The most remarkable thing about last week’s 40th anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s watershed encyclical upholding the ban on artificial contraception, is how little comment it aroused.
That’s because birth control is at once a major issue and a non-issue. It is a major issue for those in the hierarchy, starting in Rome and extending to many bishops who like to make the topic a signature issue. And for many conservative activists, the rejection of encyclical is an all-too easy scapegoat for all the ills that have ever struck the world since 1968. (For a prime example of this view, see this First Things essay, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” by Mary Eberstadt.) And activists on the other side, namely the “Catholics for Choice” folks, tried to use the anniversary as a flashpoint for debate by publishing a half-page ad in Italian papers calling for the teaching’s reversal, and blaming it (and the church, natch) for overpopulation and AIDS. [See note below]

But for the vast majority of Catholics–practicing or not, orthodox or not–and priests, Humanae Vitae is simply not a pressing concern. Pope Paul’s encyclical was considered so unexpected, and its reasoning so abstract and its teachings so difficult for everyday Catholics to follow that almost everyone at the time, from cardinals to the folks in the pews, simply disregarded it–and they continue to do so. Cardinal John Heenan of Westminster called Humanae Vitae “the greatest shock the Church has suffered since the Reformation” and bishops conferences and church leaders everywhere told Catholics they could in good conscience disregard the enyclical if they had sufficient cause.
(I highly recommend the chapter “Sex and the Female Church” in Peter Steinfels’ book, “A People Adrift” for a discussion of this “dead letter” encyclical and its ongoing effects. See also this excellent Richard McBrien column on the 40th anniversary.)
And it is this gap–this chasm, really–between “official church pronouncements and actual Catholic practice that is the real legacy of Humanae Vitae, and one that continues to hurt the church, no matter where one stands on the issue of birth control. It was not just that the Vatican didn’t “enforce” the encyclical properly, or bishops and priests didn’t toe the line, or the faithful were just rebellious children. It’s that the encyclical’s teaching didn’t make sense for the sensus fidelium–the sense of the faithful.
Indeed, the interlocking issues of authority and power and obedience have proven as problematic for conservatives as they have for liberals. The recently-deceased William F. Buckley, considered by many the Catholic conservative par excellence, disagreed with the Vatican’s stance on birth control (as he did with the pope’s on war and peace, and most social justice issues), and such views continue with today’s conservatice Catholic pundits, like Fox’s Sean Hannity (who was called a “heretic” for his birth control views last year by a well-known pro-life activist, Fr. Tom Eutener).
In fact, one can find an almost daily stream of dissent from self-styled orthodox Catholics on issues ranging from birth control to the death penalty to just war and a host of other social justice issues. Rather than engaging these issues and debating them openly, Catholics of all stripes seem free to make a separate peace, and Rome too often seems trapped in a mode of reflexive reiteration of principles.
The principal comment on the anniversary came in an op-ed by John Allen, National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican expert, and one of the keenest and best-informed expositors of the Vatican’s positions. One disagrees with John at one’s peril, but in his column, “The Pope vs. the Pill,” I see several problems.
One is that John recounts predictions that the teaching would “collapse under its own weight,” and “might well bring the “monarchical papacy” down with it. “Those forecasts,” he says, “badly underestimated the capacity of the Catholic Church to resist change and to stand its ground.” Yet the teaching has collapsed, one could argue, given some estimates that just 4 percent of even observant Catholic couples of child-bearing age follow the teaching.
Moreover, John tends to identify the Church with the Pope and the Vatican; the Vatican has held out against changes it said were “eternal” for much longer than 40 years, only to develop those teachings as Roman views caught up with the rest of the “Church.”
Also, blaming a rejection of Humanae Vitae for the demographic crisis in Euope and parts of the West is akin to blaming the promotion of Humanae Vitae for AIDS and overpopulation elsewhere. It doesn’t wash.
In the end, the enyclclical has not shown a “surprising resilience,” and indeed the debates and issues surrounding it are far more complex than such commentary would indicate. For one thing, at the end of the day, for a teaching to be considered authentic or even close to infallible, it must be “received” by the faithful–in effect a kind of populist imprimatur. It is clearly not. The Mirror of Justice blog as discussions on the topic, and the problem of the teaching not being received by the sensus fidelium.
The greatest fear regarding changing the birth control teaching in 1968 is that it would undermine the authority of the church and the papacy by casting doubt on the consitency of the church’s magisterium. But Paul’s rejection of the advice of a special commission to change the teaching, or recast it, wound up doing the same thing–and not just on birth control. As a noted Italian author put it. sometimes everything must change for everything to remain the same.
NB: The correct name above–now corrected–is “Catholics for Choice.”
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