50 years after Humanae Vitae

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A Most Uncomfortable Dinner

At about this time, the assistant Catholic chaplain of Oxford asked me to join him at dinner with a young couple, involved in postgraduate research. They were having difficulties with the papal teaching. He knew that I accepted the encyclical and he wanted moral support.

When we arrived at the small apartment, the wife immediately began to denounce the papal teaching. Her husband remained silent. With some difficulty we managed to get to the main course of the meal, but she still went on attacking the errors of the old celibate Pope. By this stage I was angry – and suffering indigestion. When she drew breath, I quietly asked whether she had read Humanae Vitae. She looked confused and admitted she had not read the encyclical. The topic of conversation changed immediately, and we were able to take our dessert and coffee in peace.

At the end of their wedding ceremony a couple process out of their Catholic church. One feature of the debate around Humanae Vitae in the 1960s was that, in many cases, critics had not read it. Photo: CNS,Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier

That evening revealed another pastoral problem. Many people did not read what the Holy Father taught. They relied on garbled accounts of his teaching, particularly in the secular media. Many people just regarded the abstinence involved in natural regulation of fertility as too demanding even “impossible”, and there was the lingering issue of the bad reputation of natural methods when reduced to “Rhythm”. Can we say that this situation of ignorance and hearsay has improved much today?

Poor Follow-up and Dissent

Unfortunately, in the wake of Humanae Vitae, aggressive dissent seemed to freeze many Catholic leaders. Some acts of discipline were carried out by a few bishops against vocal priests, but that only made these men into media martyrs, victims of ecclesiastical tyrants. Other bishops organized meetings to give their priests formation on how to deal with cases in the confessional, but some of these meetings descended into fruitless debates.

At this time the destructive and divisive “conservative versus progressive” analysis of the Church became the set way any issue was interpreted. Few realised that this was the intrusion of secular political categories into the Mystical Body of Christ. The “Left” is pitted against the “Right”, and such nonsense lingers to this day.

A pair of wedding bands symbolising the sacrament of marriage is depicted in a stained-glass window. Pope Paul understood in a prescient way how radically contraception undermined the gift of self that is at the very heart of the sacrament of marriage – and how women and girls would suffer as a result. Photo: CNS, Gregory Shemitz

In the United States, Charles Curran led the attack on the encyclical with well-known supporters. I later discovered that the whole exercise was prepared and carefully planned. In Europe Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx and Bernard Haring made dissent respectable, even normal. Kung later attacked infallibility itself. At least, he rightly understood the authority of the papal teaching in the context of the Ordinary Magisterium, while others equivocated over that question. However, I believe the most influential dissenter was Karl Rahner. At that time he was regarded as the “greatest modern theologian”. He gave prestige to the rejection of Humanae Vitae.

In the wider world, already swayed by the sexual revolution, the opposition was brutal. Pope Paul VI was attacked and abused in the secular press, which featured the first anti-papal cartoons ever seen in some countries. The Neo-Malthusians particularly abused the Pope by raising the specter of over-population, that old drum curremtly being thumped by Dick Smith.  But sectors of the Catholic press also joined in the attacks, and from Oxford I was able to observe this phenomenon at close quarters.