(In light of the current assault on religious liberty)
I was in elementary school in those days, but I remember the late 1960s as an incredibly turbulent time. Not only because of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but also because of the paradigm shift in our culture that took place during those years. Many women (including some Catholic women) wanted sexual and economic equality and to be freed from traditional roles as housewife and mothers. College students grew their hair, protested the war and sang the praises of love, sex and rock ‘n roll. As Bob Dylan wrote, “times – they are a changin’.”
In a very enlightening interview by Raymond Arroyo with Ralph McInerny, a noted Notre Dame Philosopher, in 1999 one can get some additional perspective that is valuable when discussing Humanae Vitae. Dr. McInerny painted a very clear picture of the times leading up to Humanae Vitae that would be well worth your time hearing, through the link provided below. The issue of the licit or illicit use of the pill was already swirling when Pope John XXIII called Vatican II.
Originally, the issue of this emerging science regarding the estrogen pill was to be included in the Council discussions, however, it was moved off the agenda and Pope Paul VI decided to expand the study of the issue with an enlarged commission appointed to look at all the scientific and theological issues after the council had done its work.
During the time the commission was discussing the issues, there was considerable expectation exuding in the air (coming primarily from Catholic theologians in universities and seminaries) that the Pope was going to allow the use of the estrogen pill for family planning among married Catholic couples. This expectation was taught in universities and trickled down to parishes and schools throughout the country. Who knows how many women began using the pill with tacit approval from their local parish priest as a result of the “expectation” this change was going to occur. These circumstances combined with the incredible cultural shift occurring in the country created the firestorm that followed Humanae Vitae’s publication.
When Humanae Vitae was released, many theologians were disappointed and some were insolent. Some dissident theologians such as Hans Kung and Charles Curran were eventually stripped of their faculties to teach in Catholic settings over their continuing dissent on Humanae Vitae and other moral teachings.
There was so much outrage in the theological community that Fr. Karl Rahner, a noted, but at times heterodox German theologian himself, suggested that theologians had established a second magisterium because criticism of the Pope had become almost the norm. When confronted about how the average Catholic should be able to tell who was right between the theological magisterium and the traditional Church magisterium, Rahner suggested that history would decide who was right.
And, history has proven Pope Paul VI was right – in a sadly profound way. The events of the last 43 years prove his fears, his reasoning and should leave no doubt to faithful Catholics that the Vicar of Christ truly is guided by the Holy Spirit when speaking to the universal Church on matters of faith and morals.
With the current scandal of President Obama attempting to force Catholic and other religious institutions to purchase insurance policies (or, as it is currently constructed in a meaningless “compromise”, force insurance companies that issue policies for Catholic institutions to provide free abortifacient and contraceptive medications). Since most Catholics have never read HV and are just now beginning to understand how much of the camel has made its way into the tent, I thought it would be a good time to discuss what Pope Paul actually said in HV and why it is so important today.
On a personal note, I left the church for many years due in large part to my ignorance of church teaching on issues like birth control, priestly celibacy, etc. When I felt that tug from the Holy Spirit to return, one of the first things I set out to do was learn the “why’s” to what the Church teaches. I know I am not alone in saying that many, if not most, Catholics who were raised in the faith on the heels of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, got – let’s say – ‘muddled’ catechesis as youth. We received a lot of ‘what’ the church teaches (prayers, liturgy, creed, Bible?), but little in “why” the Church teaches what it does.
Reading Humanae Vitae was one of the reasons I returned to the Church. I understood the simple and undeniable truth in the text as I read it. I learned more about the “why” in Church teaching on the issue of birth control in this document and I felt ashamed for living in willful ignorance for so many years. The following provides just a glimpse of what Humanae Vitae exposed. I hope everyone will take the time to actually read this relatively short and well written encyclical.
In the 1960s, on top of all the turmoil with war, assassinations, drugs, sexual liberation and religious indifferentism, the Church faced enormous pressure to revisit Church teaching on birth control and family planning in light of the looming world population boom. Predictions for the doom of the earth were rampant and for the sake of the world, the Pope had to free Catholic couples to a better means of regulating family size, so went the story line. Pope Paul acknowledged these concerns early in the encyclical:
The changes that have taken place are of considerable importance and varied in nature. In the first place there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequence that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships. This can easily induce public authorities to be tempted to take even harsher measures to avert this danger. There is also the fact that not only working and housing conditions but the greater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family.
He also stressed the nature of marriage in harmony with natural law. Marriage has a unitive and procreative purpose. It is this reality in natural law that gives rise to the reason that marriage has always been given a special place in society: it perpetuates our species and creates a morale framework that helps to ensure the success of future generations. Humanae Vitae was written not only to explain why it is wrong to thwart either the unitive or procreative nature of marriage, but he made the connection on why doing so would lead to unintended and disastrous consequences.
He expressed deep concern for the impact artificial birth control would have on man’s respect for women when the sexual act becomes nothing more than a means to sexual gratification. He was concerned about the breakdown in morality, the breakdown of marriage as an institution, and oh, yes, he predicted that public authorities would eventually get involved and inject immoral principles into public policy. Please take the time to read the following from paragraph 17 and remember that these words were written well over 40 years ago, even before the notorious Roe v. Wade decision:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty?
Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
From China’s ‘one child’ policy to the 52 million procured abortions since Roe v Wade in the United States, there are no truer words. We see the manifestation of Pope Paul’s fear every day in the news. The greatest sadness is that the name “catholic” is used as an adjective in front of the names of many politicians who are pushing these policies.
I will continue to pray for all Catholics and others who don’t understand and accept the intrinsic evil of abortion and immoral sexual practices that undermine the family, our culture and eventually, our country. I will also pray for all Bishops as they lead Catholics in the fight to right the terrible wrongs. Current events remind me of quote I recently read from Francis Cardinal George, who stated in 2010,
“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square”.
We should all pray that Cardinal George’s fear is not realized.
Maybe one step in the right direction will be to start seeing the adjective “excommunicated catholic” as a proper description for those politicians and public officials who manifestly defy Church doctrine, provide formal cooperation to intrinsic evil and create scandal by their words and deeds.