VATICAN JULY 25, 1968 – ROME has spoken,” runs an ancient proverb of the Roman Catholic Church. “The case is closed.” No longer true. This week Pope Paul VI formally promulgated his encyclical on birth control, which condemns all methods of contraception, except rhythm, as against the will of God. The pronouncement caused perhaps the most serious outburst of dissent the Catholic Church has experienced in centuries. Innumerable Catholics made clear that they would refuse to heed the words of a reigning Pontiff. Theologians defied his authority to insist that the encyclical was not binding on married Catholics who have good reasons to practice birth control—and it was obvious that millions will continue to do so.
Thus, instead of solving a troubling question of personal morality for Catholics, Paul has, in fact, brought into the open a much more profound question: Where and what is authority in the church? Ironically, the Pope, who has worried so much about the spread of dissension within Catholicism, has really created the conditions for further revolt.
After the encyclical was published, most of the enthusiasm for it came from Roman Catholic bishops, who are bound by special ties of loyalty to the Pope. Prompted by an urgent request from Rome for moral support,* the hierarchy of the U.S. issued a collective statement that called on “our priests and people to receive with sincerity what he has taught, to study it carefully, and to form their consciences in its light.” At least a few prelates were openly disappointed. Franziskus Cardinal König of Vienna, who had tried to keep the Pope from issuing the encyclical, said that “it does not solve on its own the problem for the individual human being.” The hierarchy of the Dutch church issued a commentary pointedly advising Catholics that such factors as mutual love and social circumstances should also be considered in guiding conscience on the morality of birth control.
Ecumenical Disaster. Protestant and secular opinion on the encyclical was almost wholly disapproving. In Geneva, Secretary Eugene Carson Blake of the World Council of Churches declared: “It is disappointing that the initiative taken in 1963 to re-examine the traditional Roman Catholic position on family planning seems to have ended up approximately where it began.” At the worldwide Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the Rt. Rev. I. R. Moorman of Ripon, a Church of England observer at Vatican II, called the encyclical “ecumenically, a disaster for Christianity”
A number of leading newspapers editorially worried about the impact of the Pope’s edict on population-control programs or governments that are particularly susceptible to Catholic pressure, such as those in Latin America. Wrote West Berlin’s liberal Die Zeit: “What kind of church leadership is it that is willing to throw all the warnings of science to the winds? How is this papal decree reconcilable with the command to love thy neighbor, when we already know that between now and 1980 approximately 40 million people will starve to death?” In Manhattan, demonstrators representing the Parents’ Aid Society, a militant birth control group, paraded in protest outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, hard put to include favorable non-Catholic judgments in its roundup of world opinion, solemnly noted that the Pope had received a message of support from a family of Norwegian Protestants with 14 children.
Values of Marriage. The tone of non-Catholic criticism paled in comparison with the encyclical’s reception by Catholics outside the hierarchy. Some comments were almost indecently abusive. Father Alfons Sarrach, a German priest-journalist, described the encyclical as “a breath of outdated and ignorant monkish theology.” Many more of the outcries, however, were couched in rhetoric that reflected personal anguish and disappointment at the decision. “You are not speaking as our Pope,” protested Jesuit Philosopher Norris Clarke before a cheering crowd of 1,000 at a Fordham University symposium on the encyclical. “We can’t hear you. We demand that you do not speak to us this way.”
Far more disturbing to the Pope and the bishops was the fact that the encyclical was flatly rejected by some of the most influential teaching minds of the church. Led by Father Charles Curran of Catholic University, 172 U.S. theologians and other Catholics, including all six American lay members of the pontifical birth control commission, rejected the encyclical as outdated, inadequate and not binding on conscience. “We conclude,” said their statement, “that spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.”
Swiss Theologian Hans Kung said flatly that the Pope was wrong, and that the encyclical might lead to a new “Galileo case.” One of the experts who signed the statement was Dr. John Noonan of the University of California at Berkeley, whose Contraception is the most thorough study of Catholic teaching on the subject. At a Washington press conference, Noonan suggested that the encyclical may ultimately be regarded as just another mistake of the papacy, like the medieval declarations that usury is a sin, or Pius IX’s insistence that the papal states of Italy existed by divine will.
Departure from Tradition. The 7,000-word encyclical, entitled Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) was completed five months ago, and its negative judgment was not unexpected. Despite strong protests to the Pope since then by leading European prelates, it was modified only slightly. During its preparation, said Vatican sources, Paul relied heavily on the advice of three exceptionally conservative prelates of the Roman Curia: Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, 77, the retired former chief of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith; Paris-born Archbishop Paul Phillipe, secretary of the congregation; and Bishop Carlo Colombo of Milan, Paul’s personal theological adviser.
The Pope’s collaborators have long argued with him that any modification of the birth control ban would be a disastrous departure from the traditional teaching. Ultimately, Paul agreed. In the most telling sentence of the encyclical, the Pope outlaws “every action, which either in anticipation of the conjugal act or in its accomplishment, or in the development of natural consequences, proposes whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible.”
In a long and thoughtful introduction, the encyclical cites the many reasons put forward by theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, in favor of birth control: the population explosion, the economic difficulties involved in raising a large family, new insights into the psychological nature of sexual experience. In the end, though, the Pope rejects them all: “It is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.” Paul also cites what he considers the dangers that will stem from widespread use of contraception: an increase in conjugal infidelity, a lowering of moral standards, the loss of respect for women, and finally, the possibility that “public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies” could make birth limitation compulsory.
Ordinary Magisterium. Humanae Vitae is addressed primarily to Catholics, but the Pope also appeals to secular governments to seek means other than birth control in solving their population problems. Husbands and wives are asked to live up to the Pope’s difficult decision. The clergy are advised to “give the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the church.”
The encyclical is not an infallible pronouncement,* but as an exercise of what theologians call the “ordinary magisterium” of the church, it does require obedience to its norms. Had the Pope issued it at the beginning of his pontificate, it might well have been received with acquiescence. But too much has happened since then. Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, although not explicity endorsing contraception, strongly defended the principle of responsible parenthood and the right of couples to decide for themselves the size of their families. A clear majority of the church’s most articulate moral theologians—sometimes with the approving support of their bishops—have publicly argued that couples can licitly practice birth control for reasons of health or economic hardship. The Pope’s own commission on the subject in 1966 voted 70 to 14 in favor of relaxing the church’s stand on contraception. More significantly, millions of married Catholics, either on their own initiative or with the blessing of their confessors, have decided that birth control is a matter for their own consciences alone.
Natural Law. Although not explicitly stated in the encyclical, the reasoning behind Humanae Vitae was based on natural law. A concept borrowed from the Stoics, this philosophical theory has been interpreted in traditional Catholic thinking to mean that man can properly define the nature of an object from its apparent purpose; just as the ear is for hearing, the argument runs, the sexual organs are for generating. In the name of natural law, which is really God’s law, and in defense of the sanctity of life, the bishops of pagan Rome went on record early in condemning abortion and contraception.
Specific church condemnations of birth control notably increased during the late 19th century, when such technological developments as vulcanized rubber made contraception cheap and easily available to the masses. With the growing acceptance of contraception in the secular world, the papal stance against birth control hardened, culminating in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage). Reacting to the acceptance of birth control by the Anglicans’ significant Lambeth Conference that year, Pope Pius XI declared, in accordance with the natural-law theory, that since the sexual act had a procreative intent, it was a violation of divine will to interfere with it. Paul VI substantially reaffirmed that view.
Critics of the new encyclical are able to marshal some fairly impressive arguments against its logic. There are Catholic theologians today who reject the whole idea of natural law as e’ther philosophically untenable or inadequate as a way of interpreting God’s mysterious ways. Still more insist that natural law must be constantly reinterpreted in light of man’s expanding knowledge. Thus, some thinkers contend that the Pope’s rejection of birth control because it interferes with procreation is based on a static and incomplete understanding of sexuality as a merely biological function. A complete natural-law theory of intercourse should include its total significance for man within marriage. To most modern couples, it is more important as an expression of love than as a method of procreating children.
Critics also complain that the encyclical ignores historical realities that, to them, clearly justify a changing attitude toward contraception. The population explosion—which Paul treated sympathetically and at greater length in his 1966 encyclical Populorum Progressio—suggests that the biblical injunction to “increase and multiply” is no longer a useful guideline for all married couples. Both Protestants and Catholics see the latest encyclical as an unnecessary new obstacle to the realization of Christian unity.
Into the Lifeboat. Some argue that the Pope’s grudging approval of only one medically inadequate means of controlling birth—the rhythm method—is inconsistent with his acknowledgment that sex is important as an expression of a loving marital relationship. Forcing a man and wife to practice rhythm, says Gunther Mack, ecumenical affairs editor of a German Protestant weekly Sonntags-blat, is “like sending a man on a sinking ship to a lifeboat full of holes.”
The Pope’s suggestion that contraception leads to the degradation of women, noted Dr. Andre Hellegers, a professor of gynecology at Georgetown University, “was a gratuitous slap at Protestant wives.” Mrs. Walter Campbell of Cambridge, Mass., a former president of the Massachusetts Planned Parenthood League, objected to the tone of the encyclical: “Why, in a subject that concerns marriage and the family, is this addressed to ‘Venerable Brothers and Beloved Sons’? Where do the women come in?” More seriously, assailants of the encyclical were disturbed that it was a one-man decision reflecting a minority view within the church and not a consensus of the faithful. Father Joos Arts, editor of the radical Dutch Catholic newspaper Nieuwe Linie went so far as to warn that “the Pope is isolating himself from the church.”
What will be the impact of the encyclical? Almost certainly, schism is out of the question unless a strong effort is made by Rome to silence dissent. Said California’s irreverent Episcopal James A. Pike: “Nobody cares enough about religion these days to want a schism.” In some areas of the church with an extremely conservative priesthood and hierarchy, such as Los Angeles or much of Great Britain, it is probable that there will be countless quiet, unannounced defections from the church. At the same time, there is evidence that many Catholics will simply ignore the encyclical, without considering themselves any the worse for it. “There are millions of people to whom the Pope seems to be saying, ‘You are in sin,’ ” said Father Robert Fox of Chicago’s Loyola University. “They’re answering back, The hell we are.’ ”
Faith and Hope. Already, there have been some disquieting signs that the Pope’s dictum will be openly flouted. The Association of Washington priests, representing some 100 clerics in the archdiocese, formally endorsed the statement circulated by Father Curran.
The 800-member Los Angeles Association of Laymen issued a manifesto declaring: “We simply reject Pope Paul’s ban on birth control and ask all mature Catholics to do the same. We will not ‘leave the church.’ We will not be thrown out. We are Catholics because of our faith and our hope and our love, together in community. And nothing except our own conscious decision can change that.”
Pyramid of Wisdom. The likelihood that Humanae Vitae would prove to be a dead letter within months after its publication raised a far more fundamental ecclesiastical question, the role of papal authority in the church. Many theologians contend that there has been an unhealthy overemphasis on the teaching voice of Rome since the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. In effect, the church has been a pyramid, with all wisdom flowing downward from the top. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council suggested the possibility of a more democratic, decentralized concept of Catholicism. Paul—with his constant emphasis on the need for obedience, his surprisingly old-fashioned and orthodox Creed, and now his rather arbitrary decision on birth control—seems determined that only the Pope should speak for the church.
Jesuit Biblical Scholar John McKenzie of Notre Dame believes that “with this pronouncement on birth control, the papacy is going to lose its leadership, which will take 200 years to recover—if ever.” Although the downgrading of papal authority would unquestionably lead to a period of confusion within the church, some progressive Catholics contend that dissolution of the papacy as an absolute monarchy would lead to a new and healthier concept of what authority is. The church of the Bible, they argue, was not an authoritarian state but a community of shared decisions, which were not made by the hierarchy alone. Without denying that the church needs a Pope as the symbol of faith, some theologians would argue that there ought to be several levels of teaching authority. On a question of marital morality like birth control, the conscience of the church should be formed by those who face the question in their daily lives—the married laymen. In any case, no real authority can be exercised without effective dialogue involving all the people of the church.
Submerged in Documents. Although he knew that it would be criticized, Pope Paul was clearly unprepared for the gale of protest aroused by the encyclical. In a mid-week audience at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence, Paul told an audience of pilgrims something of the personal agony that had accompanied his decision. “Never before,” he said, “have we felt the load of our duty. We have studied, read, discussed as much as we could. And we have also prayed a lot. How many times have we had the impression of being almost submerged by this heap of documents? How many times have we realized the inadequacy of our poor person to the formidable obligation of pronouncing ourselves on this matter? How many times have we trembled before the dilemma of an easy condescension to current opinions, or of a decision badly borne by society today, or which would arbitrarily be too heavy for conjugal life?”
Once again, Paul expressed the hope that “Christian husbands and wives will understand how our word, though it may seem severe and arduous, wants to interpret the authenticity of their love.” Later, the Pope indicated that Humanae Vitae was not his final word on birth control—and there were rumors in Rome that a second encyclical on the subject might be forthcoming. Whether or not the new document might contain any modification of the ban on contraception was, to many Catholics, relatively unimportant. It did not matter so much how Rome made up its mind. On this issue, a great part of the church—represented by millions of individual Catholics—had already done so.
* In a similar, secret message to the Italian hierarchy, Amleto Cardinal Cicognani warned that the Pope “turns to his brothers, the bishops of the Catholic world, to ask them to stand at his side in this circumstance. The Pope counts on the attachment of his brothers in the episcopacy to the Chair of Peter. It is necessary that in the confessional, as by preaching and by the press and by the other mass communications, every pastoral effort be made so that no ambiguity whatsoever remains among the faithful regarding the position of the church.”
* The Pope is infallible only when he explicitly speaks ex cathedra, as supreme teacher of the church on matters of faith and morals. There has been only one infallible papal pronouncement in this century: the proclamation by Pius XII in 1950 of Mary’s assumption into heaven as a dogma of faith.