George Weigel has been wrong about a very great deal, but he is right about this:
July 25 is the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on the integrity of love and the appropriate means of family planning.
Issued during the cultural meltdown of the 1960s, and in a year when irrationality stalked the entire Western world, Humanae Vitae instantly became the most vilified act of the papal magisterium in history.
And to what should have been their shame, entire national episcopates distanced themselves from Pope Paul’s teaching by a variety of stratagems, many of which exhibited some degree of theological confusion and some of which were downright cowardly.
Paul VI came to the judgment he did in Humanae Vitae for two reasons.
First, because he was convinced that using the natural rhythms of fertility to regulate births was the most humanistic means of family planning, and the method most congruent with the dignity of the human person—and especially the unique dignity of women.
And second, because he came to understand that many of those advocating a change in Catholic teaching on the morally acceptable means of family planning were in fact promoting a fundamental change in the Church’s way of moral reasoning: They denied that some acts are simply wrong because of their nature, and they argued that moral judgment is really a calculus of intentions, acts, and consequences.
Had that “proportionalism,” as it’s technically known, been enshrined as the official Catholic method of making moral judgments, Catholicism would soon have found itself in the sad condition of liberal Protestantism—another Christian community with utterly porous moral boundaries.
His abandonment by a lot of the world episcopate deeply wounded Paul VI, a sensitive soul who had supported the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that bishops are something more than local branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., and who probably thought he was owed a little loyalty in return.
So as the Church and the world mark the golden jubilee of Humanae Vitae, and as Catholics around the world prepare to celebrate the canonization of Paul VI in October, perhaps those bishops who understand that a serious breach in episcopal collegiality took place in 1968, when so many of their predecessors failed to defend the Bishop of Rome against his often vicious critics, might consider making these affirmations about the encyclical, in one form or another:
1. I am deeply grateful to Pope Paul VI for his courageous witness to the truth about love in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. With Pope Francis, I believe that Paul VI “had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on culture, [and] to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism,” which treats the gift of children as a societal and economic burden.
2. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae on the appropriate means to plan a family are important for human well-being today; that conscious use of artificial means of regulating fertility distorts the truth about human love inscribed into Creation by the Creator; and that conscience must respect these intrinsic truths in family planning.
3. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae about natural family planning have proven themselves in pastoral situations around the world; that those truths have made significant contributions to family ministry and marriage preparation in various cultures; and that those who deny the human capacity to understand and live the disciplines of natural family planning often engage in racism, new forms of colonialism, or both.
4. I believe that the “contraceptive culture” of which Paul VI prophetically warned in Humanae Vitae, and the related abortion license, are major factors in the sexual abuse of women that has come to public attention through the #MeToo movement; and I invite feminists to rethink their celebration of artificial contraception and abortion on this fiftieth anniversary.
5. I believe that St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” has given the Catholic Church a compelling tool for explaining both the truths taught by Humanae Vitae and the unhappiness caused by the sexual revolution.
6. I pledge to make this anniversary year an occasion to celebrate the gift of Humanae Vitae and to use my pastoral office to deepen understandings of the Catholic sexual ethic as a celebration of human dignity and the gift of life.
And Dan Hitchens writes:
In September 1988, just five months before his death, Fr. John Ford, SJ revealed a conversation he had had with Pope Paul VI some time in the 1960s.
The subject was contraception, on which Pope Paul was expected to give a definitive statement. Within the pope’s commission to study the matter, most members had come to doubt that contraception was intrinsically wrong.
But Ford was one of those who defended the Church’s doctrine—both for philosophical reasons and because of the unified force of Catholic teaching on the subject, including Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930).
Hence the question Ford put to Pope Paul: “Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?” The Jesuit described the response: “Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.”
Paul would indeed uphold the traditional doctrine, in Humanae Vitae, issued on July 25, 1968.
As its fiftieth anniversary approaches, we will be hearing a lot about that encyclical’s significance: how it asserted a vital truth, how it ensured that the Church would never be at peace with the sexual revolution, how it predicted with such foresight the breakdown in relations between the sexes.
There is, however, one way to exaggerate the importance of Humanae Vitae. That is to see it as a standalone work of a trailblazing pope.
Sometimes the document is praised as though Paul were Albert Einstein and the encyclical were the paper on special relativity. In fact, Humanae Vitae was magnificently unoriginal.
As that vehement “No!” demonstrates, Paul was holding firmly to what had been given him: through the statements of his immediate predecessors and the consistent judgments of the Vatican’s doctrinal office; further back, through the seventeenth-century Catechism of the Council of Trent, the medieval theologians, the Church Fathers.
Outside the Church, too, Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant world had condemned contraception, if anything, more fiercely than Catholics. Until less than a century ago, it was a commonplace that the use of birth control was in contradiction with following Jesus Christ.
Even that puts it too narrowly: Many non-Christians, including Gandhi and George Orwell, agreed on the immorality of contraception. Even D. H. Lawrence—not exactly a propagandist for old-fashioned sexual ethics—recoiled from the idea.
Pope Paul’s “No!,” then, was two millennia of Christian tradition, and the common sense of humanity, speaking. So it would be a pity if Humanae Vitae were remembered merely as one man’s judgment.
But today popes have been incorporated into celebrity culture, and papal documents are given a kind of veneration usually reserved for the saints. An icon of the Holy Family, for instance, has been with AMORIS LAETITIA written on it, and the same text has been reworked as .
The papacy—notwithstanding the of the popes—is an indispensable gift from God. But to isolate papal statements from Catholic history, and treat them as individual masterpieces, is to
That may be precisely why some people want to keep the focus on Humanae Vitae alone. If the teaching can be reduced to a single statement, it will be easier to attack.
Even easier when it is pointed out—as doctrinal progressives have been pointing out for five decades—that the pope’s own commission, in its Majority Report, disagreed with him.
Perhaps, the progressive will suggest, we should attend to the Report’s reasons, or at least study them more closely. What such study really suggests, however, is that the commission deserves to be forgotten.
For one thing, its half-decade of hesitation itself caused a dramatic loss of confidence in Catholic teaching. As the Australian poet James McAuley observed,
It was during this period that clerical voices were heard discovering that marriage might after all be dissoluble, that abortion might after all be justified, that after all there was a case for homosexuality and masturbation, and that, at least in North America, pre-marital intercourse was all right if it was a nice boy and you loved him. I have not yet heard, but have no doubt that “new insights” in the “ongoing dialogue” of “situation ethics” could plausibly validate connection with animals if we really put our minds to it. There is really no limit to “updating.”
As for the Majority Report itself, it fails to address the for the Church’s teaching. Instead it offers all the theological clichés which, to this day, indicate doctrinal confusion.
The references to “concrete situations” and “extreme” circumstances; the lack of realism about how people make decisions (“Well instructed, and prudently educated as Christians, they will prudently and serenely decide”); the reduction of absolute norms to “values” and “proposals”; the euphemistic talk of the “evolution” of doctrine and of how we must seek a “deeper understanding” of previous teachings—while refusing to quote those same teachings; the dodging of plain right-or-wrong judgments in favor of pompous moralizing against ill-defined mental states such as “egoism”; all this written up in bureaucratese and at an unnecessary length, in which obvious questions are ignored and a multitude of irrelevancies are dragged in.
To these confusions, Pope Paul VI said his “No!” Rarely have so much good sense and integrity been contained in a single syllable.