I was reading through Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae on the Regulation of Birth when I saw the following passage:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
At first glance that may look like it actually makes sense, but let us try to break it down and tear it apart.
1. “Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”
The key issue here is the term ‘moral law’, which unfortunately does not have a very definite definition:
Moral law is a system of guidelines for behavior. These guidelines may or may not be part of a religion, codified in written form, or legally enforceable. For some people moral law is synonymous with the commands of a divine being. For others, moral law is a set of universal rules that should apply to everyone.
Obviously the Church focuses on the “moral law is synonymous with the commands of a divine being” part, insisting not only that they are the sole recipient and interpreter of divine ‘revelation’, but that they actually hold the patent for morality. But what gives them the right to do so? Their claims are all hearsay and circular. And look at how their own ranks fared in terms of morality. Once the light of reason shines on the perceived moral authority of the Church, the things they so strongly denounce – contraceptives and free sex – become a matter of personal choice for the individual. Some may make less responsible choices than others, but the basis for what will be deemed ‘responsible’ is the careful collective reflection of an evolving society and not the absolute word of self-proclaimed leaders.
2. “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman…”
Does wearing a condom mean that one has forgotten the reverence due to a woman? On the contrary, it shows the respect and care to the woman’s health and preferred reproductive status – even at the cost of reduced pleasure.
3. “…and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires…”
I think the women are more equipped to answer this. Does the Church really think that women are robots without their own sexual desires? Just like men, they too need to satisfy these desires every now and then to maintain emotional equilibrium. That’s what they mean when they tell someone acting bitchy that she needs to get laid.
4. “…no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Is the mutual act of constantly satisfying each other’s sexual needs not a manifestation of care and affection between partners? And how can you surround her with care and affection if you need to avoid getting horny during the woman’s fertile period? When the wife is cooking his favorite dish, the husband will now hesitate to give her an affectionate hug from behind as an expression of gratefulness for the meal, because certain body parts might brush against each other and lead them to conceive another child – or break ‘moral law’ by using contraception.
In a diverse and evolving society, an absolute standard of morality simply doesn’t work. First, no matter how the Church claims that their laws were ‘revealed’ by God, this is actually hearsay and might as well be concocted by fallible men for their own agenda. Second, implementation is impossible to large populations, as even the leaders themselves bungle up.
Interestingly, we can observe another organizational approach from nature. Here is a passage from Michael Crichton’s novel Prey that explains how large numbers of the lower animals effectively achieve order and harmony without leaders telling them what to do:
Human beings expected to find a central command in any organization. States had governments. Corporations had CEOs. Schools had principals. Armies had generals. Human beings tended to believe that without central command, chaos would overwhelm the organization and nothing significant could be accomplished. From this standpoint, it was difficult to believe that extremely stupid creatures with brains smaller than pinheads were capable of construction projects more complicated than any human project. But in fact, they were.
African termites were a classic example. These insects made earthen castlelike mounds a hundred feet in diameter and thrusting spires twenty feet into the air. To appreciate their accomplishment, you had to imagine that if termites were the size of people, these mounds would be skyscrapers one mile high and five miles in diameter. And like a skyscraper, the termite mound had an intricate internal architecture to provide fresh air, remove excess CO2 and heat, and so on. Inside the structure were gardens to grow food, residences for royalty, and living space for as many as two million termites. No two mounds were exactly the same; each was individually constructed to suit the requirements and advantages of a particular site. All this was accomplished with no architect, no foreman, no central authority. Nor was a blueprint for construction encoded in the termite genes. Instead these huge creations were the result of relatively simple rules that the individual termites followed in relation to one another. (Rules like, “If you smell that another termite has been here, put a dirt pellet on this spot.”) Yet the outcome was arguably more complex than any human creation.
Most people watching a flock of birds or a school of fish assumed there was a leader, and that all the other animals followed the leader. That was because human beings, like most social mammals, had group leaders. But birds and fish had no leaders. Their groups weren’t organized that way. Careful study of flocking behavior—frame-by-frame video analysis—showed that, in fact, there was no leader. Birds and fish responded to a few simple stimuli among themselves, and the result was coordinated behavior. But nobody was controlling it. Nobody was leading it. Nobody was directing it. Nor were individual birds genetically programmed for flocking behavior. Flocking was not hard-wired. There was nothing in the bird brain that said, “When thus-and-such happens, start flocking.” On the contrary, flocking simply emerged within the group as a result of much simpler, low-level rules. Rules like, “Stay close to the birds nearest you, but don’t bump into them.” From those rules, the entire group flocked in smooth coordination.
A flock of birds with a population of thousands will move as if it were a single organism, with virtually no collision between birds. Now imagine if there was a single leader, a dozen generals, and a few hundred lieutenants all chirping out orders on how fast to fly and what direction to take. Even if these birds were equipped with GPS and radios to track and communicate with the individual members, such attempts at centralized command will only result in a fatal breakup of the formation.
As for morality, look at where the attempts at establishing an absolute moral standard have brought us. Overpopulation and poverty are an inescapable reality, and so is the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. All because of a letter deemed absolute and infallible, written by a pope more than four decades ago. And I guess this leads us to ask: Should there be an absolute moral standard, and should moral authority be centralized?