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One recurring theme in Pope Francis’s teaching is that human realities trump scholarly abstractions: “La realidad es superior a la idea.” His signature phrase about pastors who have the “smell of the sheep” is the folk version of this maxim. Cautions about “rigidity,” “empty rhetoric,” and getting “stuck in pure ideas” appear often in his work, and in that of his inner circle, too. What matters most are “the realities people face in their daily lives,” as Blase Cardinal Cupich put it in a speech at Cambridge recently.
Attention to “reality” is especially fitting as we mark this fiftieth anniversary year of one of the most famous, and infamous, encyclicals in church history. Ten years ago, on its fortieth anniversary, First Things published an essay of mine called “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae.” Citing contemporary evidence from many sources, including sociology, psychology, history, and contemporary women’s literature, I argued:
Decades - Document - Signature - Predictions - Force
Four decades later, not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratified in empirical force, but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.
Of course, to say that proof abounds is not to say that a valid argument falls always and everywhere on happy ears—not fifty years ago, not ten years ago, and not today. The promise of sex on demand, unencumbered by constraint, may be the strongest collective temptation humanity has ever encountered. That’s why, since the invention of the birth control pill, resistance to the traditional Christian code has been unremittingly ferocious, and why so many in...
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