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Humanae Vitae: The First 35 Years

10/4/2003 - 10:00 AM PST

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Archdiocesan Conference at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization in Denver


If you pick up a copy of this month’s Wired magazine, you may want to read the sad story of the businessman who owns the web site, sex.com. You see, when he took over the site, he assumed it would be a money machine. About half of all web sites around the world are porn-related, and thanks to credit-card encryption, some are very lucrative.

Encryption means that anyone with a credit card and a fast internet connection can log on and buy 10 or 20 or 60 minutes of live pornography. And he can feel quite safe – or anyway, pretty safe – that his credit-card number will remain private.

Of course, as more people use encryption, the price has dropped. And because the internet is decentralized, and web cameras are now very cheap, anybody, anywhere, can open a live pornography site. Thousands of college students and married couples have done exactly that, to add a little extra cushion to their income.

So now the owner of sex.com has millions of competitors, and it puts him under a lot of financial pressure. At the beginning of the Wired story, he tells the reporter that he’s “judgmental” about bestiality --that’s the word he uses, judgmental -- so he doesn’t allow it on his web site. But by the end of the story, competition forces him to adjust his principles, and he links sex.com to a variety of bestiality sites.

In 1969, less than a year after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the government started a little program called ARPANET. ARPANET was an acronym. It stood for a computer-networking experiment, sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense. You see, up until that time, the computer industry thought about computers as very fast arithmetic machines: one plus one, equals two; two plus two, equals four.

The government wanted to try something new. It wanted to test computers as networks that would crunch information geometrically and logarithmically. It wanted to see how fast the big research centers like Stanford and Princeton could share their knowledge. And it also wanted to find a way to spread out the nation’s “command and control” abilities so that a nuclear attack wouldn’t wipe out our leadership in one strike.

That was the idea behind ARPANET. ARPANET became the internet. And 35 years later, we have email and videoconferencing and on-line libraries. And we also have sex.com and a million other hard-core porn web sites exactly like it, or worse.

This helps us understand what the scholar Edward Tenner meant when he said that technology has the habit of biting back. It always takes a revenge in unintended consequences. We’re never as smart as we think we are. Gutenberg created the printing press to distribute good Catholic art. Luther used it to drive the Protestant Reformation. We invented automobiles to move us around more quickly. And they do. But we also got superhighways, noise pollution and a hole in the ozone as part of the deal.

We created the birth-control pill to space the children within a marriage more “rationally.” What we got was a crashing birth rate, gender confusion, wrecked families and marriages, and a circus of sexual dysfunctions.

We’re never as smart as we think we are -- and we’re rarely as humble as we need to be. And I think the genius of the encyclical Humanae Vitae is that Paul VI understood this problem earlier than anyone; he had the courage to name it; and he had the love and the hope to call us back to our real identity as Christians – to the vocation of cooperating with God in the creation of new life that renews the face of the earth.

I reread Humanae Vitae every couple of years. And sometimes I smile, because it clearly wasn’t written by an American. The English translation begins by talking about “the most serious duty of transmitting human life.” Most of the young people whose marriages I witness don’t experience their love as a “duty.” Getting married is a vocation, so it does have very serious responsibilities, but it isn’t like getting drafted into the army. Young people fall in love, they lose themselves in each other, and they see children as a fruit of that love.

Married love is an enormous joy, and sometimes theologians and scholars can forget that when they talk about these issues. But Humanae Vitae doesn’t need to read perfectly. It only needs to be beautiful and true – and it is. And we don’t need to be theologians to see why. We just need to review the record of the last 35 years.

First, in his encyclical, Paul VI warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to “conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” Thirty-five years later, we’re a long way past being shocked by something as boring as adultery. ...

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