In the half-century that has elapsed since the release of Humanae Vitae, the initial firestorm of dissent that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control sparked among Catholic scholars has been superseded by a rising countermovement of defenders.
Fifty years ago, however, the dissenting voices — on both sides of the Atlantic — seemed to be the loudest ones. “Professors at Catholic universities — hired and defended by Catholic university leaders — sowed much of the confusion and dissent following Humanae Vitae. Many were theologians and even priests who violated the principles of their own discipline and vocation,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.
One of the most outspoken critics was a young priest named Charles Curran, who taught at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Father Curran produced a lengthy letter opposing the encyclical at a news conference in Washington. The letter eventually garnered more than 600 signatories, spanning the disciplines of moral theology, canon law and philosophy, among others.
“That was … a new phenomenon for the Church,” said John Grabowski, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America. “Certainly there had been debate and disagreement on issues before, but organized public opposition by theologians — that was new.”
The protest movements and cultural turmoil of the 1960s and the upheavals within the Church after Vatican II combined to make such public dissent possible, Grabowski said.
Amid the uproar, the Catholic academic establishment appeared to side with the dissenters. “It quickly fell in with dissenters and virtually excluded anyone from the community who did not dissent,” said Janet Smith, a moral theologian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a leading scholar on Humanae Vitae who was denied tenure at the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s after she became known as a prominent defender of the encyclical’s teachings. “Professional theological associations effectively shut out the voices of faithful Catholics.”
Another source of opposition came from the Vatican commission whose recommendations to approve artificial contraception had been rejected by the Pope. One of its members, John Noonan, a legal scholar, had published a book arguing that the Church’s teaching had changed on other issues and could change on contraception. Noonan maintained his position after the release of Humanae Vitae and even attended Curran’s news conference to voice his support.
The academy’s revolt against Humanae Vitae went deeper than theological argument. “The intellectual dissent was damaging, but even more harmful was the scandal caused by Catholic colleges,” Reilly said. “We should not underestimate the terrible impact of the surrender by most Catholic colleges to the ‘sexual revolution,’ with the rapid shift to coed dorms and loosened restrictions on premarital sexual activity. Whether or not Catholics attended these Catholic colleges, their obvious capitulation to secular values was enormously influential in the Church.”
Why the Tide Turned
In the decades since, the tide has turned. The change was perhaps most evident in a dueling pair of statements over Humanae Vitae. In advance of the anniversary, in 2016, the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a British-based think tank, issued a critique of the encyclical, urging the Church to change its position. The document was signed by 178 Catholic intellectuals. It was met with a rebuttal statement organized by The Catholic University of America: More than 500 Catholic scholars added their names to that document.
Although many still dissent over the teaching, support for it has risen among both scholars and the laity, according to Smith. She noted that this year there have been more than 30 conferences held on the encyclical — with “not one dissenting.” The Catholic University of America’s spring conference was titled, “Humanae Vitae (1968-2018): Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love and Life.”
“There was really kind of a shift in the late ’60s and ’70s. And now I think there’s been kind of a countershift,” Grabowski said.
Grabowski credits two factors with driving the turnaround: the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II and the devastating effects of the sexual revolution. From his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, in 1979, to later ones like Veritatis Splendor in 1993 and Evangelium Vitae in 1995, John Paul II devoted much of his papacy to developing the theological, philosophical and moral foundations for the teaching that his predecessor had advanced in Humanae Vitae.
That teaching was reinforced through his series of general audiences on sexuality and family life, which came to be known as the “theology of the body,” and the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, Smith noted.
Under John Paul II’s papacy, the Vatican was also emboldened to discipline dissenters. And, in 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stripped Father Curran of his right to teach theology at The Catholic University of America. He ended up at Southern Methodist University, where he is still a professor.
The other factor prompting a scholarly reconsideration of Humanae Vitae is the aftermath of the sexual revolution.
“The primary issue that the Vatican was right on was this depersonalization of sexual relations and the breakdown of love and commitment of couples and peoples in a society,” said Donald Critchlow, a historian at Arizona State University who has written about birth control in America. “Humanae Vitae, unfortunately, proved all too correct. And what we see is the breakdown of the family, and a lot of the social problems we face today are really involving the breakdown of the family.”
One example, according to Critchlow, are the statistics on what happens to children raised in single-parent families, especially minorities in low-income households. Those children are more likely to drop out of school earlier, become addicted to drugs, and go to prison, he said.
The effects can be seen across a wide range of social metrics, encompassing divorce rates and the lack of respect men show for women to the pornography epidemic, according to Grabowski. “Oral contraception was kind of the jet fuel of the sexual revolution, and it’s been a disaster in terms of its impact on the family, on the culture and on people’s lives,” Grabowski said.
Many of the deleterious consequences of the sexual revolution are chronicled in Mary Eberstadt’s 2012 book, Adam and Eve after the Pill.
But it’s not just Catholic scholars who see it. Even some social scientists have started to identify downsides to the widespread use of artificial contraceptives. For example, economists George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen published a major paper in 1996 examining the connection between artificial contraception and out-of-wedlock births. Other social scientists and historians whose research has probed the harmful effects of the sexual revolution include figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Blankenhorn, among others.
While the sexual revolution has led to the disintegration of the family, Humanae Vitae itself has borne fruit. Many Catholic college campuses — especially many of the smaller new ones that have emerged over the last half-century — actually promote the teaching of Humanae Vitae, according to Reilly.
“Thankfully, a growing number of faithfully Catholic colleges clearly embrace Humanae Vitae and strive to promote chastity and sobriety on their campuses. Some are exemplary in protecting the privacy of student bedrooms at all hours, including Christendom College, John Paul the Great University, Northeast Catholic College, Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and Wyoming Catholic College,” Reilly said.
Thomas Aquinas College, for example, teaches natural family planning (NFP) as part of its marriage-preparation program for students or recent graduates who have become engaged. As part of the course, young couples spend one Saturday learning about NFP from a tutor and his wife who have experience practicing NFP, according to Father Cornelius Buckley, the campus chaplain.
At Franciscan University, engaged students enroll in marriage-preparation courses in either the fall or spring. They are given a choice of learning about one of three methods of NFP: the Sympto-Thermal Method, the Billings Method, and the Creighton Method (see related story on page B1). “The couples then attend classes on one of these methods and receive a certification they can show the pastor of the parish they are getting married at,” said Tom Sofio, spokesman for the university.
And, even on secular campuses, currents students are more receptive to the message of Humanae Vitae than they might have been one or two generations ago, according to Sarah Judge, a missionary with Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) who most recently worked at Columbia University. She said Humanae Vitae is often mentioned in the organization’s campus ministry, which she said has made it part of its main message to college students.
“In my experience as a FOCUS missionary on non-Catholic campuses, students are actually open to the messages found in Humanae Vitae,” she said. “Young people see the brokenness in family life and relationships. Deep down, each person knows they were created for a deep, unconditional, life-giving love.”
Added Judge, “For many students, especially non-Catholic students, Humanae Vitae offers a message they’ve never heard before.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.