Choice after Humanae Vitae

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical from Pope Paul VI in 1968 confirming Roman Catholic rejection of birth control. The decision was important for both American Catholics and Protestants. For many of the former, it presented a crisis of conscience, exacerbating tensions among tradition, reason, and authority. It became a significant cultural marker for the latter too, though they were not bound by it–and indeed, earnest evangelicals whose sexual morality resembles Roman Catholic expectations often seem baffled by the idea that there might be something wrong with married people using contraception.

The topic also comes up in ecumenical dialogue. Even as it divides Catholics from some Protestants, other denominations are drawn together over its diagnosis of problems with sexual license and “contraceptive culture.”

Marking the anniversary, Commonweal magazine recently ran articles from its archives rehearsing the impressively broad kaleidoscope of opinion assessing weaknesses of the decision. One of these critiques admits, “Paul was right to worry,” about the spiraling out of contraceptive culture, “and the terrible human costs of our culture’s disarray in sexual matters is ‘Exhibit A’ of those who currently defend the encyclical.”

But by giving what theologian Gerard Sloyan called “prohibitions without explanations,” some see a lapse in leadership on moral matters. At end, as one Commonweal opinion piece argues, “The failure to develop a fuller understanding of marriage and sexual morality has been especially detrimental to young Catholics. Where previous generations of Catholics agonized over questions of conscience, sex, contraception, and child-bearing, many younger Catholics, along with their non-Catholic peers, following the culture’s lead have adopted a contraceptive mentality and the casual sexual relations that go with it.”

One need not look hard to find examples to illustrate that lament. An apt one is provided in Meaghan O’Connell’s new book, And Now We Have Everything. Attention-getting among a new batch of books about motherhood, O’Connell speaks in the idiom of her generation. Subtitled, “On Motherhood Before I Was Ready,” the book recounts O’Connell’s unplanned pregnancy and the challenges of caring for a newborn.  Raised Catholic, educated at Notre Dame, O’Connell left that faith behind. She and her friends had “all grown up religious and had a shared guilt, a shared self-loathing, and a shared dark humor.” She could hardly offer a better portrayal of a young adult “following the culture’s lead” about how to imagine love, sex, marriage, and family.

O’Connell and friends romp through their twenties with various jobs, boyfriends, and hookups, wondering, “Were we grown up enough to have a baby?  Nine times out of ten your worrying was unwarranted, but on the rare morning-after that it was, we just went to the corner store and bought Plan B. (‘What if it doesn’t work?’ I said to Sara on one such Plan B afternoon. Later she told me I had a twinkle in my eye when I said it, like I was hoping it wouldn’t.’”

Those morning-after chats bear no trace of any agonized questions of conscience on relationship, sex, abortion, or maternity.

There is longing, though. Though these women might appear to relish young singledom, most of O’Connell’s cohort also want something more:

Wanting to have a baby was a desperate quality in a woman….the possibility of ending up alone was always there, in the background….admitting you wanted a baby…and then not getting it because it just didn’t pan out? That was too much, too cruel. Better to try for things more within your control: Better jobs, nicer apartments, enviable vacations.…The problem was that every year of being by ourselves, of moving forward with work, of getting used to our freedom, of learning how to be happy, we got closer to needing to have a baby (Time’s up!) and completely upending the lives and selves we’d been building.

Except for one friend who had already made choice not to have children, O’Connell and her friends want babies someday.  But unlike the timeline for such things in previous generations, marriage and parenthood are capstones and not first steps. Though she liked the idea of a baby, discovering she was pregnant threw her for a loop. She and her fiancé Dustin agreed that they were not where they thought they should be when having a baby. Dustin was especially worried about money.

So she gets angry when Dustin says, “We know we want a kid eventually…We can have this baby again in a couple of years…Once we are married. We can do it again! It will be the same baby….We can have the baby again in a couple of years.” Logically enough, she recognizes that this is false. She blames him. She gets mad.

She gets madder when he tries to empathize with her hesitation at abortion, while nudging her to go on ahead with it, “I mean, of course you don’t want to do it, no one wants to do it. It isn’t fair. It sucks….an abortion is like getting a root canal or something—but I know it’s your body, and there’s the Catholic thing….”

O’Connell bristles at the suggestion, no it’s not the Catholic thing.  Then she rethinks. She pays respects to her childhood faith in some surprising ways: “Maybe it was the Catholic thing that gave me pause, conferred this sense of fate, wonder, awe. Maybe it was what kept me from taking better charge of my life. Maybe it was what made me a romantic, made me call the cell-lump a baby in the first place.”

Wonder and awe are not too bad as religious residuum. Recognition that individuals do not control all that composes their lives, good too. Look closely at her explanation for the transformation of “cell-lump” into “a baby.” It’s “romantic,” that idea that somehow the bodily, conscious love of her and her fiancé enabled a “cell-lump” that would become their child. But that is not the magic wand, what makes the “cell-lump” her baby. Instead, what makes the change is her will and desire: “My truest feelings about the baby began and ended with I want it.”

A striking statement, for better and worse.

For worse. In a stark way, O’Connell gives us Exhibit A, her declaration that what makes a cell-lump turn into a baby (or not) is not science or developmental milestones or philosophy, but her wanting it to be so. It’s a breathtaking kind of power: if I want you to be a person, you will be, and if I don’t, you won’t. When she doesn’t want the cell-lump to become the baby for whom she is not ready, she inquires after abortion providers on the Upper East Side. When she does, the cell-lump becomes the subject of the book, the kid who brings “curiosity and wonder and stubborn, stubborn joy.”

For better: At end, her residual Catholicism leaves her “romantic.”  Prohibitions without explanations fall short. But there is something here that deserves to be redeemed. “I want it” is a slim reed, throwing the self back on itself. Puny. Usefully exposed as such. But wanting well is a good step. It is what should be cultivated when prohibitions get good explanations.

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