Over the last few months, especially with upcoming Synod on the Family this Fall, lots of rumors are swirling about what the Church will or will not say. Chief among those is a speculation in some circles that the Church must, should, and is bound to adopt a new policy legitimizing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation as a legitimate good, and the hot-button issue of the day, a positive evaluation of homosexual unions of some sort. Not so long ago, in the 1960s, a similar set of rumors was ruling the press of the day that the Catholic Church would join other Christian groups in recognizing a legitimate use of contraception for married couples. I think it’s well worth pointing out some of the high points of that era to help navigate through the headlines of today.
In 1963, while Pope St. John XXIII was still alive, he initiated a special commission to study the issue of contraception. The group was called the Commission on Problems of the Family, Population, and Natality Members of the commission included clergy, people from the medical and psychiatric fields, as well as married couples. Their work continued even after John XXIII died, and when they had finished their study and completed their final report, it was submitted to Pope Paul VI, in 1966. This is where the story of Humanae Vitae gets really juicy.
In what is now a classic story, the report of the commission actually recommended that the Church could adopt a policy which allowed for married couples to use contraception. They argued from a principle of totality, stating that the use of contraception in a marriage in some instances, while leaving the sexual act open to conception in the long term, and with the plan of having children during their marriage, would be morally acceptable. There are, of course, more points to their report, but this was the critical argument. As fate would have it, their report, or at least a part of it, was released to the press before Paul VI had issued a response.
George Weigel notes in his biography of John Paul II that while Paul VI was preparing to write Humanae Vitae, he was known to be carrying around a copy of a moral theology book written by a Polish prelate named Wojtyla. The title? Love and Responsibility, which was a reflection by Wojtyla on sexual morality written after years of regularly meeting with young adults and married couples. In fact, Wojtyla was supposed to be a part of the final meeting of the commission, bu this government refused to give him permission to leave the country. Instead, he and some other Polish priests gathered and had their own commission, and wrote their own report, which affirmed the Church’s long-standing teaching on contraception. Later, Pope St. John Paul II would give a long series of reflections on Humanae Vitae, confirming the teaching and expounding upon it at length.
In the two years between the commission’s final report and the release of the encyclical by Pope Paul VI, rumors started flying, and as the months went on, the assumption by many people was that the Church would open the door to contraception, at least by married couples. All of this sets the background for the controversy that followed when Paul VI released his final answer to the question.
As I’ve shown in previous posts, the teaching Paul VI gave was nothing new. It had been the teaching of the Church, was based on Scripture, had been taught in Canon Law, and no single Catholic theologian in the history of the Church had ever expressed an opinion to the contrary. What set off the real firestorm was the leaking of the commission’s report as well as the speculation that, along with all of the other changes resulting from Vatican II, the contraception question would be just another piece of the puzzle.
A group of theologians from the Catholic University of America kick-started the dissent in America, but statements of questionable orthodoxy were sent out all around the world. Interestingly, even according to the presentation of some of the lead dissenters (Charles Curran’s group), no group of Bishops explicitly rejected the teaching, much to the chagrin of many who had been hoping for a change.
In the end, as history now is bearing out, Paul VI’s teaching stands as the correct one. From a certain perspective it seems almost miraculous. He had a commission study the issue, they argue for a change, and everyone in the world was heading down the same path to accepting the morality of contraception. He had to know the controversy he would face. And indeed, not too many people follow the teaching today. But, his predictions about the fallout are starting to really loom large in the discussion of the issue today. In any case, now, those of you who have read all these posts, you know the rest of the story.