1968, 50 years ago, is sometimes described as annus horribilis – a time of devastating events and awful tragedies. In March Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and in June Bobby Kennedy suffered the same fate in Los Angeles. In August Soviet tanks shattered a brave and hopeful democratic dawn in Prague, and riots at the July Democratic Convention in Chicago reflected deep societal divisions about the jungle war in Vietnam.
In October in Northern Ireland civil rights marchers faced the same police thuggery that Martin King and his supporters had to endure in Alabama and Tennessee. The mayhem of the civil rights marches morphed into the Irish “Troubles” that lasted for thirty years.
Then in the summer of 1968 Pope Paul V1 published his much-anticipated encyclical Humanae Vitae which asserted that the use of contraceptives, even by married couples, was against the laws of nature and thus sinful.
Paul’s predecessor, John XX111, had set up a consultative commission to advise him on this vital issue. The Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of the 60’s, urged the church to move away from the autocratic model where the man at the top decided and the people obeyed. This conservative approach was summarized in church circles as Roma locuta est, causa finita est – Rome has spoken; the discussion is over.
The new mood of openness was supported by many church leaders and indeed the Council documents favored collegial decision-making over the old hierarchical model. The 72-member advisory commission included 16 theologians, 13 doctors, 5 women and an executive of 9 bishops and 7 cardinals. After extensive deliberations it reported in 1966 to John’s successor, Pope Paul. Apart from a minority of six traditionalists who claimed the Church could not change its long-held position of opposition to the use of contraceptives, the vast majority saw no moral conflict between Catholic beliefs and the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill by married couples.
Unfortunately, Paul sided with the minority and his encyclical Humanae Vitae reflected the narrow scholastic thinking that prevailed among traditionalists. Rome had spoken but this time there was a heated and bitter debate around what many Catholics considered the pope’s spurious arguments about contraception.
Paul was greatly influenced by the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii written by Pius X1. That papal letter espoused a strict ban on the use of contraceptives and branded any deviation from this ruling as a “grave sin.” Paul felt – with good reason – that if he sided with the majority on the commission he would be inviting harsh condemnation from traditionalists who would demand an explanation of how sexual acts that Pius called intrinsically evil in 1930 could be morally permissible forty years later.
The pope used Natural Law reasoning which argues that stymieing the conjugal act by preventing the possibility of pregnancy is unnatural and therefore immoral. Deriving moral imperatives from the purposes of physical acts is problematic for many modern ethicists.
There is another criterion for judging the morality of any human behavior. This involves Catholics from all backgrounds deciding in good conscience what is right and what is wrong from an ethical standpoint. This approach is called the Sensus Fidelium and involves ascertaining the sense of the faithful about any issue. In other words, the beliefs and practices of the people in the pews should be seriously considered before making moral pronouncements. Advocates for this democratic approach point out that the Holy Spirit is active with the whole community not just with the hierarchy.
Viewed through the prism of the Sensus Fidelium, Paul’s teaching about the use of contraceptives was rejected by the vast majority of Catholics. Arguing, for instance, that the Natural Law forbids a married couple from using a condom to prevent pregnancy runs counter to common sense.
His central conclusion in the encyclical that the use of contraceptives by married couples is somehow against the Church’s moral code was rejected and disregarded by most people who agreed with the majority opinion on the papal commission.
Some conservatives still carry the torch for the teaching in Humanae Vitae. Breitbart News joined the debate by opining that using contraceptives makes women “unattractive and crazy,” and the American Catholic Bishops are seriously considering basing their upcoming pastoral letter about the importance of the family on the teaching in Pope Paul’s encyclical.
Francis has not repudiated his predecessor’s teaching in Humanae Vitae – to do so would almost certainly cause a schism in the church. However he recommended that three children would be appropriate for most families and he condemned the idea of Catholic families “breeding like rabbits.”
Should popes feel bound by previous papal pronouncements on moral matters? Paul couldn’t follow the advice of the clear majority of Pope John’s commission because of Pius’s encyclical, and Francis is tied to the flawed Natural Law reasoning used by both of his predecessors.