Pope John Paul II was conservative on family matters, but was highly innovative on more important questions for the Catholic Church in the long run. These include his early, continued, and open hostility to communism when many intellectuals and some church leaders were supportive or accommodating, his steering of the clergy in Latin America and elsewhere out of active involvement in politics, his much more favorable attitude to capitalism than his predecessors, his rapprochement to the Jews and Moslems, and his commitment to peace, even when he differed with America and other powerful nations.
This explain the world-wide outpouring of grief over the Pope’s death, including the vast majority of Catholics who were violating church doctrines on contraceptives and divorce. He will be long remembered for these enormous contributions, whatever happens to the sexual revolution.
I start this way in my comment on Posner partly to express the high regard I have for Pope John Paul II (I should make clear that I was elected to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences while he was Pope). A reason more directly relevant to our topic this week is that the conflict between the actual behavior of most Catholics, and the Church’s doctrines on contraceptive use and other family matters, is not unusual when dealing with culture and norms. Indeed, it dramatically illustrates the fact that powerful economic and social forces usually trump religious views and other social norms, until these views and norms adjust to the new forces. Birth rates, divorce, and pre-marital sex provide a powerful example of this well-known principle.
For many reasons, most mentioned by Posner, families in modern countries generally have few children, and instead invest a lot in the education, training, and health of each child. These reasons include the high value of human capital in technologically advanced economies, low rates of child mortality, the growth of female education, earnings, and labor force participation, and the decline of manufacturing and rise of the service economy. Among other things, these forces increased the financial independence of women that gave them a greater say in family matters, and made them much more willing to divorce than in the past.
As a result of these forces, the vast majority of families in the world have fewer than three children. There is no effective way to do this, while continuing normal sexual activity, without extensive reliance on effective contraception. So as economic development has spread throughout the world, family after family, regardless of their religious views, have greatly increased their contraceptive use in order to have fewer children. Birth rates in Spain, Italy, Poland, and other predominantly Catholic countries are among the lowest anywhere. Ireland is the most religious country in the Christian world by virtually all measures of religiousity, yet Irish families are using contraception extensively. Their birth rates have plummeted, even while they loved Pope John Paul II, and remain highly devout Catholics. Clearly, these families are separating their decisions about contraception from their degree of religiousity.
Low birth rates were made easier by better and more efficient contraceptives. The attractiveness and effectiveness of condoms continued to improve throughout the past 80 years. The pill, the most effective method of birth control, was developed only in the 1950’s. Abortion became safer and legal in growing numbers of nations. The legalization of abortion illustrates that it is difficult to be certain about how much of the improvement in birth control methods were a response to pressure from families wanting few children, and how much was due to technological innovations that proceeded largely independent of such demand.
Whatever the causation, better ways to prevent births became available not only to married couples, but also to their teen-age children. The rapid growth in pre-marital teenage sexual activity not only in the United States, but also in many other nations, is the strongest manifestation of the “sexual revolution”. Teenagers could now explore sex without much fear of pregnancy, a fear that was a major form of “birth control” in the past. Surveys on premarital sexual activity among American 19 year old females indicate that the fraction that had engaged in pre-marital intercourse grew from about 25 per cent in 1950 to around 80 per cent currently. The number of sexual partners women had by age 20 also increased greatly.
Data further indicate that the larger numbers of teenagers engaging in pre-marital intercourse know more about and have easier access to effectives contraceptives than did sexually active teenagers in the past. About 60% of the women in 1960 who engaged for the first time in premarital intercourse used no contraception, while condoms were used 20% of the time. By the mid 1990’s, about two thirds used either condoms or the pill.
Yet even in recent years, a quarter of teenage women who engage in intercourse for the first time use no contraception. This is a larger fraction of all teenagers than the total fraction of teenagers in 1950 who engaged in pre-marital intercourse. So the sharp growth in sexual activity among young persons was not simply due to better and better-known contraceptives, but also to a greater willingness to engage in sex prior to marriage. This is strong evidence that the sexual revolution led to a much more permissive and receptive attitude toward sex outside of marriage even without birth control, although abortion is now an option for many women.
Events such as economic growth and new technologies often induce changes in behavior despite prevailing norms that initially oppose this behavior. As this new behavior becomes more common and habitual, norms evolve to catch up to the behavior. This adjustment of norms to behavior rather than simply visa versa is widespread, including attitudes toward sex, divorce, women’s work, husbands helping out with child care, and children support of elderly parents. Time will tell whether the attitudes of the Catholic Church on sexual matters will also evolve, but I believe that the Church will still be attractive to many Catholics even if their behavior violates Church teachings on questions like contraception.
So it is possible to understand the basis of the sexual revolution using an “economic” approach, but the approach must recognize that norms and habits are also important. These norms and habits usually adjust eventually to new forms of behavior, and the new norms greatly accelerate this behavior after they do adjust.
I disagree with Posner that sex will become, either morally or in other ways, just another consumer activity, like eating. Sexual intercourse is a very intimate relation between two people that grew as humans evolved during the past 50,000 years when they apparently began to separate into families. This relation carries a lot of emotional attachment and baggage that will not vanish simply because contraceptives are effective and birth rates are low.