David Mathew was a Catholic historian of some importance, brother of the better-known Gervase Mathew, who in 1935 published Catholicism in England: 1535–1935. He noted that tensions between English Catholics and their culture, rooted in the sixteenth century, had persisted, although recent years had seen the passage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1926, which removed the last disabilities affecting Catholics and public office. But Mathew went on to observe,
The Catholic teaching on the use of marriage was the principal irritant. This and kindred questions, which seemed to enter so deeply into private lives, seemed perhaps to be tending to erect a barrier between the Catholics and the great body of general opinion such as did not exist in earlier generations. There was always a wall between us but now it is crowned with broken glass. It is improbable that dissensions on such large questions as ‘mariolatry’ and papal infallibity would have the same effect of social disintegration as a divergent outlook on the most personal of all questions.
Just five years before Fr. Mathew finished his work, in the summer of 1930, the Lambeth Conference had broken what had been the almost universal front against the program of Marie Carmichael Stopes in Britain and Margaret Sanger in the United States to legitimize the deliberate frustration of the natural, generative purpose of the marriage act on what was presented as humanitarian, feminist grounds. These propagandists were not the first to think that life would be better all around if things pleasurable could be pursued without what had come to be seen as unwanted consequences; contraception was not new. But its approval by a Christian body was unheard of. Before the ink of the New Testament was dry, Justin Martyr had written the simple sentence that would never be repudiated and always reiterated: “Christians marry to beget children.” Of course Justin knew that God had loaded this, his first commandment, that we should multiply and fill the earth, with the lure of good pleasure. St Augustine wrote, “I am supposing that although you are not lying with your wife for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed.” In our creativity mankind had always sought, and imperfectly found, ways to obtain the pleasure of the thing without the natural consequence. Modern technology simply made what had been chancy and difficult easy and ever more effective. For Catholics, and indeed tradition-minded Christians of all kinds, Lambeth 1930 was a shocker, reaching all the way to the Vatican, where Pius x on the last day of the year issued Casti connubii, a letter reiterating the unvarying teaching of the Church.
But to return to David Mathew. One may notice first what appears to be a gentle regret, rooted in a dislike of standing outside the culture of Great Britain in 1935. But not to worry. What Mathew feared did not happen; most Catholics chose to stand with the general culture. What followed was the collapse of Catholic morality to create a situation in which, statistically, Catholics have torn down the wall that separated them from the general culture, and have done so in the face of the persistent teaching of the Church, most notably by ignoring Humanae vitae. In that document, which reiterates the teaching of every Father who considered the topic from Justin to Pius x, Pope Paul vi outlined two paths. Either accept the traditional teaching of the Church or go down another road. But down that other road, if you consent to the severing of the affective aspects of human sexuality from its generative purpose, you will discover no defense against the evils that will befall. For if the pursuit of pleasure is the obvious, self-legitimizing point, if restraint is deemed irrelevant, indeed anti-social or perhaps unhealthy, human beings will seek pleasure not only intemperately but variously. And you will, one might add along the way, redefine the good for man, repudiating the conviction, as old as Aristotle, that virtue is more than pleasure.
So the general culture is now more or less completely eroticized; sex for its own dear sake is the sacrament, and the taking and eating of the pill the sacramental, with the consequence that sexual engagement is routinized, homosexuality normalized and a cynical parody of marriage which can have no generative end, no end at all but free-floating affect achieved in violation of the natural language of the body, proposed as a right. The pill was the material cause of the sexual revolution of the sixties, and hence remotely the cause of the feminine flight from the realm of the household, with the consequent destruction of the family, the formation of which was deemed ignoble. Now one in twenty girls become pregnant before twenty, and one fourth of those under twenty-five will contract some sexually transmitted disease. Relations between men and women outside the circles of Catholicism and lingering (but fading) traditional circles have become debased and tawdry. Abortions, most of which are the follow–on program for the failure of contraception, flourish. The Church has not changed, but Christians have, and yes, Catholics, at least for the time being, have as well. The wall was breached as Catholics ran to embrace the world.
But in the way of irony that history so often exhibits, something else has also happened: the emergence of a minority who persist in following the teaching of the Church, creating the authentic Christian (and human) family, undertaking the burdens that this naturally entails and enjoying the happiness that a good conscience and the life of charity offer. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that Humanae vitae, promulgated by an embattled pope in the face of the opposition of his own commission, whether it succeeded in its purpose or not, was the noblest teaching of the twentieth-century Church. It was also one promulgation that played a great part in his conversion. Muggeridge knew, as perhaps only those who have not always engaged the principles of Casti connubii can know, that the light that burns at the heart of civilization is the Christian family, with its notes of generous charity and duty well borne. It was, I think, Charles Péguy who wrote that the great witnesses to the faith in the twentieth century would be the fathers of Christian families.
Critics say that Humanae vitae influences no more than ten percent of Catholic families and, with ill-concealed glee, proclaim this evidence of failure. It is in fact an evident success, enjoyed by those who have chosen not to leap over the glass-crowned wall into the swamps of a culture that, to an extraordinary degree, led down the broad way by technological possibility, has lost its way.