The Common Good

Humanae Vitae: Catholic Birth Control Decree Remains Controversial

Pope Paul VI. Image via Wiki Commons, http://bit.ly/xCeHRU.
Pope Paul VI. Image via Wiki Commons, http://bit.ly/xCeHRU.

Editor's Note: The following aritcle was written in 2008, around the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal document that reinforced the Catholic Church's ban on artificial birth control. 

Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church.

Either way, more than 40 years after Paul VI released ``Humanae Vitae'' on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said Humanae Vitae set up ``a direct conflict between many people's experience ... and the authority of the church.''

``We have then the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church, with consequences we still live with,'' said George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI has also acknowledged the ``difficult situation,'' surrounding Humanae Vitae, which he said ``very soon became a sign of contradiction'' for Catholics.

Speaking in May in Rome, the pope said the encyclical continues to be ``all too often misunderstood and misinterpreted.'' Still, Benedict said the encyclical ``not only expresses its unchanged truth but also reveals the farsightedness with which the problem is treated.''

Many Catholics in Benedict's 65 million-member U.S. flock take a different view: 61 percent insist that individuals should have the final say on contraception; and 75 percent say it's possible to be a good Catholic while disobeying church teachings on the matter, according to recent surveys.

Marissa Valeri, 30, an advocate with Washington-based Catholics for Choice,said the young Catholics she meets don't look to the bishops for advice on sex.
``I know a lot of Catholics who are right there with them on immigration and the death penalty but on contraception, they're just not,'' Valeri said.

Among Humanae Vitae's consequences, depending on whom you ask, are alienated young Catholics, dwindling Mass attendance, rampant promiscuity, and polarized pews full of ``liberals'' and ``conservatives.'' Others blame Humanae Vitae — or reaction to it — 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 allow 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. 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.''

Lisa Cahill said young Catholics in her ethics classes at Boston College don't understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through what the church calls ``natural family planning'' but not by other means.

``The arguments don't really fit together coherently,'' she said. ``As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate,why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?''

George Weigel, a Catholic scholar, said the clergy sex abuse crisis that erupted in 2002 was, in part, fostered by a culture of dissent born with Humanae Vitae.

``Did the notion that what the church believes is settled teaching can be disregarded help break down clerical discipline? Yes. Did the idea that bishops cannot address that breakdown forcefully wreak havoc on the church? Yes. Those two ideas were manifestly part of the crisis,'' he said.

But Weigel cautioned that bad behavior by clergy and misgovernance by bishops are more to blame for the scandal. U.S. bishops published a pamphlet in 2006 that encouraged young Catholic families to forgo contraception. The bishops the use of birth control has led to a ``pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases,'' adultery, divorce and population control programs.

``The teaching expressed by ... Humanae Vitae is not easy,'' Benedict said. ``Yet it conforms with the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted since the world's creation.''

Daniel Burke writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.

 

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