‘Humanae Vitae’ and Catholicism in Germany
Author and professor Marie Meaney discusses Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and its cool reception and implementation in the country where she grew up.
When Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in 1968, student protests were raging across the globe. With his document, the Holy Father sought to reorient the faithful on the real importance of on the Catholic teaching regarding birth regulation, contraception and the value of human life.
More than 40 years later, Paul VI was beatified Oct. 19, and his warning that the prevalence of contraception would lead to a breakdown of the family and a loss of human dignity in society is proving prophetic.
Marie Meaney is the author of Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature (OUP) and Embracing the Cross of Infertility (HLI). Recently a teaching fellow at Villanova University, before moving to Rome with her family, Meaney was a board member of Heartbeat International from 2010 to 2013 and continues to function as a European prolife-consultant for them.
In an interview conducted prior to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, Meaney discussed the reception of Humanae Vitae in Germany, where she was raised, during the years of its promulgation and its effectiveness today.
How did the secular world in Germany receive Humanae Vitae, and how was this different from the Catholic population’s reception?
Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, which was a key year from many points of view. The left-wing student revolution … shook Western society to its foundations and included a “sexual revolution.”
The German-speaking world was in dire need of re-evangelization after World War II. Instead of a widespread spiritual renewal, however, people turned towards material wealth, trying to make up for the poverty during the war by escaping into a bourgeois world of comfort.
In light of this, the reaction of the following generation, which had not experienced the deprivations of the war to that extent, makes sense. The young were searching for an absolute, which the bourgeois values of their parents could not yield. Since religion appeared like an empty shell to them, the “68 ideology” seemed like the answer to their quest. The combination of anarchical idealism and sexual hedonism appealed to their spiritual needs, was attractive to their rebellious spirit and offered physical gratification.
The pill was essential to experiencing the sexual revolution unrestrainedly, without any lasting consequences. The zeitgeist at large was therefore opposed to Humanae Vitae. Even priests and bishops were hesitant to stand up for the Church’s teaching, not attempting to make it pastorally more accessible to the faithful, despite Pope Paul VI’s pleas. Hence, Humanae Vitae hardly found a better reception among the Catholic laypeople — except by those who were dedicated and pious — than by the world.
Since Humanae Vitae was published, critics have contended the encyclical is unconvincing and naive and static. How has that played out?
Christendom universally held that contraception was morally illicit until the Lambeth Conference in 1930, when the Anglican Church changed its doctrine. Until then, it was obvious to Christians throughout the world that contraception went against the nature of marriage and of love itself.
Though the teaching of the Church on contraception is buttressed by Revelation, the reasoning used by Pope Paul VI is based on natural law, thereby making it accessible to all human beings of goodwill. By pointing to its universal validity, the Pope was giving Catholic couples a fuller understanding why contraception would go against marriage and against their fundamental nature of being a man and a woman.
Pastorally speaking, Pope St. John Paul II, with his theology of the body, went further in explaining why contraception undermines human love. Our body speaks a language, which is not random; the sexual act has an intrinsic meaning, for it says to the other person, “I belong to you.”
When the sexual act happens outside of marriage, then our bodies are lying, for we have not given ourselves to each other permanently with our wills and hearts in marriage. Contraception introduces into the marital embrace another such lie; though the body expresses in the sexual act a complete gift of self, contraception brackets out my own or the other’s fertility, indicating that the gift is not complete after all.
Contraception undermines the meaning of the act, thereby hitting love in its center and undermining marriage, which cannot last when built on a lie. The great increase in divorce-rates is therefore one of the bitter fruits of contraception. Abortion is another, for it is the “necessary” fallback option when contraception fails; children are no longer cherished as a gift, but wrongly perceived as an “accident” which should have been avoided.
The German bishops published the “Königsteiner Erklärung" (Declaration of Königstein) in 1968. The Church has, in the light of the Gospel and the supernatural goal of a person’s life, the duty to defend a good conscience. Was this publication emblematic for the reaction to Humanae Vitae in Germany? What was the content of it?
With the “Königsteiner Erklärung” by the German bishops and the “Mariatroster” declaration by the Austrian ones in 1968, the episcopate committed a serious sin, as Cardinal [Christoph] Schönborn said poignantly in a famous sermon he gave in 2008 in Jerusalem. This sin, he said, was then followed by two other great sins, namely the bishops’ lack of courage in speaking out against abortion in the ’70s and now against homosexual “marriage.”
In both declarations from 1968, the bishops, because of their ambiguous formulations, ultimately left it to the individual conscience of the laypeople to decide, whether to use contraception or not; they thereby expressly went against Pope Paul VI’s urging to uphold this teaching and defend marriage as one of their most urgent responsibilities of their time.
This led to widespread disobedience and schismatic tendencies, against which Paul VI had warned in his encyclical. For, if one loses the understanding that the Church proclaims the unchangeable laws of life, which God has given to human beings for their own good, then there is no reason to obey her whenever something goes against my liking. Hence, a Protestant understanding of the Church finds its way into the minds of the Catholic laypeople.
The movement “We Are Church” in Austria — some of its leaders have recently been excommunicated, namely Martha Heizer and her husband — is just another expression of this misconception. If doctrine and the truth are simply a question of what happens to fit my taste, then we approach the Church like a self-service restaurant; I can pick and choose what I want, but I will ultimately starve, since I am not longer feeding on the truth.
Is lacking knowledge of facts on the side of the bishops in the past, as today, cause for discussions about natural family planning and contraception?
It is certainly shocking to note that even bishops are confused about the difference between contraception and natural family planning. Recently, Bishop [Stephan] Ackermann of Trier said the distinction between the two was artificial and hard to follow, while calling for a change in the Church’s sexual morality. One would have hoped that at least the leaders of the Church would have doctrinal clarity; instead, they are opening the gates wide to let the wolves come in to devour their flocks. If this is what shepherds do, who needs enemies?
Pope Paul VI’s prophecies regarding widespread promiscuity, the lowering of the respect, vis-à-vis of women, higher divorce rates and the absence of peace within families as the consequences of contraception should be enough to convince one, at least from an empirical perspective, that Humanae Vitae was right on. Instead of greater sexual fulfillment, the consequences have been more divorces, millions of abortions and a higher percentage of sexual violence.
Paul VI had also mentioned the temptation of governments to enforce obligatory contraception, which has proven right in the case of China, where contraception and abortions are forced upon women. The fear of overpopulation from the ’60s has proven to be without foundation, though the U.N. still clings to this fiction, while, in reality, under-population is the main problem, at least in the West.
People who have taught natural family planning methods, such as Billings, over long periods, have seen time and time again how dramatically many marriages improve when couples stop using contraception. The long list of side-effects contained in every package of the pill speaks for itself and shows the disastrous physical effects it has on women’s bodies; [women] are moving away from its use, at least for medical, if not for moral reasons. One may well wonder if the widespread infertility in the world is not due in part to its use over three generations.
Was the authority of the Pope “cracked” by the publication of Humanae Vitae, or was it weakened already before, so that the encyclical just broke the camel’s back in the disobedience of local Churches to the Pope?
I think we need to think of the opposite scenario to answer this question: What would have happened if the Pope had … changed Catholic doctrine and permitted contraception? This would have been a death blow to the Church, who is the guardian of Christ’s revelation and of the morals flowing from it. Society, one can imagine, would only have deteriorated faster than it has.
The outrage against Humanae Vitae might have looked to the world like a serious weakening of the Church. But in reality, it is never stronger than when it proclaims the truth, despite the pressures of the zeitgeist.
The Church was thrown into crisis not because of the Pope’s encyclical, but because of the disobedience of many bishops and priests who refused to teach the full doctrine of the Church. Some see the decline of vocations and the apostasy in subsequent years less as a misappropriation of Vatican II, but, rather, as a consequence of disobeying Humanae Vitae.
If one takes the cross out of marriage, when and where it is necessary for the growth of love (for there should be no masochistic seeking of suffering), then there is no reason to embrace the cross of celibacy in religious life either. The one flows from the other.
Is the beatification of Paul VI a cornerstone of accepting the teaching of this Pope who, in Germany, is widely known as the “Pillen Papst” (Pill Pope)?
The beatification of Pope Paul VI is not only a confirmation of his personal blessedness, but of the lasting importance of Humanae Vitae. He wrote this encyclical despite much pressure and high expectations that he would change Church doctrine and had to weather the ensuing onslaught; this, one might think, was his purgatory on earth.
Many people are under the false impression today that Pope Francis will change the doctrine of the Church regarding marriage and the sacraments of penance and of the Eucharist, i.e. to admit the divorced and remarried to those sacraments without desisting from serious sin.
Cardinal Kasper had spoken of “exceptional cases” in his presentation for the preparation of the synod to the College of Cardinals last February; in these cases, couples could be readmitted to the sacraments under certain circumstances, but without leaving their state of grave sin.
We know from the “Königsteiner Erklärung” what this means, namely a green light for all. What would apply to just a few (and without any doctrinal support for that matter) would become the modus operandi for everybody.
De facto, many people living in serious sin are already receiving the Eucharist, often encouraged by their priests, and thus in stark disobedience to the teachings of the Church. They have forgotten that the Church forbids them to receive the Eucharist in a state of grave sin for their own good and that she has to defend the very nature of love and marriage itself.
There has been much confusion over the past decades in the German-speaking world, making it difficult for people to make sense of what the Church teaches. In their parishes, they have often heard out of the mouths of their priests positions contrary to those of the Church, thereby confirming them on their path towards apostasy, albeit unbeknownst to them.
Anybody who has an open mind should at least read Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s theology of the body; for many object to something they don’t really know. The beauty and goodness of the Christian vision of marriage might then unfold in front of them, helping them make heroic decisions, which a mere “You ought not” probably won’t inspire. They could then see that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is a celebration of its goodness and beauty, which, because of its precious and delicate nature, needs to be pruned and protected, so that it can grow well and lead to the flourishing of the couple.
The Church does not want to make life as hard as possible for people, as widespread prejudice holds, but, rather, lead people to their full growth. This includes the cross, and the divorced have a great cross to bear.
Hence, Pope Francis’ call for a new pastoral approach to those who have distanced themselves from the Church is timely and prophetic.
Let us pray it will bear fruit and not lead to a more pronounced disobedience, as was the case when Humanae Vitae came out. Shaking up things in this way could either, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, lead to an authentic renewal or it could lead at least to a clearer delineation between those who have de facto already left the Church (since they will only come back if the Church changes its doctrine) and those who are willing to struggle on and participate as much as their situation allows in the life of the Church, despite their irregular situation. The prayers of the latter will not go unheard; God will answer them and give them the grace and strength to find solutions, allowing them to leave their life of sin.
The Church needs to help them to keep this longing alive. One excellent proposal would be for lay groups to organize Eucharistic adoration in parishes and unite everyone in prayer. The power of the Eucharist can pierce people’s hearts and soften them. This should be the basis for an authentic renewal.
Register correspondent Jan Bentz, based in Rome,
is currently finishing his doctoral work in metaphysics.
He also serves as a producer for EWTN in English and German.
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