The church, technology and birth control

When a technology enters a culture, it quickly spreads until it changes everything -- like a drop of red ink in a glass of water.

The result is a "Faustian bargain," said scholar Neil Postman, at a conference hosted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. "Technological change is not additive. It is ecological. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church."

As he listened, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput linked Postman's words with another subject mixing technology and moral choices -- the upcoming 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul VI's controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). While most people focus on this document's teachings on birth control, said the archbishop, Postman's warnings about technology helped him see Humanae Vitae in a wider context.

"From the church's point of view, there is a lot more to sex than human communication," said Chaput. "But contraception has certainly changed how human beings relate to one another. If you think of it as a technology, contraception has changed the world. It changed everything. It's hard to see that. We have a tendency to miss the bigger picture because we only focus on the details. Now, these changes have become a part of us."

The question is whether anyone - even Catholics - will take another look at this picture now that the likes of Hugh Hefner and Oprah Winfrey are middle-of-the-road authorities on marriage and sex. The Denver archbishop's new pastoral letter has emerged as one of the few Catholic statements daring to note the July 25 anniversary of this encyclical. Chaput's letter has been circulated widely on the Internet ( and, so far, translated into Spanish, Italian, French and Japanese.

All pastors know it's hard to get addicts to face their addictions, so it helps to show them the side effects, he said. Thus, he noted that the pope warned, in Humanae Vitae, that four cultural problems would worsen, if church teachings were ignored.

* The first would be a rise in "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." Clearly, the rates of "abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out of wedlock births" have soared since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, noted Chaput.

* Second, men would lose respect for woman, ignoring issues of their physical and emotional health even more than in the past and exploit them as instruments of selfish pleasure. In other words, while contraception would be hailed as a boon to women, the real winners would be men.

* Third, contraception would be abused by "public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." Today, first- world leaders regularly export "contraceptives, abortion and sterilization" to developing nations, often as a prerequisite for financial aid, said Chaput.

* Finally, human beings would be tempted to believe that they have "unlimited dominion" over their bodies." Today, scientists and ethicists struggle to draw moral lines in the brave new world of in vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation and embryo experimentation. News reports feature teens killing their newborn babies, debates over the definition of marriage and other signs of cultural distress.

"It's obvious to everyone but an addict: We have a problem," said Chaput. "It's killing us as a people. So what are we going to do about it?"

At the very least, the 53-year-old archbishop wants to send a signal to his own flock. The first step to touching the culture is to convince Catholic women and men -- from tenured theologians to Sunday school teachers, from timid priests to soccer moms -- to at least talk about their church's teachings.

Thirty years ago, wrote Chaput, Pope Paul VI "triggered a struggle within the Church which continues to mark American Catholic life even today. The irony is that the people who dismissed Church teaching in the 1960s soon discovered that they had subverted their own ability to pass anything along to their children. The result is that the Church now must evangelize a world of their children's children -- adolescents and young adults raised in moral confusion, often unaware of their own moral heritage, who hunger for meaning, community, and love with real substance."