Forty years later, contraception ban colors U.S.-Vatican ties
Asked about her church’s ban on artificial birth control, Emily Kunkel inhales deeply and pauses.
“It’s hard because the church has had this stance for so many years, there’s so much tradition behind it,” she says. “But I think in certain circumstances condoms should be used.”
Kunkel, a 20-year-old sophomore at Ohio State University, is a cradle Roman Catholic and a graduate of church schools. She regularly attends Mass on campus and in general agrees with her church on birth control it shouldn’t be widely practiced, she says. But some dilemmas, such as the spread of AIDS in Africa, call for a more “situational” approach, she says.
“It’s not really helping the whole AIDS epidemic if condoms aren’t used,” Kunkel says.
When Pope Benedict XVI touches down in the United States next month (April 15-20), he’ll see a church in which Kunkel’s ambivalence toward Catholic sexual ethics is widely shared, particularly among the youth.
Sixty-one percent of Catholics insist that individuals should have the final say on contraception; 75 percent say it’s possible to be a good Catholic while disobeying church teachings on the matter, according to recent surveys. Forty years after Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae” and upheld the ban on artificial birth control, the encyclical continues to be a flashpoint in the church. Nearly all Catholics agree that Humanae Vitae’s effects are pervasive and enduring.
From there, opinions diverge.
Did Paul VI accurately predict the dangers of separating procreation and sex? Or did he crack open a culture of dissent that has since seeped into every corner of Catholic life?
“The document was exceedingly important in the development of American Catholicism,” said R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame. “It was the first time in the history of the modern church that a papal teaching had been openly defied in such a widespread fashion.”
At a recent conference marking Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary in Skokie, Ill., Cardinal Francis George of Chicago candidly addressed the encyclical’s tangled legacy.
“It was the occasion for a direct conflict between many people’s experience as they expressed it and the authority of the church,” said George,president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We have then the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church, with consequences we still live with.”
Among Humanae Vitae’s consequences, depending on whom you ask, are dwindling Mass attendance, a callousness toward sin, and polarized pews full of “liberals” and “conservatives.”
Others, meanwhile, say Humanae Vitae or reaction to it is partly responsible for the dearth of young men entering the priesthood, weakened bishops and the clergy sex abuse scandal.
In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially lift the ban on artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.
Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy known as “the calendar method” is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.
The uproar was immediate. In the U.S., 600 Catholic scholars issued a statement insisting that families, not the church, should be the final arbiter on contraception.
Nineteen priests in Washington publicly defied their archbishop and criticized Humanae Vitae.
Dissent spread well beyond scholars and clergy. In fact, historians say Humanae Vitae sparked the most widespread public opposition to a papal teaching in centuries.
“American Catholics decided in their own consciences that the use of birth control was not sinful,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, an author and associate editor at America, a Jesuit weekly. The laity began to pick and choose which teachings to follow, leading to the rise of so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” he said.
“This is when the door to the cafeteria opened.”
Young Catholics in professor Lisa Cahill’s ethics classes at Boston College don’t understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through the calendar method but not by other means, she said.
“The arguments don’t really fit together coherently,” she said. “As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate, why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?”
George Weigel, a noted Catholic scholar, said the clergy sex abuse crisis that erupted in 2002 was, in part, fostered by a culture of dissent born with Humanae Vitae.
“Did the notion that what the church believes is settled teaching can be disregarded help break down clerical discipline? Yes. Did the idea that bishops cannot address that breakdown forcefully wreak havoc on the church? Yes. Those two ideas were manifestly part of the crisis,” he said.
But Weigel cautioned that bad behavior by clergy and misgovernance by bishops are more to blame for the scandal.
Marissa Valeri, 30, an advocate with Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Choice, said that “whatever sliver of high ground (the church hierarchy) had on sexual matters was lost when the sex abuse crisis came to light.”
The young Catholics Valeri meets around the country don’t look to the bishops for advice on sex, she said.
“I know a lot of Catholics that are right there with them on immigration and the death penalty but on contraception, they’re just not.”
The late Pope John Paul II reinforced the ban on artificial birth control and said the matter was not up for debate. For him and Benedict, adherence to Humanae Vitae has served as a litmus test for would-be bishops, according to Catholic scholars.
U.S. bishops published a pamphlet in 2006 that encouraged young Catholic families to forgo contraception. As Paul VI predicted, the bishops said, use of birth control has led to a “pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases,” adultery, divorce and government population control programs.
Chicago’s Cardinal George said “Humanae Vitae is an illustration that even under great societal pressures and hardships, the church will stand for moral truth in her teachings and remain strong regardless of the consequences.”
Kunkel, the Ohio State sophomore, said she’s glad her church takes a moral stand and sticks with it. College students are bombarded with pressures and competing messages, she said, and it’s comforting to hear one clear, unchanging call.
Still, Kunkel said good Catholics can disagree with the church about contraception.
“For me, having that belief inside of you, that you know God is there and you’re supposed to help people when you can, that’s being a good Catholic.”
(Celeste Kennel-Shank contributed reporting for this story from Skokie, Ill.)
This article was originally published by Religion News Service on March 12, 2008.