Pope Paul VI issued his long awaited encyclical Humanae
Vitae in late July of 1968, the response was unprecedented
in the history of the Church. Within hours, it seemed, a
full page ad appeared in the New York Times containing the
names of some 68 'theologians' who rejected the encyclical
and declared their defiance of it. One monsignor tore the
red piping from his cassock to signal his disagreement with
the pope. An auxiliary bishop ran off with a thrice divorced
woman and explained his action, at least in part, as due
to anguish over the effect of Humanae Vitae on young
This reaction cannot be understood without taking into account
the long delay. Vatican II ran from 1963 to 1965. John XXIII
removed consideration of whether the Pill was contraceptive
from the floor and named a committee to advise him on the
matter. When John died after the first session and Paul
succeeded, the new pope expanded the committee. More than
five years had gone by when Humanae Vitae appeared
and, in the interval, the assumption became widespread that
the prohibition of artificial contraception would be set
aside. There were rumors; there were leaks to the press
from the committee; pastors began to act as if in the near
future what had long been considered a serious sin would
become licit. It was this expectation that was dashed in
July 1968. Hence the intensity of the negative reaction.
is one of the most important documents of the conciliar era.
Read in conjunction with the relevant paragraphs of Gaudium
et Spes, it provides a remarkable statement on the true
nature of marriage. The key point is that the unitive and
procreative meanings of the marital act cannot be separated.
The one argument against it that Paul VI considered is that
based on 'the principle of totality.' That argument had it
that, if a marriage was fruitful and there were children,
then the fact that many, perhaps most, of the marital acts
of a couple were contraceptive, was unimportant. The argument
begs the question of the licitness of contraceptive sex. Pius
VI gently but firmly demolished the principle of totality.
Evil may not be done in order that some putative good may
be realized. Proponents of the change in doctrine were shocked
to read that the severance of the two meanings of the marital
act would establish a principle that would justify extramarital
sed, masturbation, homosexuality, and a host of other practices.
The long sad history since Humanae Vitae has proved
how prescient Paul VI was.
The flood of dissenting theology within the Church that rejected
the Magisterium disheartened Paul VI. He became a melancholy
figure, a broken man. Not even the cheering crowds he saw
weekly in St. Peter's Square relieved his anguish. Issued
at the time it was, Humanae Vitae amounted to an heroic
act. If ever there was an instance where the governance of
the Holy Spirit was manifest it was then. The Church, like
Jesus himself, is a sign of contradiction to the spirit of
In the wake of Humanae Vitae, the revolt of theologians
defined the next forty years. Theologians came to consider
themselves a rival Magisterium and, before long, they were
indeed justifying the moral aberrations Paul VI predicted
they would. It is a sad history. But it is also a noble one.
Throughout the storm, the Magisterium - the only one there
is - held firm, document after document asserted and defended
the fundamental point underlying Humanae Vitae. Advances
in Natural Family Planning were ignored by dissenting theologians
who might have seen these advances as rendering the matter
moot. This led to the sad phenomenon of Catholics redefining
what Catholicism is. Generations of Catholics have been taught
to ignore the 'official' position on sexual morality.
Now a new generation of moral theologians is beginning to
see the wisdom of Paul VI and the traditional doctrine. Dissent
is on the wane. But it will be a long time before many of
the laity embrace in their lives the sound doctrine of the
Church. That doctrine is there for anyone to read in Humanae
Vitae. God bless Paul VI. May he rest in peace.