Monday, May 14, 2012

Everything I Didn't Want to Know About Humanae Vitae

Ah…Humanae Vitae.  In 1968, Pope Paul VI confirmed the Church’s age old teaching that artificial contraception is still a grave sin. But it seems that a very large percentage of Catholics think they’re exempt from that prohibition. Sigh. Let’s not quibble over the percent. We all know it’s “a lot”. Why don’t more people follow this teaching? What went wrong with HV?

In 2002, John Galvin wrote an article for Latin Mass magazine entitled “Humanae Vitae: Heroic, Deficient – or Both?Latin Mass, noting the seriousness of the discussion, included rebuttals by two defenders of HV; nevertheless, both the magazine and Galvin were taken to task for the problems noted in the article, with even the Wanderer going on the attack. (John Galvin has also written on the same topic here; both articles are well worth reading.)

I didn’t really become aware of the contraception controversy in the Church until after I had become Catholic; but when I did become aware of it, I read HV and found it interesting and compelling. I was struck, as are most people, I guess, by those prophetic statements made by Paul VI about the moral collapses we could expect, and which are coming truer and truer every day. I knew there was a “commission” that assisted the Pope in examining the issue, and I’d heard that there was a “majority” vote in favor of allowing contraception; I didn’t know there were actual written statements for the majority and minority opinions. They too are worth reading.

As I reflect on the contraceptive mentality of our society today – including the vast majority of Catholics, and don’t even try to tell me that’s not true – I wonder along with John Galvin whether HV helped or hindered the Catholic understanding of fruitful marriage, generous (rather than “responsible”) parenthood, and chastity. Galvin makes the point that Humanae Vitae basically uses all the reasoning of the Majority Report of the Papal Commission to come to the conclusion of the Minority Report

In other words, the centuries-old teaching of the Church against contraception was upheld, but with “new” reasons for a “new” age.  The classic arguments from traditional moral teaching, natural law, and Scripture, as well as recent definitive encyclicals, such as Casti Connubii, were barely mentioned, and when they were, new concepts were introduced to dilute the effects: “responsible parenthood”, “regulation of conception” through “human and decent means”, and “fecundity in the totality of married life”.

Similarly, Anne Roche Muggeridge (in her 1986 book, The Desolate City) puts it this way (my emphases):

Then in April 1964, [theologian] Bernard Haring addressed the commission and persuaded it to drop the whole argument from the natural law upon which the Church’s teaching on contraception was largely based…From that time, the emphasis in the commission’s discussion of marriage shifted from the objective, social, and eternal dimensions of marriage to the subjective, personal, and temporal. (p.79)

So the old teaching was held up using a new argument, but this argument was so weak, Galvin points out, that it didn’t convince the bishops or the laity of the immorality of contraception.

Combine that with the fact that well before HV was released, theologians, clergy, and the media were anticipating a change in the teaching. Liberal forces were at work from the beginning of Vatican II, and the work toward undermining the Church’s prohibition of contraception was at work even there; some theologians tried to introduce the contraception issue into the Council proceedings, but ultimately Pope Paul VI reserved it for his own decision.  

Anne Muggeridge documents the aftermath of the release of HV: the open dissent of theologians and priests, and the failure of the bishops to effectively quell the uprising in the US; and she details the dissenting Winnipeg statement of the bishops in Canada.

In other words, it seems that HV was doomed before it hit the presses. The liberal forces had already gathered; they were ready for a change in the teaching, and when it didn’t materialize, they stood against HV. The groundwork had already been laid by dissident theologians, priests, and bishops; the laity was led further into temptation by the bad example of their shepherds. And no correction from Rome was forthcoming.
Of course many who still argue for permitting contraception suggest that since so many have dissented from HV and since Catholics now use contraception in such high numbers, the teaching must be wrong – a sensus fidei response which doesn’t quite hold water, according to Galvin (my emphases):

How then do we explain such an abject failure of the teaching authority of the Church? For three decades liberals have claimed that the low acceptance rate of the encyclical indicates that it must be wrong. These dissidents have no difficulty establishing a prima facie case: "How could a teaching of the Church be so utterly rejected if it is indeed true?" But this argument is self-referential: "The teaching is false because I reject it, and I reject the teaching because it is false."

As a further indication that it’s not sensus fidei at work here, Galvin notes that there is

… a massive amount of evidence concerning the lethal effects of contraception, spiritually as well as physically. Everyone has seen statistics describing the skyrocketing incidence of pornography, masturbation, fornication, adultery, divorce, homosexuality and abortion since 1968. These "leading cultural indicators" demonstrate that the much touted "sensus fidei" may be nothing more than mass apostasy.

Now, having discovered all of this information about the politics and power-plays surrounding Vatican II and the Papal Commission of HV, I’m a little dismayed. I suppose it was pretty naïve of me to think that the men involved in the Council and the Papal Commission were all scrupulous seekers of the Truth and Defenders of the Faith! Sigh. 

Well, at least it all makes more sense to me now…sadly.

For instance, now I see that it makes perfect sense that so little has been heard from the pulpit about the evil of contraception over the last 50 years – any priest courageous enough to discuss it was quite likely to be shot down by his brother priests and his bishop. 

Now I see that it makes perfect sense that so many Catholics have chosen to use artificial contraception – their shepherds either condoned it or remained silent on the issue. 

Now I see that it makes perfect sense that contraception became a topic that Must Never Be Mentioned.

But then came the HSS mandate, and contraception not only was mentioned, it was dragged out of the closet and aired with great skill by Obama and his “Kathlic” cohorts. And instead of defending the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the bishops have chosen to fight on the grounds of “religious freedom”. I suppose that’s wise, because I think they’d lose most of the faithful if they reverted to teaching the truth about contraception! (Either way, I am glad they are fighting!)

What doesn’t make perfect sense is the fact that all these Catholics who are using artificial contraception are committing a grave sin, and no one is trying to convince them of that fact. The shepherds of souls are not shepherding; they are watching their flock wander off and fall over a cliff.

Galvin is right: the reasoning employed to defend the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception are not convincing. The “old” arguments upheld tradition and our Catholic identity; they drew on the natural law and on the body of Catholic moral teaching; they showed the continuity of the Truth. Without that kind of sound, firmly-rooted Catholic teaching, HV has become an empty threat. “Sure, yeah, contraception is wrong, but there’s no really good reason for that, and times have changed. So even if the Church says it’s wrong, we can still do it, and our priests will understand. Wink, wink.”

It’s going to take a lot to turn the faithful around on this issue. It’s got to start with priests preaching the Truth and talking to the people about it. That means the priests need some re-training – because HV isn’t going to cut it for the purpose of re-education.  And that means the bishops have to get the picture in focus, too.

They could start with the Minority Report, which does use traditional reasoning. And they might take another look at Casti Connubiis.

In the end, it seems to me that contraception is about sex, not marriage. And marriage is really about love, not sex.

That seems to be something we, as Catholics, have forgotten; I think it’s time to start remembering. A proper understanding of marriage – and some fearless teaching about it – would go a long way toward reversing the desire to limit family size, which would go a long way toward making contraception less of an issue…which would probably go a long way toward increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We’ve got a long way to go.

To be continued…


  1. The problem with Humanae Vitae was that it was issued at the precise wrong time in history.

    Traditional moral teaching, Natural Law, and Scripture were simply not going to hold water by 1968. Theologians and the laity were looking for more than ipse dixit "because we say so" and "because we've always done it that way". The new arguments were weak, but I doubt the old arguments would have worked either. They were still around and still didn't help.

    This may seem odd, but the birth control pill was a contraceptive that was heavily marketed to Catholics. Dr. John Rock was a devout Catholic who was sure the Church would change its policy. The idea was that it was not immoral because the hormones were mimicking a natural state. This is why pills have the "fake period", even though there is no medical reason for it--it was a marketing ploy to convince women, especially Catholics that it was natural. Many Catholics were shocked that the Pope thought otherwise. Pre-Vatican II Catholics may have known "the rules", but very few understood the reasoning behind them.

    After over 50 years, science now knows that the Pill is anything but natural and is indeed quite detrimental to women's health. Of course, it is still heavily marketed, but today we have the science to back the position that Pope Paul VI did not.

    Also, in 1968, there were no good Catholic alternatives to the pill. There were plenty of Catholic couples who did have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, but the old Rhythm Method was of little help to them. Many in 1968 found that the Church's insistence on limiting couples to this ineffective option was cruel.

    What the world did not know was that at that very moment Dr. Konald Prem, Dr. Gerhard Doering, Drs. John and Lyn Billings and others were doing the research that would form the basis for modern NFP. Only a few years later, Catholics would have a method of avoiding pregnancy that was as effective as immoral means. Indeed, much of the current dissent on Humanae Vitae is stuck in the early 1960s and is completely ignorant of modern methods of NFP.

    Finally, the "new" argument has been fleshed out by the work of John Paul II. The Catholic Church now has a strong positive message of human sexuality and not just a series of "thou shalt nots".

    In 1968, Humanae Vitae was seen as arbitrary, cruel, and authoritarian by not only the secular world, but many in the Church--and for good reason. But time has only strengthened the encyclical and weakened the case against it. Modern science and theology can support Catholic teaching in ways that were not available to Paul VI.


  2. 1. For more precise history of Majority/Minority report, see:

    In 1969, Karol Wojtyla with his colleagues responded to the Majority report with this admirable critical analysis and summary of orthodox teaching of the Catholic church:

    2. "What doesn’t make perfect sense is the fact that all these Catholics who are using artificial contraception are committing a grave sin, and no one is trying to convince them of that fact."

    This simply is not true. See:


    See also the whole TOB movement; the immorality of contraception is always includen in the message.


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