Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae gave the perennial “no!” to the question of whether contraception could be used without endangering and degrading the human person.  Since its release and world tour in 1968, critics have characterized the encyclical as an abstract, moral ruling stamped down like some horridly-shaped cookie cutter on the real sexual lives of loving couples. But, seeing as (a) no one really went the direction the encyclical suggested and (b) the Western sexual landscape has been progressively revealed as a wasteland of frat-boy rape and bored masturbation rather than an Eden of sexual liberation, we should probably give Humanae Vitae another glance.

I recently re-read the thing — it’s the 50th year anniversary of the encyclical’s publication, and I am morally obliged to have a hot take. I was amazed to find that the encyclical centers around, not moral prohibition, but an ecological vision of the human person. Its primary punch against contraception calls the stuff un-holistic. Before the rest of the world had the wits to even pretend to see themselves as bound up within a natural environment, this old man paved the way towards an ecologically-friendly sexuality.

“We need to recognize,” sayeth the Pope, “that there are some limits to the power of Man over his own body and over the natural operations of the body…No one, neither a private individual nor a public authority, ought to violate those limits. For these limits are derived from the reverence owed to the whole human body and its natural operations.” His principle is an ecological one, something akin to the principle that would prohibit dumping toxins into a river on the grounds that we owe reverence to the whole river ecosystem. Fertility is a part, but it is a part of a whole, and it cannot be compartmentalized and acted upon apart from its relation to the whole human body.

As one of a myriad of examples of the way in which contraception denies the total, ecological significance of fertility, take the female fertility cycle. Hormonal birth control operates by suppressing the cyclical waxing and waning of the female endocrine system, most explicitly in the production of progesterone and estrogen. This cycle is replaced by a medically managed delivery-system — a daily pill, a yearly injection, a series of rods under the skin — which flatlines the hormonal  increases and decreases that stimulate ovulation. But, because fertility is not an atom, unattached to the rest of the person, this industrious switch to a more linear hormonal existence affects the existence of the female person more generally. We know that, during ovulation, women’s faces grow more symmetrical, their voices become higher in pitch, they smell sweeter, and their pupils dilate more. With the suppression of ovulation comes the suppression of these differences. Similarly, ovulating women tend to show increased memory, “cyclic variation” in auditory processing, and an increased capacity to “recognize facial cues signalling nearby contagion and physical threat.” A 2011 study showed that “women on hormonal contraception recall more gist items from an emotional story [while] naturally cycling women recall more detail items from an emotional story,” indicating that hormonal contraception alters the processes of memory formation. And — though this will be of little surprise to the Darwinian-minded — it has even been shown that the period of ovulation also increases a woman’s ability to accurately perceive the current socio-sexual orientation of a given man. Again, these cyclical differences are flat-lined by the regular administration of artificial hormones.  

The point is not that contraception is bad — the point is that the vision of a medically-managed fertility as an atomized reality is unrealistic. We can’t just suppress fertility any more than we can just suppress digestion, immunity, or sleep. The body is a whole, and the suppression of any one of its parts has a total effect, carving out a new and particular kind of existence for the human person — and the society in which they are a part. It would be the acme of unembodied, Western foolishness to suppose that a human society would not begin to differ if the majority of women began to spend a majority of their fertile lives dependent on pharmaceutical companies for a non-cyclical, anovulatory mode of being. If the dilation of the pupils is linked to the progesterone of the ovaries, it takes little ecological imagination to posit that the sexual and social behaviors of a human society might be likewise linked.

Paul VI explicitly argues that the principles of the Church’s teaching on contraception are derived from a “reverence for the whole human body.”  This old, celibate Italian called for a recognition of the holistic presence of fertility in the human person long before our studies confirmed its reality. The key word in Humanae Vitae,  then, is not “prohibition” but “reverence.”

What is reverence? If we turn to the body once more, we see a strong relation of reverence to the feeling of fear or timidity. When we are reverent we tend to be quiet, to look down, to still our twitching bodies — that is, our bodily manifestations tend to de-emphasize our physical presence. But reverence is unlike fear in that this bodily shrinking is coupled with an attraction to the object of our reverence — we cherish, we revere the thing in question. Thus the typical manifestations of reverence are paradoxical. If we approach reverently, we move towards a thing while looking away. If we speak reverently, we make ourselves heard while staying quiet. In all moments of reverence we feel the urge to not disturb the thing that we nevertheless approach. The typical objects of reverence then are things that are eminently desirable while being eminently given over to our klutzy, clumsy powers of disruption. It occurs whenever we behold something precious and fragile, like a newborn baby; something intangible or invisible and given over to our powers of distraction and ignorance, like the Spirit of God; something immensely complex, the slightest variation of which could destroy it, like an ornate ceremony, a busy ecosystem, or a multi-cellular organism. Reverence is a kind of fear, but it is a fear of ourselves. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, reverence, or what he calls “filial or chaste fear…is not opposed to the virtue of hope: since thereby we fear, not that we may fail of what we hope to obtain by God’s help, but lest we withdraw ourselves from this help.”

If “folding our hands” is a natural movement of reverence, it is because, in the face of something both precious and given over to our slovenly powers of attention and protection, we quite literally stay our own hands, as a mother might stay the wandering hand of her child. If kneeling or standing at attention are culturally approved forms of reverence, it is because within these forms, we quite literally stay our own feet, holding ourselves against our own tendency to wander and to kick. If humans have expressed reverence by wearing collars, ties, hats, veils, it is not simply because these things cover us, but because they have the symbolic meaning of self-mastery — of being on one’s own leash and holding oneself in check.

Neither prophetic insight nor doddering moralism, but this concept of reverence provides the rational basis for Paul VI’s infamous claim that the introduction of hormonal contraception will cause husbands to lose respect for their wives by disregarding their “psychological and physiological equilibrium,” he argues. They will become irreverent — educated to look upon their partners as sexually simple rather than complex, linear rather than cyclical, technologically managed rather than uniquely given over to our own powers of disruption. The Pope had already witnessed the industrial ethos that refused to see the fruits of earth and the frailties of the economy as goods given over to our own destructive capacities. He predicted the same consequences of irreverent sexuality that we readily admit of irreverent corporate and industrial practices: Things become “instruments” for serving our desires and we lose the reverent practices of “attentiveness and love.”  

It might have been hip to mock reverence in a late-nineties, pop-punk sort of way — castigating as stiffs and squares those who, in the face of the precious, fear their own powers of destruction. But now that we are coming into our own in this desiccated and decimated world, irreverence seems like a tired trope — the attitude that destroyed our mountaintops and farmlands, trashed our architecture and artistic heritage, corporatized everything that can be sold, over-fished the oceans, and de-educated our people. We are ready for a return to reverence — for a “no” to ourselves which is not a suppression of what is bright and good in us, but a careful mastery of what is ignorant and careless in us, motivated by a honest look at the complexity, fragility, ecology and beauty of the human body.

Pope Paul VI derived the principles of a happy sexual existence from the primary data gathered by a reverence for the whole human body. Our bodies are fragile, complex, interrelated systems that precede our conscious awareness and “go on without us” in their uncountable operations. Contraception disturbs the operations of this complex whole for the suppression of a singular part. Since its inception, advocates and pharmaceutical giants have never stayed their own hands — their products have “reached in and grabbed,” regardless of the total effect on health and bodily existence.

A common criticism of Catholics is that they believe sexuality to be “just about babies.” The opposite is the case. Advocates of contraception limit human sexuality to reproduction and its lack thereof — they are mystified that, in altering the process of  baby-making, the whole human person is altered as well. The use of artificial contraception is only secondarily banned by the Church — it is primarily banned by the reverence that Paul VI describes. This reverence uncovers and responds to the fact that the suppression of fertility is not a limited, atomic reality, but one that pours out over the whole human body and the society in which that body is embedded.


Sources and Further Reading:

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI

Havlíček J., Fialová J., Roberts S.C. (2017) Individual Variation in Body Odor. In: Buettner A. (eds) Springer Handbook of Odor. Springer Handbooks. Springer, Cham

Bruno Laeng, Liv Falkenberg, “Women’s pupillary responses to sexually significant others during the hormonal cycle”, Hormones and Behavior, Volume 52, Issue 4, November 2007, Pages 520-530

Lauren Rosenberg, Sohee Park, “Verbal and spatial functions across the menstrual cycle in healthy young women,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, October 2002, Volume 27, Issue 7, Pages 835–841

Asha Yadav, O. P. Tandon, and Neelam Vaney, “Long latency auditory evoked responses in ovulatory and anovulatory menstrual cycle”, Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology, Volume 47, Issue 2, 2003, Pages 179–184

C.A.Conway et al, Salience of emotional displays of danger and contagion in faces is enhanced when progesterone levels are raised, Hormones and Behavior, Volume 51, Issue 2, February 2007, Pages 202-206

Shawn E.Nielsen, Nicole Ertman, Yasmeen S. Lakhani, Larry Cahill, Hormonal contraception usage is associated with altered memory for an emotional story, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Volume 96, Issue 2, September 2011, Pages 378-384

Rule, N. O., Rosen, K. S., Slepian, M. L., & Ambady, N. (2011). Mating interest improves women’s accuracy in judging male sexual orientation. Psychological Science, 22, 881–886.

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