The Aftermath of Humanae Vitae

Humanae vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s defense of the sanctity of human life, was promulgated fifty years ago this year. It was dated July 25, 1968.

When July rolls around later this year I shall have some things to say, God willing, about the encyclical’s content. What I’m talking about here is some of the aftermath of the document’s promulgation.

Only some. I’m going for a broad picture and in as few words as possible. I shall not deal, for instance, with the epic fight of Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy at the Catholic University of America, the pontifical university in the United States, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by brother prelates. The aftermath is important because the confusion and disarray that have marked the life of the Church during the past fifty years are owed more to it than to Vatican II, which usually gets the blame. Such is my view anyway.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire world, at least the world outside the then Communist parts of it, had awaited appearance of the encyclical with extreme interest. (I can write here of events and developments as I do because I was reporting them at the time as a journalist.) The interest was due in large part to Blessed Pope Paul’s immediate predecessor, Pope Saint John XXIII, having set up a commission to study the question of life prevention (aka birth control) in light of the development of the Pill in the early sixties, and news had been leaked to the press that a majority of the panel favored scrapping the Church’s prohibition of contraception. In reaffirming it Blessed Pope Paul went against the recommendation of the majority.

That was offensive to liberals imbued with the modern democratic notion that the majority is supposed to rule in all things and helped account for the general reaction to the encyclical, which was negative to say the least. It was the more so because the herd-thinking public saw the document as proof that the Catholic Church remained the chief impediment to preventing the apocalyptic explosion of what was called in those days the “population bomb,” a phrase meant to convey the idea that nuclear weapons weren’t nearly as great a threat to the future of the planet as “overpopulation”. It was the 1960s equivalent of “climate change” today.

The negative public reaction to Humanae vitae does not of course account for the confusion and disarray that have marked the life of the Church ever since. The dismay of the dominant liberal wing of the modern Church does. The dismay was evident in episcopal reaction to the document, The national bishops’ conferences of Western Europe and North America all paid immediate lip service to it (the U.S. bishops praised it for expressing an “ideal”) but then did nothing to uphold its teaching. The result was that within a couple of years it became virtually a dead letter. Seeing it dropped down an Orwellian memory hole, which is to say, seeing his teaching authority ignored, Blessed Pope Paul ventured to issue no further encyclicals for the remaining ten years of his pontificate. This is understandable. Nothing, not even open defiance, is more hurtful to a ruler’s authority than having it ignored. Defiance at least recognizes that he has it.

Blessed Pope Paul’s successors have not risked having theirs ignored. They have issued encyclicals, to be sure, but they have not instructed or commanded, let alone prohibited or anathematized. Most have amounted to little more than papal ruminations on this or that subject. That makes them much different from encyclicals promulgated prior to Humanae vitae. As far as that goes, popes during the past half century have not spoken as popes used to do. One thinks in this regard of how Venerable Pope Pius XII used his annual Christmas allocutions delivered over Vatican Radio as a vehicle for the presentation of authoritative social teaching. Catholics living then, the 1940s and 50s, could not imagine a day when a pope, speaking to a question of morality, would plaintively plead, “Who am I to judge?”

He is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, that’s who. Ignoring papal teaching authority may hurt it. Confusion and disarray will flow from not exercising it at all.

Did anything more concrete result from the bishops’ failure to uphold the encyclical’s teaching? There is no way to prove it, but my gut tells me that if the Catholic members of the U.S. Supreme Court had seen Humanae vitae vigorously upheld, they would not have voted for the legalization of abortion five years later. Perhaps even non-Catholic members of the court would not have done so. After all, the dissenting opinion in Roe v. Wade was written by Justice Byron White, who was not Catholic.

Other consequences flowed from the bishops’ failure. When they praised the encyclical for expressing an “ideal” but went on to tell married couples they were not obliged to fulfill it if their conscience told them that in their circumstances they need not, the faithful were left with the false impression that conscience is a judicial faculty, that according to what it “tells” them they may decide for themselves what is right and wrong. So it was that the 1970s saw the rise of the “cafeteria Catholic,” the individual who thinks he may choose which Church teachings he will accept, his conscience having “told” him he is free to reject others, and remain fully Catholic.

Does anyone want to argue seriously that yesterday’s “cafeteria Catholic” isn’t typical today, so typical the label isn’t applied anymore? In the aftermath of Humanae vitae Catholics have become de facto Protestants.

I said I wasn’t going to deal here with details, but there is one that is worth recalling. The 1968 annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., was covered by an unusually large number of reporters because it was understood that at its conclusion Their Excellencies would issue their official response to Humanae vitae, as indeed they did. (It was in that response that the bishops hailed the document for expressing an “ideal”.) It was also the last annual meeting of the bishops conducted behind closed doors. This meant that after each session of the meeting reporters were briefed by a spokesman. He was an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis named James Shannon.

Bishop Shannon belonged in the spin room of a televised debate of presidential candidates. He was smooth and quick on his feet and humorous whenever possible.

In short, he did a fantastic job, especially at ingratiating himself with reporters from the top media outlets. As a result, Time magazine put him on its cover as the very model of how a modern Catholic bishop should be.

Three weeks later Shannon abandoned the priesthood to marry.

At least it was to a woman.