In the summer of 1968, I had just completed my sophomore year at St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, and was looking forward to my junior year, that much closer to the priesthood. St. John’s, in those years, was anything but a bastion of forward thinking in the post-Vatican II Church. Cardinal McIntyre reigned with an iron fist and was slow to implement the Decrees of the recently completed Council. St. John’s which Time magazine referred to as ‘the jewel in McIntyre’s miter’ kept a close watch on any ‘liberal’ tendencies among its seminarians. In fact, I had to sneak in copies of the National Catholic Reporter, since it was considered ‘contraband!’
Knowing that an eventual decision was forthcoming on the hotly debated question of ‘Birth control,’ the NCR won the journalistic scoop of the century by publishing in its entirety, the confidential ‘majority’ report of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission, originally established by Pope John XXIII and later expanded by Pope Paul VI, to study the controverted question. The conclusion was a clear majority of the commission members ( 64 of the 69 members) supporting a change in the received teaching.
It was for that reason that the issuance of the Encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae by Paul VI in the summer of 1968, created an ecclesial earthquake whose continuing effects are felt to this day. As many of you know, the Encyclical letter, while expressing an exquisitely beautiful reflection on the intimate connection between love and procreation in the unitive expression of the commitment in marriage, unambiguously upheld the teaching that the use of artificial contraceptives was intrinsece inhonestum (article 14). I quote specifically from the Latin text, not to show off the fact that I’m of an age when Latin was still taught to seminarians, but to underscore the fact that nowhere in the Encyclical was the specific moral conclusion drawn that each and every act of contraceptive intercourse was a ‘mortal sin.’ The Encyclical utilized carefully nuanced philosophical and theological language to make the fine moral distinction of the intrinsic ‘dishonesty’ of the contraceptive act, since it frustrated the possibility of an essential natural element of the sexual act to be realized, the potential for new life. This Latin phrase is more commonly mistranslated in English as ‘intrinsically evil,’ while the English translation of the Encyclical on the Vatican website translates it simply as, “intrinsically wrong,” a translation much closer to the Latin original.
There was an immediate reaction throughout the world by the various tribal camps anticipating a change in the teaching and those who championed the triumph of orthodoxy. In his wisdom, or perhaps, naivete, Paul VI, invited Episcopal Conferences of Bishops throughout the world to offer their ‘responses’ to the Encyclical letter and his teaching. What initially was thought to be a way of supporting the original thrust of the papal teaching, ended in mudding the waters. Thanks to the magisterial work of Dr. Joseph Selling of the University of Louvain, and later in my life, my professor during my post-graduate years at the University, three distinctive perspectives surfaced from these Episcopal responses: (1) Those that concurred and affirmed the teaching, (2) Those that clearly mitigated the moral conclusions of the teaching, (3) Those that went beyond the letter of the teaching in rigidity.
At the Vatican press conference that introduced the Encyclical to the world, the Vatican spokesperson interestingly made clear that we were dealing with ‘ordinary magisterial teaching’ and not an ‘infallible’ pronouncement. A distinction that would later be strongly contested by a vocal yet minority contingent of moral theologians.
The reaction was almost immediate and ushered into the Catholic vocabulary of the time, the rarely heard phrase, ‘dissent’ from ordinary magisterial teaching. The most famous of the dissenters was Fr. Charles Curran who at the time was professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America. He was part of a group of 87 theologians who authored a dissenting response to the Encyclical letter. He was subsequently sanctioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and officially stripped of his mandate to teach as a Catholic theologian.
The fall-out, though diminished greatly in these latter years, has continued to this day. The famous (infamous) priest sociologist, the late Fr. Andrew Greeley of Chicago, unabashedly stated that Humanae Vitaebegan the dismantling of the Church’s credibility in the areas of sexual morality spelling the dramatic exodus in Catholics from the Church, leading to one of the largest ‘denominational’ demographics in the United States, the ‘I used to be Catholic!’
The teaching has been consistently reiterated by subsequent Popes, most eloquently by Pope St. John Paul II in his many writings, allocutions and official pronouncements. Functionally, though, as any confessor would admit, the teaching, in many respects, has not been ‘received’ by the vast majority of Catholic couples and their use of artificial means to regulate conception is statistically no different than non-Catholics. While this has become for some, the litmus test for orthodoxy, most wise and pastorally minded confessors are careful not to let this issue become a pretext for one ‘to leave the church’ as they compassionately accompany couples in discerning how best they might exercise responsible parenthood in the light of church teaching and their conscience.
As always, Bishop Robert Barron, offers his own wise and insightful reflections on this 50th anniversary of the issuance of the Encyclical. He specifically points to the ‘prophetic’ nature of this teaching as reflected in article #17 of the document. I heartily recommend a listen to this short video.