It is surely time for an open, direct, and formal renunciation of Humanae Vitae — the 1968 anti-contraception encyclical from Pope Paul VI.
This ill-conceived document has caused enormous harm, not least to papal authority, and been the source of worry, stress, and misery for millions of Catholic couples around the globe.
It’s publication on July 25, 1968, caused widespread disappointment and even dismay, and sparked a huge controversy.
At the time, I wrote that the crisis it created was the greates the Catholic Church had faced since the Reformation in the 16th century.
In retrospect, that was no exaggerated claim, and today — nearly 50 years later — we are still living with the divisions stemming from that encyclical. In the aftermath of its appearance, millions of Catholics stopped going to confession and many others abandoned the Church altogether.
The encyclical was published three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when there was a broadly shared expectation that the ban on artificial methods of contraception would be lifted.
That ban can be traced back to Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian marriage, entitled Casti Connubii and published on December 31, 1930. This was a response to a general conference of the Anglican Church at Lambeth, which had said that contraception could be permitted in special cases.
Pius XI, who was Pope from 1922 to 1939, said “the conjugal act is of its nature designed for the procreation of offspring”, and he ruled that “any use of matrimony whatsoever in the exercise of which the act is deprived, by human interference, of its natural power to procreate life, is an offence against the law of God and of nature”.
Later, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) referred to this pronouncement, and said: “This precept is as valid today as it was yesterday, and it will be the same always, because it does not imply a precept of human law, but is the expression of a law which is natural and divine.”
That was how the doctrine remained until 1963, when Pope John XXIII, who had convened Vatican II, appointed a six-man commission to advise him on the birth control question.
But Pope John died in June of that year before the commission had even met. Nevertheless, a precedent had been set for his successor, Paul VI, and he enlarged the membership so that men and women, married and single, were involved. The enlarged commission included one Irish member, Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel.
Altogether, a total of 72 people (five cardinals, nine bishops, and 56 theologians and lay members) served on the commission, which met in sessions between April 1964 and June 1966.
The commission’s final report was given to Pope Paul VI on June 28, 1966. This was the majority report; a second report, from a small group of members headed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, was also presented to the Pope. This opposed any change, and the group included Archbishop Morris of Cashel.
The majority report, which urged the Pope to change the Church’s teaching on birth control, was widely expected to be adopted by Paul VI and used as the basis of an encyclical by him. That never happened, and it came to be known as “the encyclical that never was” (the title of a brilliant book by Robert Blair Kaiser of Time magazine).
The majority report, recommending change, was never officially published by the Vatican. But copies were leaked. An Irish-born American journalist, Gary MacEoin, played a role in helping to get the document to two journals.
Understandably, it added greatly to the belief among ordinary Catholics that change was on the way. What followed was a period of official silence in Rome. But a lot of lobbying went on behind the scenes. Such signals as came from the papal apartments were ominous: Paul VI had been persuaded that his encyclical would have to fall into line with the teaching of Casti Connubii enunciated by Pope Pius XI in 1930.
The publication of Humanae Vitae in July 1968 came as a great shock to many. The key passage, and the cause of all the trouble, reads: “The Church, calling men back to the observance of the natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”
In other words, artificial intervention to prevent pregnancy was against the natural law. It was always wrong, always sinful. Imagine the consequences of this for a couple over the span of, say, a 30-year or 40-year marriage.
Great numbers of Catholic couples simply ignored the encyclical. “In and through what came to be known as ‘the birth control debate’, many Catholics — possibly an 85% majority — found out that in matters of their own marital morals, the Pope wasn’t in charge. They were,” wrote Kaiser.
But that fact has never resonated with the Vatican. During his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II steadfastly upheld the teaching of Humanae Vitae, as did his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Will it be the same with Pope Francis?
Clifford Longley, contributing editor of The Tablet, is sure the ground is shifting. In a recent column in that journal, he claims to detect in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), published on March 19, a redefinition of natural law.
He links this with an earlier remark by Francis about the zika virus — that intervening to prevent pregnancy could, in such cases, be “the lesser of two evils”. Longley argues that the whole edifice of Paul VI’s encyclical has been undermined: “And now Pope Francis has done precisely that. Almost without meaning to, he has shot Humanae Vitae dead. And I have to say, it will not be missed. The Church will be better without it.”
It remains to be seen if Pope Francis will go further. Something more explicit is called for. And Amoris Laetitia, a document on marriage and the family surely provided the ideal context for a move away from Humanae Vitae; instead the document contains supportive references to Paul VI’s encyclical.
To be sure, an out-an-out renunciation of Humanae Vitae is highly unlikely; that would be too radical a break with the past. What might happen is that we could see a new document, a new encyclical, where the emphasis would be on the evolution of doctrine, with a redefinition of the role of natural law. This is a process described by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria (who was chosen by Pope Francis to introduce Amoris Laetitia to the Vatican press corps) as “the organic development of doctrine”.
The notion of the evolution of doctrine wouldn’t be entirely new. We saw this at the Second Vatican Council from which emerged a new understanding of religious liberty and the role of the individual conscience. The emphasis would be on continuity through progress. Will that happen? Sooner or later, it must.
As Robert Kaiser noted, many Catholics have long since recognised that, when it comes to birth control, the only arbiters of what married couples can — or cannot do — in bed are the couples themselves.