Brett Robinson

In 2016, according to a Pew Research study, only 13% of Massgoing Catholics thought that artificial birth control was wrong. And yet in 1963, an overwhelming majority of Catholics thought contraception was wrong. What happened over the past half century for “the sense of faithful” to undergo such a dramatic about-face?

Historians have pointed to coordinated campaigns after World War II by groups like Planned Parenthood and the Ford Foundation to address poverty at home and abroad by using birth control to limit population growth. The widespread availability of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution in the 1960s also had a dramatic impact on attitudes and behaviors related to contraception.

But what if that’s not the whole story? What if I told you that the rise of television in the 1960s had as much to do with expanding the contraceptive mentality in this country as Planned Parenthood and the Ford Foundation?

To think ecologically, as Pope Francis does in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” is to recognize that all things are connected. The Holy Father calls this an “integral ecology.” Our actions have had serious effects on the environment, and the environmental conditions we have created have had serious effects on us. Included in the list of negative effects that the pope outlines in the encyclical are those wrought by digital media technologies:

“(They) shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise” (No. 47).

Notice what the pope says here about the way digital media “shield us from direct contact with … others.” To understand the contraceptive mentality that pervades much of culture, look at the ways that the complexity and intimacy of human experience has been diminished by digital means. A medium is literally something that comes between two things.

What is being “screened” out of our everyday interactions with others? A lot, it turns out. The warmth of a handshake or hug. Being able to look into someone else’s eyes, the windows to the soul, according to Shakespeare.

The experience of convivial conversation where a conversation about the weather or last night’s baseball game can mean the difference between feeling alone or connected for someone who might be sad or isolated.

God knew that his message of saving love for the world had to come by means of a person with a body who could connect to other people. “Intimus,” the root of intimacy, means “inmost.” Jesus Christ satisfies our inmost desires because he dared to be intimate with humanity.

A technological world that automates everything from work to communication has lost its sense of daring. It is not open to the life-giving experience of human contact and conversation. Yes, it requires more risk and effort to be with someone in person (especially during a pandemic), but it is always worth it.

The birth of radio and television was a sign that we had reached a cultural tipping point. The rhythm of family life no longer revolved around the hearth that brought families together in a place of light and warmth. The environment of the home was forever altered and the bonds within it were weakened.

Contracepting human communication via radio, TV and digital media has depersonalized human communication by reducing the messy work of human contact and intimacy. In a similar sense, birth control has depersonalized the intimacy of marriage and diminished the unitive experience of being one with another person.

In this time of pandemic and streaming Masses on the internet, it’s vitally important that we don’t let the contraceptive mentality continue its erosion of our human ecology, lest we begin to lose touch with the most powerful life-giving intimacy that God promises us in the prayer, liturgy and sacraments of the church.

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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.