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Humanae Vitae

A Losing Battle

Reaction to the encyclical ranged from dismay and disappointment to outright dismissal. Many Catholics had made up their own minds about birth control in the years the commission had spent debating the issue. Foreshadowing the crisis of authority that would consume the church in later years, prominent Jesuit philosopher Rev. Robert Johann told the New York Times the day after the encyclical’s release that, “educated Catholics are not going to pay any attention to this statement.”[i] Commonweal magazine said: “For millions of lay people, the birth control question has been confronted, prayed over and settled—and not in the direction of the pope’s encyclical.”[ii] A Manhattan housewife told the Times: “I don’t care what the pope says. I have a feeling the clergy are talking to themselves on this issue. I have made my decision and couldn’t care less about people at the Vatican.”[iii]

Reaction to the encyclical ranged from dismay and disappointment to outright dismissal. Many Catholics had made up their own minds about birth control in the years the commission had spent debating the issue.

In fact, a survey just a year after the encyclical’s release found that 44 percent of Catholic women of childbearing age who were regular churchgoers were using “artificial” contraception.[iv] By 1974, 83 percent of Catholics said they disagreed with Humanae Vitae.[v]

Just as stunning as the indifference with which the Catholic faithful met the new encyclical was the response of the world’s Catholic theologians and bishops—the very people responsible for explaining the teaching to Catholics and urging them to follow it. No sooner was Humanae Vitae released than it was met with an unprecedented torrent of dissent from inside the church, most of it asserting that Catholics were free to follow their consciences on the issue of birth control. Many of the world’s most noted theologians—including Bernard Häring, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx and Richard McCormick—dissented from the encyclical. The theological facilities of Fordham University, St. Peter’s College, Marquette University, Boston College and the Pope John XXIII National Seminary issued public statements of dissent, as did 20 of the most prominent theologians in Europe.[vi]

In the United States, the dissent crystallized around a group of theologians at Catholic University led by Father Charles Curran. By 3 am on the morning after the encyclical’s release, the group had 87 signatures to a statement of dissent; two days later, they had 172, and eventually, some 600 theologians signed on. The dissenters included the Rev. Bernard Häring, who was considered the church’s foremost authority on moral theology; John Noonan, a law professor who wrote the definitive book on the history of contraception in the Catholic church and was a special consultant to the papal commission; and all six US lay members of the papal commission.

The statement said that the encyclical was flawed in its assumptions and reliance on an outmoded conception of natural law and that “it is common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative, non-fallible teaching of the magisterium when sufficient reason exists.” It concluded that “spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible.”[vii]

Bishops around the world were more circumspect; most officially accepted the encyclical but reaffirmed the right of Catholics to follow their consciences on the birth control decision. The Canadian bishops released a statement saying that Catholics who tried “sincerely but without success” to follow the encyclical “may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses the course that seems right to him does so in good conscience.”[viii] Bishops’ conferences in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Holland issued similar statements. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said Catholics in the United States should receive the encyclical “with sincerity… study it carefully and form their consciences in that light.” Later, it was forced to clarify that Catholics should follow the pope’s teaching, but the die had already been cast.[ix]

[i] John Leo, “Pope Bars Birth Control by Any Artificial Means,” New York Times, July 30, 1968.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Karen Owen, “Artificial Contraception,” Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, June 6, 1998.
[v] “Survey of American Catholics,” National Opinion Research Center, 1974.
[vi] Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, Dissent In and For the Church, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.
[vii] William H. Shannon, The Lively Debate: Response to Humanae Vitae, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1970.
[viii] “Statement of Canadian Bishops on the Encyclical Humanae Vitae,” September 27, 1968.
[ix] John Horgan, Humanae Vitae and the Bishops, Dublin: Irish University Press, 1972.