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 faithful.

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 marriage.”

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 assent.

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 Humanae 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 unbridled subjectivism?

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.

They 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.”

How did the U.S. bishops react to Pope Paul VI’s courageous encyclical?

Publicly, 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 light.”

Still, when the bishops distributed the English edition of Humane Vitae, attached to it were norms for theological dissent.

How could such a situation have arisen: theologians, laity, even bishops in a firestorm of dissent from the definitive, binding teachings of the Holy Father?

To 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.

By 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.

It 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.

What was sought was love without responsibility, pleasure without the gift of self.

Catholics were often swept away with the rest of the population in this new hedonism and the illusory freedom it proffered.

A 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.”

By 1970, fully 68% of Catholic wives in their childbearing years were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or natural family planning.

What 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.”

Many different forces enter into that struggle. But at its very core is the ideology of contraception.

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 the body,

a course for couples of Familia.