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Humanae Vitae: 40 years on

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  • August 7, 2008

Editor's note: Below are two commentaries on the meaning of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which was released 40 years ago this summer, on July 25, 1968. The encyclical, which reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching against the use of artificial contraception, has long been considered a watershed document in the history of the post Vatican II Catholic Church.

Where do we go from here?

By Douglas Farrow, Catholic Register Special

No encyclical ever created more controversy than Humanae vitae - no mean feat for a document that reaffirmed traditional teaching. Many Catholics, of course, had hoped that the Pope would wave his staff over that teaching and make it go away; they were quite excited about the new contraceptive Pill. But in July 1968, one week before Humanae vitae was promulgated, the Vatican’s Secretary of State wrote to the presidents of the episcopal conferences warning them that Paul VI could not and would not do that. Contraceptive acts would remain, in the eyes of the church, what they are: “intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.”

"The Holy Father,” the letter confessed, “knows full well the bitterness that this reply may cause many married persons who were expecting a different solution for their difficulties.” Nevertheless, it pleaded with the bishops to back him up. The laity “must be helped to understand all the spiritual enrichment represented by the effort of renunciation which is asked of them; they must be shown what a precious element it is in conjugal and social life, especially in times like ours which are invaded by hedonism, that great obstacle in the fulfilment of the evangelical ideal.”

Bitterness there was. But by September the Canadian bishops (who in 1966 had already signalled to the government their willingness to see a change in the law on contraception) were urging Catholics not to get their knickers in a knot. They issued the Winnipeg Statement, which conceded that persons who “have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives. . . may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”

That was hardly what the Holy Father had asked of them through Cardinal Cicognani, who stressed that “both in the confessional and in the pulpit, in the press and by other means of social communication, every necessary pastoral effort be made that no ambiguity exists among the faithful or in public opinion concerning the church's position in this serious matter.”

The very structure of the Winnipeg Statement set up a contest between “Solidarity with the Pope” and “Solidarity with the Faithful” – meaning, oddly enough, the dissenting faithful. In between these two parties the beleaguered bishops struck their mediating pose, playing off the private conscience against the pope’s public counsel, while inviting the state and its scientists and educators to jump in for a piece of the action. They did.

Forty years on, where are we?

Canada has given itself over, unambiguously, to what John Paul II called the “great lie.” In consequence its birthrate has fallen to around 1.5, for which the state has tried in vain to compensate by allowing wave upon wave of immigration, while the population turns annually a whiter shade of grey.

Marriage meanwhile - which the bishops hoped would be seen as “unions of love in the service of life,” with “the full recognition of our complementary sexual differences” – has been redefined to accommodate homosexuality. Marriage and parenthood are being divorced in the public mind, at the expense of children. Nearly 40 per cent of Canadian marriages are failing.

As for sex education, which the bishops promised to promote “whenever and wherever possible,” it hasn’t proved quite the blessing they had in mind. Few foresaw that dissent would flourish on all manner of topics, and that Catholic school children would soon be taught all the ins and outs of what the church calls “sterile” sex. Or that they would be told that “families” are not necessarily what their benighted bishops assumed them to be. Or that young girls would be whisked off for secret abortions when sex education failed to achieve its contraceptive goals.

Nor have the scientists, whose research into reproduction the bishops earnestly solicited, failed to do their part: in vitro fertilization, for twosomes and threesomes of either or both sexes; pregnancy screening to eliminate the handicapped; stem-cell harvesting from aborted fetuses; and a raft of new reproductive technologies that would make even Huxley’s hair curl. Paid for, like the burgeoning abortion mills, with Catholic tax dollars.

We mustn’t leave out the theologians either, many of whom ignored the bishops’ ironic request that they “refrain from public opposition to the encyclical” in their search for “greater clarity and depth in the teaching of the church.” Indeed it was some theologians who led the charge down the slippery slope of hedonism into the sea of the contraceptive mentality.

Can’t turn back the clock, you say? Too true! But, God helping us, we can repent. We can learn afresh the meaning of chastity - that is, of virtue in sex - and so renew, albeit belatedly, our evangelical vocation. The grace of God, in which we failed to trust in 1968, is still available in 2008.

(Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Nation of Bastards.)

What Humanae Vitae missed

By Mae And Bernard Daly, Catholic Register Special

For the 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, one can look back in appreciation as Douglas Farrow does, and look forward as we will do.

Wbegin from personal experience. By 1963, we were a SERENA teaching couple, instructing other couples about the sympto-thermal method (STM) of fertility awareness. Couples record changes in a woman’s body during her cycle, so they know precisely when they can or cannot conceive a child.

This led SERENA men to new awareness of how a woman experiences her body. As estrogen and progesterone alternate during each cycle, she goes through complex physical and psychological changes unknown to men. There is only a trivial understanding of this - in “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

We SERENA couples thought Paul VI was supporting ourviews about contraception. SERENA dates from 1955, 13 years before the encyclical. We regretted Humanae Vitae’s limited focus. It did not, especially, issue a ringing call for a vast new church program to teach all couples the STM way to understand and manage fertility.

Farrow says “the Winnipeg Statement made an enormous concession, one that belied the bishops’ professed solidarity with the pope.” This is contrary to what Cardinal G. Emmett Carter wrote in 1997 - one of his last major articles before his 2003 death. Main drafter of the 1968 statement, Carter wrote: “What we were trying to achieve was that confessors and other guides of morality would assure those who could not live up to this high ideal that the church was not excommunicating them, not pushing them away. It was meant as pastoral guidance, not at any time as a dissent from the Holy Father.” About Paul VI’s reaction, Carter added: “When he said that he had received our text ‘with satisfaction’ he meant just what he said. To try to torture it into something else is unworthy and dishonest.”

As for the future, this is not the first time we write that Jesus’commandment to love neighbours as we love ourselves is most violated today by men (including Catholics) abusing women.

Humanae Vitae did not mention male sexual ignorance and misbehaviour. Our first suggestion, then, is a church-wide pedagogy, especially to teach Catholic men “others ways to love.”

How many Catholic men know how their hormonal drive differs from a woman’s experience? How many couples know when they are infertile? How many Catholic women use contraceptives only because they feel forced to consent to undesired sex? What is the incidence of date/marital rape among Catholic men? How many Catholic men “use” prostitutes? What do Catholic men tell their sons about sex?

Discussion of sex addiction should be part of such a church program. There is abundant literature about addictions but little about sex addiction. Yet, compulsive male sexual gratification has been a social constant throughout history, and is rampant today. It is mainly a male phenomenon, as in rape, sex tourism, most prostitution, child abuse and pornography. The female libido can also be urgent, hyperactive and even compulsive, but is this as common as among males? How many female prostitutes do it only for pleasure?

Secondly, the church at large must ask urgently about health and ecological issues. Alongside expanding awareness of how bulldozers, chain saws and herbicides destroy precious environments, there is growing use of contraceptive technology - which does at least as much violence in a woman’s exquisite interior environment as any violence done in the wilderness. Undesirable effects are under-reported. What do women really experience? Only about 100 million women worldwide use the pill - fewer than one in three of all reproductive age females.

Also, the people of God should call attention to wider environment effects of increased use of artificial estrogens. For example, as reported to the National Academy of Sciences, the addition of traces of synthetic estrogens to a Canadian lake had a disastrous result for fish. “The scientists added just enough estrogens to give the lake water the same level of the sex hormone found in water discharged from sewage treatment plants in Canada and in other countries where the birth control pill is widely used. . . . Although the doses in the lake’s water were thousands of times lower than the amounts women on the pill receive, even this slight exposure was enough to skew development in both male and female fish, with males far more affected”(Globe and Mail, Toronto, May 22, 2007). What are all the health and environmental effects of drugs in women’s urine going into our drinking water?

Launching massive education for couples and especially men, and raising alarms about all the impacts of contraceptives, would be two important steps beyond the present situation.

(Bernard Daly worked for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for 35 years, retiring as assistant general secretary. He and his wife, Mae, were also SERENA couples and were active in the Catholic Family Movement. They live in Toronto.)

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