Sunday, 16 May 2010

A bitter pill to swallow

Mary Kenny has a piece in this week's Catholic Herald (print version) which I cannot find online. In it Miss Kenny notes the 50th anniversary of the licensing of the Pill in the USA. The 50-year anniversary in Britain falls next year (can't wait, can you?). She remarks that in the 1960s she had hoped Pope Paul would go with the majority advice from his theological commission and allow Catholics the freedom to use the Pill. Nowadays she says she wishes the Pill was allowed to Catholics but only because young couples struggling to space their children should be supported and helped. And yet she notes in her conclusion that the Pill has had mixed results, failing to reduce school-girl pregnancies or bring down abortion and divorce rates. She avoids making any indication of whether people should actually follow the Church's teaching on the issue. For charity's sake I must take it that she thinks they should follow it, even with a heavy heart.

That such an article can appear in the Catholic Herald is surely yet another indicator of conditions among the Catholic elites. Is this the best we can do in this country? Parade our longings to embrace the boons of the pill, while we acknowledge the unfortunate rise in teenage pregnancies, divorce and abortion? Of course, I was forgetting, I am in England where it is much more important for readers to be familiar with their journalists than for journalists to have something constructive to say. I am in England where it is much more important to acknowledge the pragmatist's point of view than to state your own principle. For The Catholic Herald Mary Kenny probably draws in the confortably-padded, late middle-aged reader of whom there are still quite a few in the Catholic Church in England; they might even be the best represented constituency...

But as I kick over this article there is much that is so evidently wrong in it. Kenny observes that while Jewish theologians objected to contraceptive devices - since they interposed a barrier between husband and wife - the Pill changed the state of the question because no such device was involved. Well, yes and no. True, the Pill does its work chemically rather than mechanically, but the 'barrier' it introduces into the system are the manufactured hormones that make the female body behave chemically as if pregnant. Thinking that the Pill is not a barrier between man and wife is a bit like saying poison isn't dangerous because it's not a heavy, blunt object.

Kenny observes - I think with some acuity - that one of the most influential works on this subject, at least among those who bother to read, was David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down. This novel dramatizes the plight of a young Catholic family who are rather poor, and desperate to avoid a fourth pregnancy by practising what was then jocularly called 'Vatican roulette'. But, you know, what strikes me in all these discussions is the unshakeable assumption that poverty and virtue are incompatible. I'm told that these days NFP is far more reliable than the so-called Rhythm Method, but that isn't the point. The point is that the discourse that prevails is one in which poverty is an unremitting evil: not one of the evangelical counsels. This isn't Christianity, it is meliorism. Ought we not at least to say that if our convictions carry us into uncomfortable spots, so be it? And in the Catholic ban on contraception was there not a principle of life to defend, a principle which has been trampled over by all those who wrung their hands over poverty but hardly over the damage to marriage which contraception facilitated? I'm not underestimating the stomach-churning anxiety poverty can cause; I'm just saying it is sometimes as urgent a moral risk as daring not to be a racist or a capitalist.

Kenny finishes off her article with a nod at the negative results of contraception. But then nobody could approve of the rise in school girl pregnancies, divorces and abortions, which were supposed to decline in the Pill's wake. This is where I find Kenny's article at its most reckless. We all know fine well that the Pill was a major plank of sexual liberation in this country and in the West in general. Many of us know that it was precisely the attitudes that the Pill helped engender that led to the rise in abortions, and most likely to the rise in divorce too. And, those who thought about the issues in the 1960s - including, incidentally, Paul VI - knew that the most significant thing about contraception in the Sexual Revolution was its capacity to sever procreation and sex, leaving practically nothing but taboo to block the way to homosexuality. And where do we find ourselves today? Ahem.

People I know could raise a dozen other objections to the Pill, starting with the merry hell hormonal interference can cause in relations between the sexes. One explanation for the calamitous developments in female fashion of recent years is that many women are now chemically pregnant a lot of the time, with the result that they have to work harder to attract the men because their bodies do not emit partner-attracting pheromones.

But the cultural legacy ought to be proof enough for Kenny's generation that they made a colossally stupid mistake in siding with liberal opinion against the Church. Indeed, where are their children now? Very few have stayed. In fact, what's the point of staying if you are not going to listen?

Still, Kenny has a front row seat among the Catholic opinion formers of this country. The mind boggles.


  1. Perhaps I am a bit of a cynic but I am always tickled by the way comfortably off middle class commentators like, in this instance, Kenny show concern for the poor in the matter of their fertility and propose contraception as a solution. It sounds suspiciously like "too many of these damn blighters"!