40 years on: Papal defiance of Sixties culture has grim legacy
IT WAS one of the biggest shocks in modern religious history. The Roman Catholic church – not exactly known for taking risky decisions in haste – was, it was strongly rumoured, planning to end its historic ban on contraception.Liberals throughout the church and beyond basked in the latest manifestation of the new openness following Vatican II. Bishops arranged press conferences to welcome the change.
And then, as quickly and dramatically as it had creaked open, the door slammed shut again. Pope Paul VI revealed that there was to be no change at all. Microphones were rapidly packed away. Media events were cancelled. And the Universal Church went into a collective huddle, trying to make sense of it all.
It is exactly 40 years this week since the Vatican released the Pope’s famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at it – encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae. The 1968 document – Latin for “Of Human Life” – reaffirmed the Church’s long-standing ban on the use of artificial contraception. Any action specifically designed to prevent procreation, it said, directly contradicted the moral order established by God.
As a statement of teaching, the consequences of Humanae Vitae were huge, impacting not just on the family planning of Roman Catholics worldwide but also on the wider functioning of the Church.
It acted as a searing statement of papal authority, making it clear that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council earlier in the decade were to be limited, particularly in the area of collegiality. If the bishops thought they were going to run the Church alongside the Pope instead of under him, they had another think coming.
The passing of 40 years has clouded the fact that it could so easily have gone the other way. A church commission on birth control and population had reported two years earlier, saying that birth control was not intrinsically evil and that the issue of contraception was one for Catholic couples alone to decide.
However, an American Jesuit theologian, John Ford, drafted a minority report arguing that a position which had been held by the Church at least since the time of St Augustine 1,500 years earlier should not be changed. To the astonishment of almost everyone, it was this report, rather than the majority, that the Pope seized on.
It would be wrong to say there was a firestorm of outrage – the Catholic faithful generally do not take to the barricades against their pontiff – but there was certainly widespread and open dissent. One cardinal compared it to the inquisition against Galileo; dissident theologians and bishops argued that individual conscience should be allowed to prevail.
Having made his decision, though, Paul VI did not relent. There is evidence he was deeply shaken by the reaction: he never again issued another encyclical, and the year afterwards told a dissenting cardinal: “Pray for me – because of my weakness the church is badly governed.”
Presumably Paul received some solace in the fact that his position was ballasted by dogma: in 1864, his predecessor Pius IX declared in his famous Syllabus of Errors that a pontiff did not require to reconcile his decisions with progress, modern civilisation or the whims of liberalism.
If he had reservations about what he had done, then his successors didn’t. John Paul II reinforced the correctness of the teaching, while Pope Benedict XVI defended the encyclical only a matter of weeks ago, saying: “The truth expressed … does not change. On the contrary, in light of new scientific discoveries, its teaching is becoming more current and provoking reflection.”
Benedict went on to admit that Paul had taken an “anguished” decision and that the teaching was “not easy”. But his predecessor, he added, was right: “It was a significant act of courage in reaffirming the continuity of the doctrine and tradition of the church.”
Humanae Vitae remains as controversial as it was 40 years ago. Its critics argue that it has never been accepted by many Catholics – in the light of liberating developments such as the Pill, they simply acted with their consciences and ignored the teaching.
Time and a desire by the Church to avoid overemphasising the dogma appear to have caused confusion among the Catholic laity. A recent survey conducted by the liberal pressure group Catholics for Choice revealed that in the US, 79 per cent of people thought that the promotion of condoms was sanctioned by the Vatican.
The biggest issue of all, though, is that the social landscape has changed dramatically in the last 40 years due to the arrival of HIV as a global pandemic. Those who oppose the ruling argue that church teaching has been particularly disastrous in the developing world, where the hierarchy can exert huge influence over family planning policies.
“It is forced to defend a teaching that was judged indefensible 40 years ago and has become more so with the arrival of new issues such as preventing the spread of HIV/Aids”, says John O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.
The teaching, he argues, continues to obstruct the implementation of good public policy on family planning and HIV prevention. “It’s downright irresponsible and dangerous for the Catholic hierarchy to insist that Catholics and non-Catholics, who are also affected by the ban, must not use contraception.”
Mainstream believers take an entirely different view, saying that, if anything, ordinary Catholics are following the teaching in greater numbers, having seen an indissoluble connection between sexual freedom and divorce and categorisation of women as sex objects.
Even one of the original protest leaders, Father Charles E Curran, now a Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, admits he was wrong. “We claimed too much certitude on the teaching”, he says. “How can the Holy Spirit guide the church all these centuries and then make a mistake on a rather significant issue?”
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2008 edition of The Scotsman.