Clearly, the most controversial encyclical of the 20th century was the 1968 document Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI restated the Church’s teaching that the use of contraception to frustrate conception is gravely immoral. With so much pressure leading up to its release, the Holy Father knew that the encyclical would be rejected in various circles. Yet he had his ground troops, his priests, scattered all over the world. Could he not count on them?
Pope Paul VI made a fatherly plea to his priests at the end of the encyclical: “And now, beloved sons, you who are priests, you who in virtue of your sacred office act as counselors and spiritual leaders both of individual men and women and of families — we turn to you, filled with great confidence. For it is your principal duty ... to spell out clearly and completely the Church's teaching on marriage. In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church” (28).
How did his beloved sons react? Upon Humanae Vitae’s publication, a group of dissenting theologians at The Catholic University of America in Washington, led by Father Charles Curran, boldly defied the Pope and issued statements claiming that Catholics could oppose this teaching according to their individual consciences. The media fanned the flames of division against the Pope, and the dissent only grew, spreading even to moral theology professors in the seminaries.
There were also priests who heard the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking through Pope Paul VI, and they heroically remained faithful. From the testimonies of these loyal priests who lived through that dark period, it appears that they were a minority. For example, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford recently wrote a moving testimony about how, in 1968, the priests of the Archdiocese of Baltimore publicly mobilized against Humanae Vitae and privately persecuted the few priests who dared to remain faithful.
A faithful moral theology professor from my seminary days who had lived through this tumultuous time, the late Crosier Father Robert Zylla once told us seminarians, “Prior to 1968, there was great unity among the priests. Whenever you walked into a room of priests, there was an instant bond and trust. After 1968, there was instant distrust and division. No priest knew to which group you belonged and in whom you could trust.”
The two opposing camps hardened against one another and, consequently, it became difficult for the Church to govern herself and for the average Catholic to discern what the true teaching was. For the last 40 years, the apostasy continued to grow; and now it has formed deep roots within the body of Christ across the country.
Today, President Barack Obama and his team know this reality all too well: Many Catholics have ignored the Church’s teaching on Humanae Vitae. This was the opportune time for him to issue the Health and Human Services mandate that practically all employers — including many religious institutions — must pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception. It is a classic case of “divide and conquer,” with the Obama administration counting on the support of the dissenting Catholics against the bishops.
There is a clear and present danger for the Catholic Church with this mandate. If what Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George has written is true, the implementation of this mandate could very well lead to the closing down of Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions of charity simply because the Catholic Church will not comply with this HHS mandate.
There are many factors that led up to this conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church, but, in many ways, the dissenting priests played a decisive role and their lack of fidelity contributed to the confusion upon the Church.
The prophet Daniel’s words to the Israelites during the Babylonian exile speak to the current situation: “To us, O Lord, belongs confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee ... because we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets” (Daniel 9:8-10).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly labels this dissension by the clergy a grave violation of their sacred trust: “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: He likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing” (2285).
In 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage), in which he restated the Church’s position on contraception. Like Pope Paul VI, Pope Pius XI also made a fatherly plea to his beloved priests, but with a more firm tone: “We admonish, therefore, priests who hear confessions and others who have the care of souls ... not to allow the faithful entrusted to them to err regarding this most grave law of God. ... If any confessor or pastor of souls, which may, God forbid, lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God, the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust” (57).
Catholic priests are placing their eternal salvation on the line simply by the way they teach, or fail to teach, the truth about contraception.
One of the great signs of hope in this battle for priests to be faithful is Blessed John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Veritatis Splendor was the first magisterial encyclical ever devoted to the central issues in fundamental moral theology. The encyclical gave a thorough critique of the dissenting theology used against Humanae Vitae and today has become the standard text for seminary moral theology classes.
Thanks to Veritatis Splendor, there are many fine priests today throughout the country who have received sound moral theology formation. They are faithfully working with couples, teaching them the wisdom of authentic marital love. These priests deserve the people’s support.
Other priests accept the teaching, but knowing the opposition that exists, remain hesitant to raise the issue of contraception. These priests also deserve the people’s support. If the hesitant priest ever gives a homily or writes in the bulletin on a controversial family/life issue, be the first one to tell him how much you appreciate it. You may have not only helped secure the teaching of the Catholic Church, but also, according to Pope Pius XI, been a factor in saving the priest’s soul.
But what if the local parish priest still dissents on Humanae Vitae? A parishioner may consider talking with him (always in a respectful manner). If this bears no fruit, then writing a charitable letter to the bishop may be in order. Prayer and fasting for the priest has also been recommended by Our Lord (Matthew 17:21). The fact that last month some parish priests refused to read letters from their bishops after Mass about the HHS mandate shows that these dissenting priests are still hardened against the teaching.
The Second Vatican Council proclaimed in its introduction to the “Decree on Priestly Training” that the holiness of the Church depends on the holiness of the priests: “Animated by the spirit of Christ, this sacred synod is fully aware that the desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on the ministry of its priests” (Optatam Totius).
This truth was proven immediately after the Council in 1968 — when the dissent of far too many priests led to the dissent of many lay faithful — and today with the HHS mandate we are suffering from its devastating effects.
Let us entrust the Church and all of her priests to the gentle hands of Our Lady.
Father Greg Markey is the pastor of St. Mary Church in Norwalk, Conn., in the Diocese of Bridgeport.