Humanae Vitae: Bad for the church, worse for the world

Forty years ago this week, the Vatican slammed the door on the hopes of the vast majority of Catholics and confirmed a complete prohibition on modern methods of contraception. Today, the rupture between the Vatican and lay Catholics remains unhealed.
Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that enshrined the teaching against contraception, radically altered my church. The vast majority of Catholics now ignore it, and the hierarchy is forced to defend a teaching that was judged indefensible then and has only become more so with the arrival of new issues, such as preventing the spread of AIDS.

It didn’t have to be this way.

It’s a little known fact that the hand-picked Vatican Birth Control Commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception. Its members believed that as the popes’ previous teachings on the issue were not infallible, the teaching could change to allow people in good conscience to use contraception.

The resolve and courage of those who favored a break with the past is revealed in an exchange over the likely impact of overturning the ban:

When the Rev. Marcelino Zalba, a church expert on “family limitation,” asked in horror what would happen to “the millions we have sent to hell” if the teaching on contraception was changed, commission member Patty Crowley shot back, “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”

When Pope Paul VI heard about the commission’s likely recommendation, he appointed 15 bishops to hold the line. But even they were swayed by the logic of the case for contraception and voted overwhelmingly to change the teaching.

However, Paul ignored the recommendations of his own commission and declared that since the finding was not unanimous, the teaching could not be changed a requirement that had not existed for any of the other issues discussed by the Second Vatican Council. He instead adopted a minority report that confirmed the prohibition on contraception.

Time has shown that the very thing that Paul had feared most that changing the teaching on birth control would erode the hierarchy’s authority on other matters of sexual morality happened precisely because the teaching was not changed.

Nowhere has the public health impact of Humanae Vitae been felt more acutely than in ongoing efforts to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS. Despite scientific evidence that condoms are a critical piece of HIV-prevention efforts, the Vatican has refused to relax the ban on contraceptives, and has spread disinformation about the effectiveness of condoms that undercut efforts to promote their use.

As with the use of contraception more generally, Catholics around the world support condom use and use them to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections, as well as unplanned pregnancies.

A recent poll by Catholics for Choice found that 79 percent of Catholics in the United States along with 90 percent in Mexico, 86 percent in Ireland, and 77 percent in the Philippines believe promoting condoms is the pro-life position. However, the hierarchy, having lost the battle for the hearts and minds of lay Catholics, now seeks to use its power and influence over national and local laws in an attempt to legislate adherents to the faith.

As in many areas of life, the tragedy hardly affects the wealthy, as most have the means to overcome the nuisance of the ban. But the contraception ban matters for the poor and the powerless and for that the hierarchy must be answerable.

The past 40 years have seen a hardening of the Vatican’s opposition to condoms at the very time that the world has moved to a different, more comprehensive view of sexuality and women’s role in society. The Vatican did not succeed in turning back the clock 40 years ago, and it is unlikely to succeed in the future. But many people, especially women in poor countries, will continue to suffer as it tries to do so.

(Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.)
This article originally appeared in Religion News Service on 21 July 2008.