50 years after Humanae Vitae

Reading Time: 22 minutes

A Bishop remembers: the tragic white-anting and long, slow resurrection of an heroic papal teaching

Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical letter on the transmission of human life, Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968. One month earlier, I had been received into the Church at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of Oxford, where I was studying theology.

What a time for a young Australian Anglican to become a Catholic! Puzzled and bewildered by the way so many fellow Catholics reacted to the papal teaching, I began to reflect on what had been happening just before the encyclical appeared. This was the first step that helped me to appreciate the truth and wisdom of the Pope’s teaching. It also turned out to be first preparation for a future priestly ministry of serving the truth of life and love contained in Humanae Vitae.

I began to reflect on what had been happening just before [Humanae Vitae] appeared

Among Catholics in England in 1968, there was a sense of expectation. Experts predicted “a change” in the Church’s teaching on birth control. A pamphlet from Ealing Abbey in the Living Parish Series even prepared women for the great reversal of Church teaching. That pamphlet suddenly vanished when the papal teaching appeared. I regret not paying a shilling for a copy at the time. It would be a collector’s item today.

However, quieter voices were saying that “a change” was out of the question. Any change would reverse the constant moral teaching against contraception, proposed by Pope Pius XI in Casti connubii (1930) and repeated by the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 50, 51 (1965). But quieter voices were ignored in the ‘sixties.

It was a confused era for Catholics seeking moral guidance on spacing childbirths. The radical social climate influenced many people, especially the young. That year, 1968, had already seen the dramatic rise of the New Left with the student riots in Paris and elsewhere, even if these only briefly touched Oxford.