. Nevertheless, the advent of the birth control pill created a fundamental paradigm shift in how we look at the generation of human life, human sexuality and how the sexes relate, fall in love and raise families. For the first time in history these things were looked upon as “rights” as opposed to gifts of God. As we see today, children and even human body parts are being treated as commodities with price tags on them. 

One of the strongest arguments for the pill forty years ago was (and still is) economic. “We can’t afford to have children” or “We can’t afford a large family.” Why is it that the wealthiest society (the modern Western World) in history is making these claims? How can you put a price on a family? On a child? On a soul destined to live forever with God? Since the dawn of time human beings had children and somehow managed to raise them. Yes, conditions were not always ideal, but they never will be in this life. Ours remains a fallen world. It is a modern fallacy that moral progress keeps pace with technological or economic progress. Sin still haunts the world.

This widespread commoditization of human life is in no small part due to the widespread use of contraception—precisely as Pope Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae, (Cf. Humanae Vitae, No. 17). The widespread rejection of this encyclical is perhaps the most tragic error in the Church’s history, an error to which many still cling to this day; many of those among the clergy.

We know many things now that we didn’t know in 1968, but God knew them, and spoke through His Pope, Paul VI, in a clear warning. In the world at large he was clearly ignored, but in the Church, the message was largely rejected. And the prophetic utterance that is Humanae Vitae has come true. The document’s predictions have all come true, and you as clergy have seen the results: in the newspapers, in your congregations, in the families you serve, in counseling sessions and in the confessional. 

You are on the front line of battle ministering to the broken families, the abused women and girls (and boys), the abandoned wives (and husbands), single people having difficulty finding spouses, and just plain lonely people, all suffering from what Paul VI predicted would be “a general lowering of morality,” (HV, No. 17).

As we begin this adventure, I recommend a rereading (or perhaps for some, a first reading) of Humanae Vitae, prayerfully focusing on how it affects your people and their problems. I’m sure you will recognize how profoundly rejection of this document has affected … everything.

We will examine aspects of these issues and more in future columns.