What do present-day Hollywood sex scandals have to do with a 50-year-old papal encyclical? In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI clearly recognized that the gift of sex, by its nature, can easily devolve into self-interested mutual use, or even unilateral imposition, if it is not ordered to a good held in common: in particular, children. "A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods," he wrote, "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" (HV, 17).
This is more than a little relevant to the current #MeToo moment. Without descending into the detailed accusations of so many women, we can summarize #MeToo sex as a set of words and acts of a sexual nature done to project power or to gain pleasure for one person. It is the understatement of the year to say that these words and actions "lack mutuality" or a common — let alone good — end.
When people ask us, therefore, what Catholics are so concerned about when it comes to contraception, it is precisely this: the breaking apart of what should be held together, with the result that sex loses its beautiful mutuality and becomes something else. When even the very thought of children is far removed from sexual intimacy, sex struggles to serve the man and woman together. Why? Because the man and woman's possible future — i.e., a child, a family, a marriage, extended kin, even love — is cut off from their present.
In this way — in the words of renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens in his book The Transformation of Intimacy — sex becomes "plastic." Once sex is severed from reproduction, kinship and "the generations," Giddens explains, it takes on a subjectively malleable meaning and is reduced to pure pleasure. Sexuality then becomes "a property of the individual" and "internally referential," a tool for forging one's self-identity.
Ironies abound in all of this, especially when we recall that the primary arguments for contraception involved improving marital love and freeing women. Instead, the marriage rate has plummeted, and scholars write about the "paradox of women's declining happiness." But we are way past irony by the time we get to #MeToo. We are all the way to a place where sex — untethered from the meanings naturally associated with man and woman jointly building a family and a future — can mean whatever individual men decide it means to them, even violence and power.
On the flip side, Paul VI observed that when a married couple's sexual relationship "fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood" (HV, 12), their union can thereby grow stronger.
Most people can understand that when it is severed from a joint future, sex becomes something less than it is meant to be. Perhaps our current #MeToo crisis has the potential to provoke greater sympathy for Humanae Vitae's holistic vision of human sexuality and a second look at the Church's age-old wisdom.
Originally posted at Knights of Columbus July issue of Columbia Magazine.