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Humanae Vitae at 40
BY Legionary Father Walter Schu
On July 29,
1968, a crescendo of suspense was broken and Pope Paul VI publicly issued his
long-awaited encyclical Humanae Vitae (The
Regulation of Birth).
In the encyclical, the Holy Father
courageously reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that, in the words of
the encyclical, “each and every marriage act must remain open to the
transmission of new life” (No. 11).
It caused a firestorm.
Within 24 hours, in an event
unprecedented in the history of the Church, more than 200 dissenting
theologians signed a full-page ad in The New
York Times in protest. Not only did they declare their disagreement
with encyclical’s teaching; they went one step further, far beyond their
authority as theologians, and actually encouraged dissent among the lay
They asserted the following:
“Therefore, as Roman Catholic theologians, conscious of our duty and our
limitations, we conclude that spouses may responsibly decide according to their
conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible
and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of
Among Catholic laity, Humanae
Vitae was also greeted with consternation. A Gallup survey done less
than a month after the encyclical was promulgated showed that of those
Catholics who had heard of it, only 28% agreed with the Pope’s teaching.
Fifty-four percent disagreed with the Pope explicitly; others refused to
Even among bishops, the encyclical
was often received with what could hardly be described as an ardent embrace in
obedience and faith. On Sept. 27, 1968, the bishops of Canada, united in
plenary assembly at St. Boniface in Winnipeg, Manitoba, issued a declaration on
Vitae that has come to be known as the Winnipeg Statement.
Oddly enough, the statement does not
use the term “contraception” even once, substituting instead the euphemism “any
positive intervention that would prevent the transmission of human life” (No.
8). Still, the statement seems to be headed in the right direction, as it
acknowledges the magisterium’s right to pronounce itself on the question of the
responsible regulation of births, along with the duty of the faithful to form
their consciences according to that teaching.
But then, No. 26 makes its
appearance, in which all of the above is thrown to the winds:
“Counselors may meet others who,
accepting the teaching of the Holy Father, find that because of particular
circumstances they are involved in what seems to them a clear conflict of
duties, e.g., the reconciling of conjugal love and responsible parenthood with
the education of children already born or with the health of the mother. In
accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have
tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with
the given directives, they may be safely assured that,
whoever honestly chooses that course that seems right to him does so in good
conscience” (italics added).
In other words, the Canadian bishops
affirmed that Catholics may in good conscience choose to disregard Humanae’s
Vitae’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception (found in
the encyclical’s No. 14).
Subjectivism of conscience has become
the new, supreme law. Aside from the truth of responsible procreation, what
teaching of the faith at all is capable of standing against this new norm of
Pope John Paul II’s ardent defense
of the truth of married love rings out in sharp contrast to the Winnipeg
Statement: “Contraception is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to
be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to
maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not
to recognize God as God” (L’Osservatore Romano, Oct.
10, 1983, p. 7).
Many groups of Catholic lay faithful
have been urging the Canadian bishops to retract the Winnipeg Statement and
affirm their complete adherence to Humanae Vitae.
The Austrian bishops had the courage
to withdraw their own 1968 statement on March 29, 1988, and to announce their
complete agreement with Humanae Vitae, as
well as John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio
(The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World).
In 1990, the Philippine bishops issued an apology to that nation’s Catholics for
having failed to encourage their flock to adhere to Humanae Vitae.
wrote: “Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology,
we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse:
‘Follow what your conscience tells you.’ How little we realized that it was our
consciences that needed to be formed first.”
did the U.S. bishops react to Pope Paul VI’s courageous encyclical?
they rushed to support the Holy Father, asking the lay faithful to do the same.
On July 31, 1968, Archbishop John Deardon of Detroit, president of the U.S.
bishops’ conference declared: “Recognizing his [Pope Paul VI’s] unique role in
the universal Church, we, the bishops of the Church in the United States, unite
with him in calling upon our priests and people to receive with sincerity what
he has taught, to study it carefully and to form their consciences in its
when the bishops distributed the English edition of Humane Vitae,
attached to it were norms for theological dissent.
could such a situation have arisen: theologians, laity, even bishops in a
firestorm of dissent from the definitive, binding teachings of the Holy Father?
understand the reaction to Humanae
Vitae, it is necessary to
consider the drama leading up to the encyclical. A principal element in that
drama was the sexual revolution.
the summer of 1968, the sexual revolution was in full swing, both in the United
States and Western culture. What was the dominant ideology of the sexual
revolution? It was the attempt to “liberate” sexuality from the “repressive”
confines of commitment.
was the effort to truncate the meaning of sex to personal pleasure through
ecstatic release. The attempt was made
to obliterate the transcendent, personal dimension of sexual intercourse as a
free self-giving of the entire person in love.
was sought was love without responsibility, pleasure without the gift of self.
were often swept away with the rest of the population in this new hedonism and
the illusory freedom it proffered.
national study done in 1955 revealed that only 30% of Catholic wives were using
contraception. A similar study in 1965 showed the following: “53% of Catholic
wives aged 18 to 39 were either presently using a forbidden means of
contraception or had done so in the past.”
1970, fully 68% of Catholic wives in their childbearing years were limiting
their families by a means other than abstinence or natural family planning.
was at stake in the firestorm of dissent with which Humane Vitae
was greeted and in the drama leading up to its reception?
In his 1994 Letter to Families, John
Paul II affirmed that “the family is placed at the center of the great struggle
between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is
opposed to love.”
different forces enter into that struggle. But at its very core is the ideology
Next week: The Decades of
Silence About Humanae Vitae.
Legionary Father Walter Schu is
author of The
Splendor of Love on John Paul II’s theology of
a course for couples of Familia.