A Church in Crisis
Cardinal John Heenan, who was archbishop of Westminster at the time of Humanae Vitae, wrote afterwards that Vatican II had left the church with the papacy as an absolute monarchy. The Council had swept away the Vatican Curia’s constraints on papal power, but had not replaced these with a truly collegial form of governance in which the bishops represented the people of their dioceses. I see it as tragic irony that Paul VI, who was temperamentally the opposite of the megalomaniac Pius IX, ended up wielding the absolute power that Pius had craved.
Anthony Padovano describes the breakdown of church governance that provided the context for Humanae Vitae in the most recent issue of Conscience. Paul VI found himself in the position of sole arbiter of Catholic tradition, a benevolent despot who in this situation could not successfully be either benevolent or despotic. John Mahoney, in his 1987 book The Making of Moral Theology, called Humanae Vitae the greatest crisis of the Catholic church since the Reformation.
Today, that crisis has been overshadowed by the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. However, the roots of the current crisis lie in the mid-’60s—when Paul VI issued not only Humanae Vitae but also, as Dr. Padovano points out, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus one year earlier, which closed the door on married priests. Reform of the church’s teaching on sexuality got caught up in its crisis of authority and has never successfully emerged. The conservatives may have seemed to have won, but all that they have gained is a form of relativism based on impotent claims to papal authority as the reflection of an unchanging magisterium.
When everything sexual is morally wrong, then no particular behavior stands out. Sexual sins can be dealt with as pastoral concerns that demand only prayer and forgiveness. This has been the recipe for the disastrous means with which church authorities have addressed clergy sex abuse.
Associate Professor of Religion and Gender Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Los Angeles, CA