National Catholic Register


Contraception: Breaking Silence

Humanae Vitae at 40

BY Father Walter Schu, LC

August 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/5/08 at 12:56 PM


Pope Paul VI’s courageous encyclical Humanae Vitae is the only papal encyclical to have been received with a firestorm of dissent by theologians, lay Catholics, and even bishops. To understand the vital importance of Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary, which is being celebrated this month, it is necessary to penetrate more deeply into the reasons behind such unprecedented dissent.

By July of 1968, many lay Catholics and theologians had been swept along by the ideological claims of the sexual revolution. But that wasn’t the only reason that more than 50% of Catholic married couples were already practicing contraception by the time the encyclical was issued.

Many believed that change in the Church’s consistent teaching against contraception was imminent. More than 60% of the laity expected such a change, according to a Gallup poll in mid-1965. How had such anticipation developed that what in fact could not be changed would be changed?

One key factor: Prominent theologians were beginning to speak out publicly in dissent against the Church’s teaching prohibiting contraception as a means of birth control. In highly publicized lecture tours, theologians like Hans Küng, Charles Curran and Bernard Häring made their dissent known.

Another influential figure on the public stage at the time was a Catholic gynecologist from Boston, Dr. John Rock. In 1963 he published his work, The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control. Rock speciously argued that use of the birth-control pill was simply a refinement of the “rhythm method,” since it did no more than extend the woman’s naturally infertile period.

It does not require extensive moral training to recognize the fallacy in Rock’s reasoning.

To argue that performing the conjugal act after inducing sterility, thus eliminating its procreative meaning, is morally equivalent to abstaining from the conjugal act during the woman’s naturally fertile period for serious reasons, in order to respect both the unitive and procreative meanings of the act, is a fallacy so evident that no further elucidation is necessary.

Rock did not content himself with the publication of his book. He also appeared in such venues as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Newsweek, as well as television interviews. As a result, he was a key player in the secular media’s de facto legitimization of Catholic dissent.

But Catholic publications also began voicing their dissent.

The December 1963 issue of Jubilee magazine carried an influential article bluntly critical of Church teaching by Rosemary Radford Ruether, then a graduate student in Church history and mother of three young children. Her specious line of reasoning is revealed quite plainly in the following sentence: “Hence, sexual acts that are calculated to function only during times of sterility are sterilizing the act just as much as any other means of rendering the act infertile.”

Once again, to claim that abstaining from sexual intercourse during the woman’s fertile period is the same as sterilizing the act of intercourse is blatantly false. It is simply not the same to abstain from an act in order to respect its intrinsic meanings (unitive and procreative) as to engage in that act while eliminating its procreative meaning.

Even The Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family and Births came to be a factor in leading many Catholics to think that a change in the prohibition against contraception was just around the corner.

Originally created by Pope John XXIII with six members, the commission was expanded several times by Paul VI. Its membership stood at 72, including bishops, priests, lay experts and married couples, when it met for the final time in the summer of 1966.

Unable to reach a consensus, the purely advisory body presented two reports to Pope Paul VI. What soon came to be known as the “Majority Report” called for a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception; the “Minority Report” outlined the reasons that the Church could not make such a change, due to the intrinsic evil of contraception.

Though all the members were bound by secrecy, the reports were leaked to the press and published in April 1967 by the National Catholic Reporter. The story greatly intensified expectations, at least among the laity, that the teaching would soon be amended.

Priests were a final factor in the swell of expectations for change. Many found themselves influenced by the voices of dissent and were reluctant to stand behind the Church’s teaching against contraception in confession or personal consultations.

As a result, they would often tell husbands or wives to follow their own consciences, to simply do what they thought was right. “Anyone wanting to practice birth control today can do so if he looks for the right priest,” wrote a couple from Syracuse, N.Y., in 1965.

The Great Silence

Given the groundswell of forces anticipating a change in Church teaching, perhaps the firestorm of dissent that greeted Humanae Vitae was not entirely surprising. But as the months and years passed, by the early 1970s a new phenomenon arose, what Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick called “the silence since Humanae Vitae.” Leslie Woodcock Tentler affirms in her book Catholics and Contraception: An American History, “Thus, not long after Humanae Vitae, a great public silence came to prevail with regard to contraception” (273-274).

Andrew Greeley characterized the situation in 1972 as follows: “A peculiar, implicit gentleman’s agreement has developed between clergy and hierarchy in which the hierarchy commits itself not to try seriously to enforce compliance with Humanae Vitae so long as the clergy is not too open and public in its opposition to the encyclical.”

Since approximately 80% of Catholic married couples still fail today to practice the Church’s teachings regarding contraception, this silence has proved just as devastating for the future of a culture of life as the actual open dissent to Humanae Vitae. By 1972 Pope Paul VI would famously declare: “Satan’s smoke has made its way into the temple of God through some crack. … One no longer trusts the Church; one trusts the first profane prophet that comes along.”

John Paul II

On Sept. 5, 1979, the great silence over Humanae Vitae was definitively broken with words that continue, even now, to reverberate more and more deeply in the hearts and consciences of Catholics throughout the world. At a Wednesday general audience, Pope John Paul II began elaborating on his theology of the body, which was the most comprehensive, cogent, and compelling defense of Humanae Vitae ever.

Catholic thinker Sean Inherst, to convey the intense drama of the present attack on God’s plan for man and woman, does not hesitate to identify the contraceptive ideology as a modern heresy: “anti-conceptionism.” Inherst affirms John Paul II’s theology of the body by explaining how married love is at the heart of God’s entire plan of salvation and will one day gain victory over this new threat to the faith and humanity.

I’m sure we are living in that age which Catholics of the future will describe as the near-triumph of the heresy of anti-conceptionism. They will recount that this heresy not only threatened millions of souls, but millions of bodies, as well.

As has always been the case in theological development, they will recognize that this attack against the original plan of God — disclosed as his “marital plan” — will have been vanquished by a precise theological elaboration on the place of the marital covenant: the very heart and center of the economy of salvation.

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.