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The Deacon's Bench

The popular press is beginning to notice a not-too-insignificant anniversary this year: the 40th of Humanae Vitae. The Religion News Service takes note here:

Asked about her church’s ban on artificial birth control, Emily Kunkel inhales deeply and pauses.

“It’s hard because the church has had this stance for so many years, there’s so much tradition behind it,” she says. “But I think in certain circumstances condoms should be used.”

Kunkel, a 20-year-old sophomore at Ohio State University, is a cradle Roman Catholic and a graduate of church schools. She regularly attends Mass on campus and in general agrees with her church on birth control — it shouldn’t be widely practiced, she says. But some dilemmas, such as the spread of AIDS in Africa, call for a more “situational” approach, she says.

“It’s not really helping the whole AIDS epidemic if condoms aren’t used,” Kunkel says.

When Pope Benedict XVI touches down in the United States next month (April 15-20), he’ll see a church in which Kunkel’s ambivalence toward Catholic sexual ethics is widely shared, particularly among the youth.

Sixty-one percent of Catholics insist that individuals should have the final say on contraception; 75 percent say it’s possible to be a good Catholic while disobeying church teachings on the matter, according to recent surveys. Forty years after Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae” and upheld the ban on artificial birth control, the encyclical continues to be a flashpoint in the church. Nearly all Catholics agree that Humanae Vitae’s effects are pervasive and enduring.

From there, opinions diverge.

Did Paul VI accurately predict the dangers of separating procreation and sex? Or did he crack open a culture of dissent that has since seeped into every corner of Catholic life?

“The document was exceedingly important in the development of American Catholicism,” said R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame. “It was the first time in the history of the modern church that a papal teaching had been openly defied in such a widespread fashion.”

At a recent conference marking Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary in Skokie, Ill., Cardinal Francis George of Chicago candidly addressed the encyclical’s tangled legacy.

“It was the occasion for a direct conflict between many people’s experience as they expressed it and the authority of the church,” said George,president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We have then the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church, with consequences we still live with.”

Among Humanae Vitae’s consequences, depending on whom you ask, are dwindling Mass attendance, a callousness toward sin, and polarized pews full of “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Others, meanwhile, say Humanae Vitae — or reaction to it — is partly responsible for the dearth of young men entering the priesthood, weakened bishops and the clergy sex abuse scandal.

In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially lift the ban on artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.

The uproar was immediate. In the U.S., 600 Catholic scholars issued a statement insisting that families, not the church, should be the final arbiter on contraception. Nineteen priests in Washington publicly defied their archbishop and criticized Humanae Vitae.

Dissent spread well beyond scholars and clergy. In fact, historians say Humanae Vitae sparked the most widespread public opposition to a papal teaching in centuries.

“American Catholics decided in their own consciences that the use of birth control was not sinful,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, an author and associate editor at America, a Jesuit weekly. The laity began to pick and choose which teachings to follow, leading to the rise of so-called “cafeteria Catholics,” he said.

“This is when the door to the cafeteria opened.”

There’s much more at the link, and well worth reading and debating.

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