50 years after Humanae Vitae

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Pastoral Problems

However, I came to see that some other practical and pastoral problems paved the way for dissent. Natural methods of regulating fertility were not trusted, not regarded as “scientific” enough to satisfy the prevailing contraceptive mentality. All natural methods were called “Rhythm”. Married people were skeptical when told that this old “calendar method” had been superseded by the Basal Body Temperature Method or the Billings Ovulation Method. In the hedonistic mood of that era, when the sexual revolution was rising to power, any suggestion of a need for discipline or self-control was ridiculed.

In the hedonistic mood of that era, when the sexual revolution was rising to power, any suggestion of a need for discipline or self-control was ridiculed.

I also observed something sad in England. Some promoters of a natural method were not really convinced about Church teaching, so they could no longer see the need for their essential work. I believe they had lost heart, and that is the most tragic cause of any failure to serve people in a time of confusion and need. Some promoters of natural methods were not open to new developments: Billings Ovulation Method or the Sympto-Thermal approach.

Hopes for change were also raised by the Commission set up by Pope Paul to review the question. It was no secret that the majority report presented to the Pope by the Commission was in favor of change. That report was widely publicised and praised. The more prudent minority report, against any change to the constant teaching, was mocked, derided and rejected – but, as it turned out, not by the Vicar of Christ.

First Reactions to the Encyclical

When the encyclical appeared on the feast of St James in 1968, I was working at Lourdes in the Oxford students’ Summer pilgrimage. Each day we assisted the sick, at the grotto, in the baths or hospitals. This humbling spiritual experience was suddenly disrupted as news spread of the new encyclical. I was surprised at the anger among young women in our group, most of them loudly objecting to Pope Paul’s teaching. I soon saw that they had been led to expect the very opposite to what had appeared in Humanae Vitae.

A seminarian from Sydney was with us on the pilgrimage. He was not surprised, which revealed that his moral theology professors at Manly were wise men. He also knew that the encyclical was not the Pope’s hesitant “decision”, rather a confident and clearer restatement of unchangeable moral teaching. Before his untimely death in 1996, Fr Jeremy Flynn worked among AIDS victims. He was an unwavering example of fidelity to the encyclical and its message of life and love.