In America they are marking the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive Pill, which was licensed in the US in 1960. It came to the British market in 1961.
I was just a teenager when I watched BBC’s Panorama broadcasting a news report about the launch of the Pill. I had only the vaguest knowledge of sex education, but I knew instantly that this invention would change social life immeasurably. Everyone knew about the shame of having a baby as an unmarried mother, and I took it in, immediately, that this would mean that this fear and shame would disappear.
Later in the decade Pope Paul VI and his advisers were to deliberate on the question of whether the Pill would be acceptable to obedient Catholics, within the context of marriage and responsible family planning. Interestingly, orthodox Jewish moral theologians had deliberated over the same question. Rabbinical law frowns on any artificial material being interposed between husband and wife, but the Pill changed the question because it involved no such barrier. Many Catholics hoped that the Pope would take the counsel of the majority of his advisers – who recommended that the Pill be given the imprimatur, so to speak.
And perhaps the most influential work of literature on this subject was not a book of scholarship, research, moral theology or, indeed, journalism, but a novel.
This was David Lodge’s The British Museum is Falling Down, a comic novel about a struggling Catholic couple with three young children, and in rented accommodation, desperate to avoid an immediate fourth pregnancy. The novel really does describe the anguishing impact of unreliable fertility control on their marriage, as they do their best by “Vatican roulette”, as natural family planning method used to be called.
In the 1960s I certainly thought that Pope Paul should have gone with the majority advice, and accepted the legitimacy of the Pill. I still think this, though now for rather different reasons. Then it was because I wanted to see a social revolution. Now, it is because I think young couples struggling to space their children should be supported and helped.
But like all big innovations the Pill had mixed outcomes, and many unintended consequences.
Many early advocates of the Pill said it would stop what were then called “gymslip pregnancies” – schoolgirls becoming pregnant. It certainly hasn’t done that. It was also predicted that it would lower both divorce and abortion, and in Britain, certainly, it hasn’t done that either.
All innovations have mixed results, and it may take many more decades to make real sense of this one.
The bail-out of the Greek economy is politically supported on grounds of European solidarity – one for all and all for one, as it were. On such grounds the Holy See endorses the European Union, because it represents an element of the “common good”.
But the common good must be built on honest dealings, and Greece did not enter the eurozone honestly. The books were cooked by the politicians to make it seem that the conditions for entry were met.
It is not the fault of many ordinary Greeks that the country is facing such draconian tax and fiscal measures. But it is a metaphorical, or even a practical, lesson in basic morality, just the same. Dishonesty eventually exacts a price; there are always consequences to wrong behaviour.
There was always a strong Communist party in Greece, which never really went away. This element is now renascent and is, I suspect, adding to the troubles, and blaming the markets for the crisis.
Markets certainly make judgments on the basis of trust and confidence. But the first principles still hold true: Greece cheated its way into the euro, and surely “the common good” cannot be built on cheating. Even before the general election took place, it became obvious that the political alliance between the mainstream British Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists was fragile. Ulster Unionists are not exactly “unionists” in the sense that is understood in England, Scotland and Wales. Many of them are more like Orange Nationalists. That is, they are certainly loyal to the Crown and to a sense of British identity, but they want to run things their own way, and without meddling from London.
It used to be said, in jest, that the Northern Irishman loves England but loathes the English, whereas the Southern Irish loathe England but love the English. There was a tincture of truth in this.
Politics in Northern Ireland are intensely local – as they are in the rest of Ireland – and much depends on a network of local tribal alliances and clan forces. It is not just about religion, by any means. In the new Parliament, the British Conservatives and Unionists are going to have to box clever.