Reflections on Humanae Vitae Part II: What Went Wrong

The pope is the head of the Catholic Church. Every Catholic knows that we are called to listen to him as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. But when Blessed Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, an enormous portion of the Church, especially in America, refused to listen. In fact, a Gallup Poll from 2012 says that 82 percent of Catholics believe that artificial contraception is morally licit. Even if we adjust that poll for different biases, that is a radically large number.

So how did this happen?

For more of an in depth look at this, I highly recommend The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice by Philip Jenkins. Here he lays out in detail all that went wrong. For the purposes of this article, I will be brief.

1.Historical Context

While this does not interact directly with the issue at hand, it helps to understand how much a time of upheaval it was in 1968. The world felt like it was once more on the brink of World War III. The Soviets were threatening to invade Czechoslovakia, which they did a few weeks after Humanae Vitae was issued.

In the United States, the public was in turmoil over two prominent assassinations: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Social and political movements took on a polarizing, life or death mentality. It was also during this time, with the Vietnam War raging, we saw the rise of a strong anti-authoritarianism. Catholics in America had, for the most part, found prejudice from the political right. We were viewed as the Church of the poor immigrants and not as loyal American. But around 1968, Catholics had generally be accepted by the political right and were being increasingly ostracized by the political left. The Church became viewed as a stalwart of the old social order that refused to go along with progress. Humanae Vitae’s reaffirmation of the Church ban on birth control was something that played into this narrative.

2. The Leak of the Report.

As stated in the last article, Pope St. John XXIII and Blessed Pope Paul VI approved of an advisory council to investigate if the Church should change its teaching on artificial contraception. It consisted of bishops, priests, and laity. Of the 68 members who could vote, 64 recommended that the Church allow for some artificial contraception and they presented a report. A dissenting report of 4 members was also issued to the pope. Among the dissenters was the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, who was not allowed to travel to Rome because of the restrictions of the communist government.

These reports were to be confidential and allow the theologians to explore arguments without fear of public scrutiny. However, the reports were leaked to the press. Based on the fact that the vast majority of the commission supported a change in the teaching, many in the clergy believed that this would be the ultimate decision of the pope. Theologians began to teach why the Church artificial birth control was morally acceptable. Priests started counseling married couples that it was okay to engage in contraception.

When the encyclical finally was promulgated, these people who had jumped the gun had spiritual egg on their faces.

3.Papal Presentation

Wojtyla had urged Paul to use a very specific type of language and argument for Humanae Vitae. The Polish Archbishop recommended that Paul begin by weaving a theology of the human person as a whole, body and soul, as the subject of a moral relationship with God and not to describe the body as simply the object of moral consequence. In other words, begin by expressing how the body and soul are intimately linked, how we find our ultimate fulfillment through both, and then explore how to avoid anything that could derail us in achieving this joy. Wojtyla would go on to call develop this idea in what has been called “The Theology of the Body” when he was elected to the papacy as Pope John Paul II.

Pope Paul VI, however, couched his letter in terms of papal authority and natural law. Both of these things are absolutely legitimate foundations for his encyclical. But the future Pope John Paul II intuited that there was a shift in our society where people were beginning to question that authority more and were losing an understanding and reverence for natural law. While the nature of Humanae Vitae is theologically authoritative and sound, it did not resonate with many.

4.Refusal of Condemnation.

Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at Church history knows that when prominent people openly defy the teachings of the Catholic faith that these people are often excommunicated.

So why didn’t Paul VI excommunicate the dissenters from Humanae Vitae?

In his book, Jenkins calls this “The Truce of 1968.” By this he does not mean a formal arrangement was made. Jenkins states that Paul truly feared that there would be a schism again in the Catholic Church, particularly with the American Church. The unspoken compromise was this: if the pope would not excommunicate them, then they would not break away and form their own church. Because there is no formal documentation on this, Jenkins’ point can be argued and disputed. But what cannot be argued is that there were no severe sanctions from the Vatican for prominent members of the clergy who stood in open defiance.

Have you ever wondered how someone, especially prominent figures like politicians, could declare themselves Catholic and yet public declare their support for all manner of morally illicit things like abortion, “gay marriage,” and torturing terrorists?

That manner of thinking began with “The Truce of 1968.” Not excommunicating these dissenters introduced the idea in the mind of many Catholics this idea: “I can disagree with Church teaching and still remain in the Catholic Church.” I do not believe that that was Paul VI’s intent. I’m sure his softer approach was meant to afford an eventual reconciliation. But the results have been clear and the damage has been great.

If this topic was so controversial, then, from a practical point of view, why did pope deal with it so decisively?

In the third part of this series, we will explore why Pope Paul VI saw artificial contraception as such a pressing problem in the modern world.

Copyright 2018, WL Grayson

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W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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