November 11, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: Pope Paul issues ‘Humanae Vitae’

John F. Fink(Sixteenth in a series of columns)

Blessed Paul VI issued the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”) on July 29, 1968. This was an important event, not because the encyclical said something new, but because of what happened after the letter was issued. Both supporters and opponents of the encyclical agree that the theological dissent that exists in the Catholic Church today began with the rejection of “Humanae Vitae” by a large segment of Catholics.

The Catholic Church has always condemned artificial contraception as a method of birth control. By the 1960s, though, various scientific breakthroughs, especially “the pill,” offered women methods of birth control other than barrier methods. Some theologians believed that these methods would be morally permissible.

During the Second Vatican Council’s debate on the document “Gaudium et Spes” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), some bishops asked for reconsideration of the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception. During the discussion on the topic, Pope Paul intervened to remove that item from the agenda. He said that the Commission on Population and Family Life, appointed by St. John XXIII in 1963, would study the issue after the council ended.

Therefore, the document said only this: “In questions of birth regulation, the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law” (#51).

The majority of the members of the commission voted to permit medical methods of birth control—the pill that made a woman temporarily sterile. However, what the commission advised the pope was not made public for a long time. During the delay before Pope Paul made his decision, many theologians advised Catholics that the Church position would be changed, and many Catholics acted accordingly.

The encyclical, however, when it finally was released, did not change the Church’s teaching. It said that every act of sexual intercourse must remain open to the transmission of life, and forbade any act that would render either a man or woman sterile, either temporarily or permanently.

The reaction the encyclical received was unprecedented in the Church. Theologians dissented openly, and priests began advising husbands and wives to use their own judgment in matters of birth control. Today, polls indicate that most Catholics ignore the ban on contraception.

The decades following the promulgation of “Humanae Vitae” were marked by bitter disagreements among theologians, some faithfully upholding the pope’s decision and others entirely rejecting it. Soon, dissent from traditional Catholic teachings became commonplace.

It spread from the issue of contraception to the Church’s teachings on premarital sex, homosexual acts, and other matters having to do with sex. Eventually, even those who are pro-choice on abortion have come to consider themselves faithful Catholics.

Eventually the expression “cafeteria Catholic” entered the lexicon, meaning a Catholic who chooses only those teachings of the Church that he or she wishes to accept. “Humanae Vitae” put the authority of the pope in crisis.

Pope Paul clearly did not expect this reaction. Although he lived another 10 years, he never again wrote another encyclical. †

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