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In The Press

Thomas International Center
August 2008


Ralph McInerny





When 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 people.

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.

Humanae Vitae 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 the world.

 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.


Ralph McInerny