This year marks the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), the landmark document that upheld the Catholic Church’s rejection of artificial contraception as immoral. As modern papal documents go, Humanae Vitae is light reading; the printed booklet version is only fifteen pages long. Within its pages, Pope Paul VI explains the Catholic Church’s understanding about the nature of sex and of human dignity. He called for responsible parenthood and encouraged married couples to work with God’s grace in living out the call to holiness.
Paul VI also made several prophetic statements about the consequences of artificial birth control. Along with warning that widespread cultural acceptance of contraception would lead to marital infidelity, lowering of moral standards, and even abuse by governments; he stated 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.” (Humanae Vitae 17)
St. John Paul II would later bless the Church with a series of teachings that would become known as the Theology of the Body (TOB). One of the reasons John Paul II taught TOB was to offer a defense of Humanae Vitae by explaining the deeper theological, philosophical, and anthropological meanings of human nature and sexuality. A core principle of TOB is that men and women have been created in God’s image to love and be loved. He taught that love is expressed through the gift of self to another. Within marriage, this love is expressed sexually when husbands and wives give themselves completely to one another. However, we are called to love everyone and give ourselves to others through the gift of our time, talent, or treasure.
This gift of self in love was perfectly experienced by our original parents before they fell and experienced the effects of sin. Before sin, Adam and Eve were “naked, but not ashamed” because each saw the other as someone to love, someone to give themselves to in love. Immediately after eating the forbidden fruit “their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked” and they covered themselves. Sin had affected they way they looked at each other and shame entered because now they looked at the other as an object, as something to bring pleasure to themselves. In other words love is other focused, but sin causes us to be self-focused.
This is what Paul IV prophetically saw as a consequence of artificial contraception because it separates pleasure from procreation. If I can seek sex without the consequence of pregnancy it becomes something I can use to satisfy my own desires. This was the advent of “free sex” that ushered in the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and our culture has not recovered. Relativism, the idea that we each have our own truths, exists solely to justify our sexual appetites. Rarely, if ever does one embrace relativism when it comes to physical assault, murder, or financial corruption; it is almost exclusively in sexual matters that the culture insists that no one can be told they are wrong.
But sexuality gets to the core issue of what it means to be human precisely because it is in and through our bodies that we give and receive love. If I have been created to give and receive love—real love, not sentimentality or sexual pleasure—then understanding what love is matters. St. Paul’s famous chapter (1 Cor. 13) about love tells us “love is not self-seeking”. St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly defined love as “willing the good of the other.” In other words, love is focused on the other person, not as an object, the means to my pleasure; but as a subject, someone who exists apart from me with an inherent dignity who is deserving of my gift of self.
So what does any of this have to do with the school shooting in Parkland, FL?
We live in a culture that has forgotten how to see other people as anything other than objects existing for our pleasure. This may have started when contraception and the sexual revolution encouraged us to objectify the opposite sex, but we’ve done that for so long, and it has become such a norm, that we struggle to see anyone as unique individuals existing with their own inherent dignity. This is why some people accept abortion, because the fetus infringes upon their happiness, pleasure, or lifestyle. It’s why others behave at a subhuman level on social media, acting and saying things that they otherwise wouldn’t have the courage to do and say in person. It’s why our politics have become so irrational and divisive; one’s political opponent doesn’t just have wrong ideas, they are evil, less than human, and undeserving of any respect.
By being trained to objectify others we have raised a generation that has no moral understanding of the dignity of human life. This is at the heart of the mass shootings we witness. In the eyes of the shooter the victims are just things that no longer bring pleasure so they are expendable. We have forgotten how to love and it is only by learning how to love again that we will see significant changes. Love seeks the good of other, even to the point of dying to its own desires. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.