A call for change: the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae
Exclusive interview with Mary Eberstadt
Mary Eberstadt is the Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Research Institute, a novelist, essayist, and author of several non-fiction books. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, First Things, National Review, TIME, The Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post. She gave a talk for Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics & Culture on Tuesday, March 20 entitled, “The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae.”
Rover: How did you become interested/involved in your topic of research—the effects of the sexual revolution?
Mary: I’m interested in diverse intellectual and literary work. My vocation as a wife and a mother, plus the fact that there are so many young people in our lives, naturally makes me interested in the world that young people enter today—one with important fractures and obstacles that didn’t used to exist. When you try to tell the truth now as a writer about what’s in that world, you can’t do it without running into the problem of the sexual revolution: broken homes, the higher rates in divorce, fatherless homes, romantic struggles, etc. And that’s just what’s most visible about the post-Pill order. There are also macrocosmic consequences—societies shrinking in population and growing in loneliness, for example. It doesn’t take theology to understand that the embrace of the contraceptive culture has led to real deformations out there. As a researcher and writer, I try to connect some of the dots about current reality in a way that non-specialists like me can understand.
Rover: In your lecture you said that we need to present the evidence or data on the damaging effects of contraceptives so that people will understand its harm to society, but what about the emotional side of the issue? In other words, how do you work with those who might ignore the hard facts?
Mary: You’re right to point out that most people don’t make decisions based only on reason—emotional distress is very important to address, as Pope Francis has been emphasizing since the beginning of his papacy. But we also need to document what’s happening to our society, to present evidence to people—because human beings whether schooled or not are creatures of reason. We need people inside the Church to stand up for teachings that stand as a sign of contradiction to our times. There’s always a temptation to backtrack from telling people things they will reject or mock. Backtracking might make new friends in the short run. But in the long run, it shortchanges exactly what makes the Church strong, and brings people in: the unflinching defense of deep truths about the human person, rather than accommodation to the pressures of the sexual revolution—or any other contemporary force.
I think the emotional longing out there for an alternative to the post-Pill world is one of the strongest assets truth has right now. There is a great hunger for authenticity; many people don’t know anyone who’s living according to a moral code that wasn’t made up yesterday … but 2,000 years of consistent Church teaching and history: that’s truly authentic. Catholics should be enthusiastic, not apologetic, about their faith and about upholding the truths of Humanae Vitae. Compassion and reason aren’t opposed. They need to work together, for the betterment of human beings inside the Church and out.
Rover: After the lecture, a student raised a question about the tension right now between feminists and the pro-life movement and how they might be reconciled—can you speak a bit more about that?
Mary: That’s a great example of how deeper unity might be built out of the surface disunity over the sexual revolution.
Not only young women of faith, but also lots of secular young women are suffering in this world. Whatever they believe, many can see the problems with the dating culture, the lack of young men willing to care for them, the objectification of women in the media … these are unwanted realities that most young women know in their hearts, whatever they think about Catholicism. The Church has bracing messages for these women—and for all men—about their intrinsic dignity, about how the secular world doesn’t recognize that dignity. It’s clear that things like pornography are destroying romance, for example.
I think we could forge a new consensus among many women—and many men—just by getting people to agree that humanity has taken a mechanized, industrial turn about sex, and that this wrong turn is making plenty of people miserable … AND that both men and women deserve better. Women today, especially after #metoo, would benefit much by banding together in agreement that there has to be a more integrated, joyous, organic way. Again, the search for authenticity is an underused asset on the side of truth.
Rover: Also in your lecture you discussed the striking rise in “lonely deaths” in countries like Japan, can you explain more the link to the sexual revolution?
Mary: Sure. The sexual revolution in the first decades revealed damages on one end of the life spectrum: high divorce rates, fatherless homes, childhood emotional and other issues, etc. Now fifty years later, we can see what no one in 1968 saw coming—the other end: atomization, fragmentation of society … the explosion of “loneliness studies” in sociology, and the suffering of the isolated elderly to which Pope Francis has called attention. This isolation is a tragedy no one saw coming. This kind of misery hasn’t been seen before. And it’s one more indication that whatever people may think of the Catholic Church, there is mounting empirical evidence that Paul VI and others were right in seeing that the sexual revolution would wreak havoc on human beings.
Rover: As a woman writer, do you have any thoughts on how women can reach out to other women on this issue to make a positive impact on society?
Mary: Yes, one thing I’ve noticed at different college campuses is that nothing may be more powerful than example. Many students have told me of entering the Catholic Church from secular nowhere-land, all because of a friend who was raised by a Catholic family gave them an example, however inadvertently, of what they wanted for their own life—an integrity and joy in familial community that is missing from many people’s lives today. Many now only know broken examples of how to live … Joy is truly attractive to others. If it’s exhibited, it has a gravitational pull all its own.
Rover: Any new books or research you are focusing on currently?
Mary: Since this is the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, which matters profoundly to the Church and for that matter, to people outside it as well, I’m putting a lot of thought right now into how best to communicate these countercultural ideas to believers and non-believers alike. I want to convey the clarity and power of Humanae Vitae and related teachings so they are apparent to many readers, wherever they’re coming from. After this year I hope to get back to more storytelling—to getting at amplifying these truths via new forms of fiction. Whether fiction or nonfiction, what keeps the work rolling is the conviction that there is a great, beautiful counterculture out there, unknown to many people in a secular age; and that everybody should have a chance to see and join it, along with its amazing intellectual and aesthetic patrimony. Fifty years after 1968, yesterday’s secular counterculture is decadent and spent; and Catholicism, authentic Catholicism, remains the counterculture that will keep its promises, not break them. And therein lies lots of room for hope.