It occurred to me today that unlike other forms of literature a blog is always a work in progress, leaving the author with “second chances” to elaborate, clarify, or even repudiate earlier material. If only for that reason I would like to be granted a longer life to return to this stream on the Catholic Church and morality. Per my impeccable notes attached to the computer screen, I am scheduled to write today about Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), a pivotal moment in moral teaching and practice issued three years after the close of Vatican II. It is surprising to me today that matters of contraception are still pastoral battlegrounds, as is evident from nearly every independent Catholic blog site. Even the discussion page of Wikipedia remains heated on the subject, though I don’t think a loyal supporter of Pope Paul intended to type “the barrier method is condomned as contrary to nature.” [sic]
I had received the religious habit exactly one month before the day the encyclical was made public; I heard about it on the CBS Evening News, one of the few programs we were permitted to watch in the rigorous agenda of the novitiate year. Personally, I thought the Church would divide over the teaching, as I had just finished reading John Noonan’s 1965 epic Contraception. I said as much to my superior, who took a more benign approach to the matter. Cardinal Cushing in Boston, probably America’s most visible churchman at the time, told the press that Pope Paul’s teaching was the final word: “Roma locuta, causa finita.” [The historian in me cannot pass over the fact that 1968 was a very hard year for the Cardinal: in June, he officiated at the funeral Mass of the assassinated Robert Kennedy, and in October he tendered his resignation to the pope after his public support of Jacqueline Kennedy, who married the divorced Aristotle Onassis.]
The full text of Humanae Vitae is linked above. Pope Paul explains the circumstances that inspired the writing of the encyclical and the advisors with whom he had consulted, including the special commission established by John XXIII and enlarged by Paul himself to include married couples. An interesting omission among his advisors is the collective wisdom of the assembly of bishops at Vatican II just a few years before, and an equally intriguing inclusion is the nearly 50% of footnotes to earlier papal pronouncements. Subsequent histories of this episode have suggested that Pope Paul did not wish to imply in any way that previous popes have been in error, fearing that he would damage the credibility of the Successor of Peter to teach the Faith without error. [If you recall Xavier Rynne's description of Vatican II of about a year ago, he reported that Pope Paul had removed the question of contraception from discussion on the floor of the Council, reserving the decision to himself.]
Humanae Vitae may have been the most tortuous decision that any pope has had to make in this century, maybe even harder than Pope John’s decision in 1959 to invoke a Council. For all of Pope John’s courage in opening the door to change, his was a general call to constructive change. Paul VI, by contrast, was the first pope to issue a concrete solemn Church teaching after the Council, and to do so under pressure of numerous conflicting factions, within the Church to be sure, but also in the face of a growing secular culture in the West where organized religion in general was falling under much scrutiny.
Compared to the standard genre of Roman documents, Humanae Vitae itself is a readable homily on the transmission of human life. There are portions of the text that create a devout and respectful atmosphere around the conjugal married life. The pope goes out of his way to console couples who might find his teaching too much to bear, a segment that has been widely interpreted as a recommendation to troubled Catholics to take their difficulties to the confessional for personal conscience determination. But in the final analysis, Pope Paul asserts that he cannot deviate from the timeless natural law of God…” excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or a means.” (para. 17)
I will treat of the immediate reactions throughout the Church in the next Monday installment. For this moment, I will describe the professional theologians’ dilemma. Pope Paul, in his appeal to the natural law of God (or God’s eternal ordering of the universe by purpose, law, and function), had not brought to bear Vatican II’s teaching in Gaudium et Spes (or Bernard Haring’s moral structure, for that matter), that the ends of marriage, including its sexual dimension, are joint—procreative and unitive—as a now well-established principle of sacramental marriage. Nor had there been much discussion in the encyclical of an interdisciplinary nature to moral determinations, as Vatican II’s Optatam Totius had recommended for seminarians as a basic principle of their formation and work.
With no irreverence intended on my part, the encyclical did come down to the arguments that the Church has always taught in this fashion on contraception, and God’s plan for nature underwrites this course of action, i.e., the prohibition. This put revisionist Catholic theologians in a bit of a bind, for it was true that in some form there had always been an awareness of contraception as an issue dating almost to Apostolic times. In an unusual twist to Catholic academics, the best friend of loyal dissenters proved to be a non-theologian. Theologians, even today, are sometimes accused of tallying the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin (a venerable late-Medieval parody.) A cogent counter-argument for a change in the contraception teaching would have to come from a different discipline—law.
John T. Noonan, Jr. has had a remarkable life. In his later years, he served with distinction in the U.S. Court of Appeals. As a young man in 1960 he joined the faculty of the Notre Dame Law School, and in 1965 he wrote a comprehensive study entitled Contraception, which reviewed the entire history of the Church’s treatment of the subject from the earliest days. Noonan had no axe to grind. He undertook the study before Humanae Vitae as a contribution to the private and public debate about the controversy. Pope Paul VI was impressed enough to invite Noonan to serve on the confidential commission studying the birth control question
I read this book during novitiate, and I came away with the impression that Noonan supported Humanae Vitae’s direction. What I failed to grasp in my youthful reading was the incredible complexity of the history of the question, from St. Augustine’s deep suspicions of carnal pleasure as a value in the fifth century to St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s desire to extend compassion and confessional latitude in the eighteenth century. The sheer complexity of Noonan’s study bore witness to the probability that in truth Pope Paul’s depiction of the teaching as a straight line from creation was at the least a significant oversimplification that might eventually create more contention than presently existed in 1968.
As this stream unfolds, we will look at ways in which four succeeding popes addressed Humanae Vitae in their public teachings. Next week I will address the immediate impact of the teaching on my little corner of the Church—which in 1969 and beyond then happened to be Ground Zero, the Campus of the Catholic University of America.