Today is the 40th anniversary of the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the prescient yet controversial encyclical that upheld the consistent teaching of the Church against the use of artificial birth control.
The durable dissenter, Fr. Richard McBrien, uses the occasion of this anniversary to loudly proclaim that he was right in his dissent 40 years ago and the fact that the encyclical is widely ignored by couples of child bearing age is proof the “not infallible” document was wrong.
A Vatican official, Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini, made clear upon release of the encyclical that the teaching was not infallible, and he invited theologians and other specialists in the Church to discuss and debate it.
In a column published immediately after that press conference, I wrote that “it is precisely in proclaiming the Gospel that the Pope fulfills his role as chief shepherd and holy father. If the proclamation is genuinely evangelical, the Holy Spirit will see to the echo throughout the whole Church; if it is not, [the Holy Spirit] will see to the static” (Aug. 9, 1968).
“On the birth control issue,” the column pointed out, “the Pope’s present position does not seem to reflect the consensus of the Church, and static fills the air. The encyclical is at odds with the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of the Pope’s own commission of experts, the public resolutions of the Third World Lay Congress in Rome, the majority of Catholic moral theologians, the consciences of many Catholic married couples, and the pastoral and theological judgments of the large majority of non-Catholic Christian churches which participate in the life of the Body of Christ and in his Spirit.”
“If the teaching of Humanae Vitae is faithful to the authentic tradition of the Gospel,” the column continued, “it will eventually produce a consensus of approval throughout the whole Church. If not, it will take its place with past authoritative statements on religious liberty, interest-taking, the right to silence, and the ends of marriage.”
So the dissidents didn’t get behind it and priests did not preach it from the pulpit so therefore in fostering ignorance, they prevented a consensus and that is his proof positive that Pope Paul VI was wrong. [By the way, how tacky is quoting yourself?]
While it is certainly true that this teaching has largely been ignored, that does not make it untrue. There are many teachings of Jesus and his Church that are widely ignored, but no less true as a result.
In my mind, Humanae Vitae represents the clearest possible proof that the Holy Spirit is still active protecting the Church from teaching error. In the face of incredible pressure from every corner, this Pope who had bent in so many other areas, would not yield on this critical point. The encyclical has shown itself to be very prescient in what it detailed as the consequences of a contraceptive culture. Again, the Holy Spirit at work. I am so grateful to God and to Pope Paul VI for upholding this truth. McBrien wonders whether after 40 years of widespread ignorance and ignoring “Is the situation any different today, on the fortieth anniversary?”
Well, yes. I think that 40 years has given us some perspective on the truth and also on where we would be if that truth had been in favor of expediency. As it would happen, this anniversary falls at the same time that the Anglicans are pulling themselves apart at Lambeth. What does this have to do with contraception? A lot.
The Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D. reminds us about how the Anglicans once upheld this consistent teaching only to jettison it when things got tough. This was one of the first truth’s to shown the door by the Anglicans, but certainly not the last.
In modern times, society’s gradual acceptance of artificial birth control, which strikes at the heart of marriage and the family, may be illustrated by a look to the Anglican Communion. In 1908, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops spoke of artificial birth control as “demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare” (Resolution 41; cf. nos. 42 and 43). In 1930, Lambeth allowed for the use of artificial birth control, with such use guided by “Christian principles” (Resolution 15; cf. nos. 13 and 17), but Lambeth recognized that contraceptives were likely to cause increased fornication, so it recommended that sales thereof be restricted (Resolution 18).
And in 1959, Lambeth proclaimed that parents had the right and responsibility to decide on the number of their children, with “a wise stewardship of the resources and abilities of the family as well as a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations” (Resolution 115, cf. no. 113).
In other words, Lambeth went from forbidding artificial birth control to practically recommending it. Mutatis mutandis, society in general was of the same mind. In their respective historical circumstances, Pius and Paul were quick to reiterate the unchanging truth about marriage and the family.
The Anglican crisis is a very clear example of what happens when truth is jettisoned by popular demand. I feel very blessed that I belong to a Church where opposition to the prohibition on artificial birth control is still considered dissent. May it always stay that way.