Today seemed like a good moment to take the long view of 1968, because the continuation of our morality narrative will be shaped by new theory, new practice, and alas, new battle lines. In 2016 several cardinals addressed a public formal letter to Pope Francis—a very unusual thing—demanding a clarification of several of his teachings in his 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia on matters of sexual morality. Public and contentious debate on matters of sexuality have become part of Church life since Humanae Vitae.
Church Authority: Humanae Vitae remains as something of a decisive moment on the “reach” of papal authority into human decision-making. There was no public outcry in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared infallibly that Mary had been assumed, body and soul, into heaven, though there were enough educated Catholic laymen and clerics who knew that the doctrine had no historical basis and a shaky biblical one, and that no other Christian Church held this belief. My sense is that the doctrine was received due to the general devotion to Mary, the limited impact upon daily Catholic life, and a sense that Pius XII, acting within the scope of his power, knew matters best in this regard.
Casti Connubii/Humanae Vitae, by contrast, cut to the heart of marital intimacy and decision-making. Taken in its most technical sense, the Church teaching addresses the kinds of intimate acts that a validly and sacramentally married couple may undertake in their own beds (“that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”—HV, 11). It is hard to gauge the sense of the faithful on such matters in the 1800’s. But in 1968--rightly or wrongly—much of the Catholic community took umbrage at what might be called “overreach.”
Vatican II: Humanae Vitae was issued just three years after the end of the Council. Lumen Gentium, the decree on the Church, had emphasized the governing role of bishops in communion with the pope. The matter of birth control was never given a full episcopal consultation. Historian James Keenan cites three consulters/authors of the HV encyclical—two curial theologians and the Jesuit American moralist Father John Ford. [Ford was a remarkable priest and possibly the best of the U.S. “old school moralists;” his life, especially his involvement with Humanae Vitae, is a captivating story told here. Ford suffered professionally for his contributions to HV.]
Another Conciliar teaching, Gaudium et Spes, had elevated the unitive purposes of marital sexual love to the traditionally held purpose of procreation. GS was authored in part by Father Bernard Haring, who had established a new methodology of moral science through his The Law of Christ (1954). Theologians had very limited time to develop the content of GS and its implications for the theology of marriage prior to the issuing of Humanae Vitae.
In short, both the spirit and the letter of the Council did not seem carry weight in the first “test case,” so to speak, after the Council.
Personal conscience. In its obituary of the controversial Chicago priest-author Andrew Greeley in 2013, The New York Times observed that “[he] identified the controversy surrounding “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 papal encyclical reasserting the church’s condemnation of contraception, as a turning point for the church — a time when attendance at Mass dropped precipitously and Catholics began to question church authority on an ever-growing list of topics.”
I would say that there is much truth to Father Greeley’s observations, which imply that Catholics were increasingly making subjective moral decisions without recourse to established Catholic norms. Humanae Vitae was not the only factor, to be sure. A sizeable portion of Americans in 1968 protested the Viet Nam War on personal moral grounds, suggesting a cultural heightened sense of moral autonomy. Another factor, to be sure, is that the language and reasoning of Humanae Vitae, while quite profound, did not resonate with Western cultural mores, and perhaps led to the sense that “Jerusalem had nothing to say to Athens.” Or is it the other way around? I always mangle that old quote.
The sciences. Vatican II had shown a consistent respect for interdisciplinary scholarship, though in fact the Church had approved such an approach as early as 1943 in biblical scholarship. In rereading Humanae Vitae, one notes a thread of thinking that artificial contraception leads to the breakdown of family life. In 1968 this was a projection. A half-century later, in 2017 there is no research to my knowledge to suggest a cause and effect relationship between contraception and marital stability. If there is such evidence today, it would certainly be publicized in defense of the Church teaching. By contrast, Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on global warming and the condition of the planet, was issued in response to the serious concerns of science and concerned political and civilian leaders around the world.
A new definition of Church loyalty. Humanae Vitae was issued at a time of uncertainty and division. There is not a shred of evidence that Pope Paul VI intended to divide the Church with his teaching, but alas, in the environment of the day, such was the result. A teaching on artificial birth control immediately became a loyalty line in the sand that divided seminaries and rectories, not to mention bishops’ conferences.
To this day, on traditional Catholic blogsites, the term “contraceptive culture” or “contraceptors” (in a pejorative sense) is used to describe those who dissent from the 1968 teaching. Dissenters against HV are presently lumped together with those advocating abortion, same sex marriage, and a wide range of other ecclesiastical ills. What has emerged over the past half century is a public perception of the Catholic Church as a protector of classically defined moral propositions instead of a Gospel-based community of Spirit-filled believers focused upon the works of mercy and the attitudes of the beatitudes.
The summer of 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Grass roots movements are in the works to celebrate the event and call upon Pope Francis to solemnly reiterate the 1968 teaching. The last Gallup Poll on the subject, 2012, indicated that 82% of Catholics believe artificial contraception is permissible or morally acceptable. As one might imagine, the discipline of moral theology itself has had a momentous half-century, which we will return to next week.