Humanae Vitae: Memories of an Encyclical

Humanae Vitae Priests
By Bishop Peter J Elliott
Human Life International e-Newsletter
Volume 01, Number 22
August 07, 2008
Reproduced with Permission
Humanae Vitae Priests

Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in July 1968, a month after I became a Catholic at Oxford. "Great expectations" were abroad. Experts predicted "a change" in Church teaching on birth control. A pamphlet from Ealing Abbey prepared women for change. It vanished when the papal teaching appeared! I regret not buying a copy - a collector's item.

However, quieter voices said that "a change" was out of the question. This would reverse accepted and constant moral teaching, set out by Pius XI in Casti connubii and repeated by Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes., 50,51. But quieter voices were ignored in the Sixties, a confused era for Catholics seeking moral guidance on spacing childbirths.

Doubts and Hopes

The anovulent pill raised doubts about the classical teaching. It did not involve mechanical means. It was invisible and could have medical applications. Little was known then of health hazards or early abortion effects, and few recognized the disruptive psychological dimensions of contraception.

A campaign spread across Europe and North America to allow the pill for Catholics. Confessors gave conflicting advice: some saying "no change", others "wait for it", others "follow your conscience", code for "go ahead". Well before the encyclical, the elastic conscience took hold in the Church.

However there were other problems. Natural methods were not trusted, not "scientific" enough to satisfy a contraceptive mentality. All natural methods were called "Rhythm". Married people were skeptical when told that this old "calendar method" had been superseded by the Basal Body Temperature Method or the simpler Billings Ovulation Method.

As I observed in England, some promoters of natural methods were not convinced about Church teaching, hence of the need for their essential work. I believe they had lost heart. Some were not open to new developments, Billings OM or the Sympto-Thermal approach.

"High hopes" were also raised by the commission set up by Pope Paul to review the question. The majority report the commission presented to the Pope was in favor of change. That report was widely publicized. The more prudent minority report, against change, was derided.

The Encyclical

When the encyclical appeared on July 25, 1968, I was in an Oxford students' pilgrimage at Lourdes. This fresh convert was amazed at the uproar among young women in our group. But they had been primed up to expect the very opposite to the Pope's teaching. A Sydney seminarian with us was not surprised. Jeremy Flynn knew the encyclical was not one Pope's hesitant "decision", rather his confident restatement of unchangeable teaching. Before his untimely death, Jeremy worked as a priest among AIDS victims.

On the day the encyclical was released it was undermined in Rome. Mgr Lambruschini told the media that the teaching was "not infallible", a signal to ignore it. Later, studying the exact authority of the papal teaching, I came to the opposite conclusion. But in 1968 I did not know enough theology to understand that when a Pope repeats and elucidates constant Church teaching, this is the infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium. Humanae Vitae did not have to be proclaimed with a public ceremony, like a dogma defined by the Extraordinary Magisterium.

What most of us did not know at the time was how a young Polish cardinal influenced the way Paul VI presented the teaching. Karol Woytyla had written Love and Responsibility back in 1958. As Pope John Paul II he would develop and enrich Humanae Vitae.

A Debate

Later in 1968 I was at the famous Oxford debate between some Dominicans and Professor Elizabeth Anscombe. She defended Humanae Vitae logically and easily won, not however in the opinion of many crammed into the Newman Rooms. Emotions counted more than reason.

During the debate, a young Australian. John Finnis quoted a footnote in the encyclical, St Thomas Aquinas on the Natural Law. The Dominicans were flustered. At that time some English members of this great Order had absorbed Marxism. Later in a pub I heard one cynically describe Humanae Vitae as an opportunity for power struggles in the Church.

Poor Follow-up and Dissent

In the wake of Humanae Vitae, aggressive dissent seemed to freeze many Catholic leaders, to an extent even the Pope himself. Acts of discipline against vocal priests, for example in Melbourne, only made media martyrs. Charles Curran cut a figure in the US, but Kung, Rahner and Haering made dissent respectable. Kung went on to attack infallibility. He understood the authority of the papal teaching.

The Pope was not only attacked in the secular press. Under Paul Burns, the London Tablet dissented from Humanae Vitae. A later Tablet editor censored a letter of mine contradicting another dissenter, Dr Jack Dominian. I told readers that Mother Teresa's sisters teach natural family planning in India. You could not even make fidelity to Humanae Vitae look good!

Then came the most tragic part of the saga. Notwithstanding the compassionate pastoral tone of the encyclical, "Pastoral statements" from some Episcopal Conferences modified the Pope's teaching in a slippery way. Canada was perhaps the worst, but in 1974 Australia finally followed.

What was a young priest to think when a senior bishop apologized to him for losing the vote that let the Australian statement appear? After complaints to Rome it was later corrected, but the damage was already done. Through the media, Catholics heard "follow your conscience", a green light for birth control and sterilization.

Pope Paul, a Prophet

Paul VI was described as a prophet. At the time he seemed to be a martyr His letter on the transmission of human life was his finest hour. It did have an uncanny accuracy in light of the past forty years.

He said that contraception harmed women (Humanae Vitae 17). People laughed at him. Forty years down the track various feminists agree with him.

He argued that artificial birth control can be used by governments to impose population control. Vatican led struggles against population control at the UN Conference in the 1990's vindicated his stand.

He was criticized for linking sterilization and abortion to contraception. But recent decades have revealed these three ugly sisters of a "culture of death" are inseparable.

His teaching that the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of the marriage act must never be separated has been vindicated by manipulation of human life - IVF, surrogacy, embryo experimentation, cloning, etc. Human-animal hybrids were recently approved by the "Mother of Parliaments", which first legalized abortion in 1967.

He argued that that love, not just life, is disrupted by anti-natal practices. People who actually read his encyclical find a rich doctrine of married love. But the creative development of that dimension had to wait for another Pope. Pastoral Hopes

After the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope John Paul II personalized Humanae Vitae in Familiaris Consortio. 28-35. Benefiting from the woman's cycle, couples cooperate with God as ministers of life, open to the divine plan. He promoted the truly interpersonal natural regulation of fertility (FC 32).

That is the only pastoral way forward - widely promoting natural regulation of fertility, so-called "natural family planning". What is truly natural can be a means of grace in marriage. Moreover, in the face of so many fertility problems, couples can achieve a pregnancy by reversing these methods. In my opinion, until there is an NFP teacher in every parish, we are not being serious about the prophetic teaching of Paul VI, his liberating message of love and life.

Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. Between 1987 and 1997 he was an Official of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He was a Member of the Delegation of the Holy See at the United Nations Conferences: Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing. He is the Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne. This article first appeared in the Melbourne Archdiocese journal, Kairos.