forty years after Humanae Vitae

In recognition of the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (published July 25, 1968 by Pope Paul VI), there have been a flood of articles and homilies. I’ve printed excerpts from three such articles — one from a lay woman, one from a parish priest, and one from a cardinal. For the full version of each, click on the title of the article.

The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
by Mary Eberstadt
originally published in First Things, August/September 2008

…Amid all those ashes scattered over a Christian teaching stretching back two millennia, arises a fascinating and in fact exceedingly amusing modern morality tale—amusing, at least, to those who take their humor dark.

“He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh,” the Psalmist promises, specifically in a passage about enjoying vindication over one’s adversaries. If that is so, then the racket on this fortieth anniversary must be prodigious. Four decades later, not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratified in empirical force, but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.

Forty years later, there are more than enough ironies, both secular and religious, to make one swear there’s a humorist in heaven….

* * *

Considering the human spectacle today, forty years after the document whose widespread rejection reportedly broke Paul VI’s heart, one can’t help but wonder how he might have felt if he had glimpsed only a fraction of the evidence now available—whether any of it might have provoked just the smallest wry smile.

After all, it would take a heart of stone not to find at least some of what’s now out there funny as hell. There is the ongoing empirical vindication in one arena after another of the most unwanted, ignored, and ubiquitously mocked global teaching of the past fifty years. There is the fact that the Pill, which was supposed to erase all consequences of sex once and for all, turned out to have huge consequences of its own. There is the way that so many Catholics, embarrassed by accusations of archaism and driven by their own desires to be as free for sex as everyone around them, went racing for the theological exit signs after Humanae Vitae—all this just as the world with its wicked old ways began stockpiling more evidence for the Church’s doctrine than anyone living in previous centuries could have imagined, and while still other people were actually being brought closer to the Church because she stood exactly as that “sign of contradiction” when so many in the world wanted otherwise.

Humanae Vitae 40 Years On (MP3 audio)
Rev. Richard Simon
Sunday homily, Saint Lambert Parish, Skokie, IL – July 27, 2008

My real point is this. Not that maybe you, at the bad advice of some rebellious clergyman, decided it was legitimate to limit the size of your family with artificial contraception. You made the best decision you could with what you had. I don’t fault you; I fault us, the clergy. But, that said, I ask you to look at the wider picture and the wider society… to look at what has happened to woman, to look at what has happened to marriage, to family, and to question what the real meaning is.

The Year of the Peirasmòs – 1968
by Cardinal James Francis Stafford
Catholic News Agency

“Lead us not into temptation” is the sixth petition of the Our Father. Πειρασμός (Peirasmòs), the Greek word used in this passage for ‘temptation.’, means a trial or test. Disciples petition God to be protected against the supreme test of ungodly powers. The trial is related to Jesus’s cup in Gethsemane, the same cup which his disciples would also taste (Mk 10: 35-45). The dark side of the interior of the cup is an abyss. It reveals the awful consequences of God’s judgment upon sinful humanity. In August, 1968, the weight of the evangelical Πειρασμός fell on many priests, including myself.

It was the year of the bad war, of complex innocence that sanctified the shedding of blood. English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in southern California. It was also the year in which Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae (HV). He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors. By any measure 1968 was a bitter cup.

On the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I have been asked to reflect on one event of that year, the doctrinal dissent among some priests and theologians in an American Archdiocese on the occasion of its publication. It is not an easy or welcome task. But since it may help some followers of Jesus to live what Pope Paul VI called a more “disciplined” life (HV 21), I will explore that event.

* * *

In Baltimore in early August, 1968, a few days after the encyclical’s issuance, I received an invitation by telephone from a recently ordained assistant pastor to attend a gathering of some Baltimore priests at the rectory of St. William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical. The meeting was set for Sunday evening, August 4. I agreed to come. Eventually a large number of priests were gathered in the rectory’s basement. I knew them all.

The dusk was clear, hot, and humid. The quarters were cramped. We were seated on rows of benches and chairs and were led by a diocesan inner-city pastor well known for his work in liturgy and race-relations. There were also several Sulpician priests present from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore to assist him in directing the meeting. I don’t recall their actual number.

My expectations of the meeting proved unrealistic. I had hoped that we had been called together to receive copies of the encyclical and to discuss it. I was mistaken. Neither happened.

After welcoming us and introducing the leadership, the inner-city pastor came to the point. He expected each of us to subscribe to the Washington “Statement of Dissent.” Mixing passion with humor, he explained the reasons. They ranged from the maintenance of the credibility of the Church among the laity to the need to allow ‘flexibility’ for married couples in forming their consciences on the use of artificial contraceptives. Before our arrival, the conveners had decided that the Baltimore priests’ rejection of the papal encyclical would be published the following morning in The Baltimore Sun, one of the daily newspapers.

The Washington statement was read aloud. Then the leader asked each of us to agree to have our names attached to it. No time was allowed for discussion, reflection, or prayer. Each priest was required individually to give a verbal “yes” or “no.”

I could not sign it. My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgement and conclusions. Noting that my seat was last in the packed basement, I listened to each priest’s response, hoping for support. It didn’t materialize. Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions. As the last called upon, I felt isolated. The basement became suffocating.

By now it was night. The room was charged with tension. Something epochal was taking place. It became clear that the leaders’ strategy had been carefully mapped out beforehand. It was moving along without a hitch. Their rhetorical skills were having their anticipated effect. They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. Violence by overt manipulation was new to the Baltimore presbyterate.

The leader’s reaction to my refusal was predictable and awful. The whole process now became a grueling struggle, a terrible test, a Πειρασμος. The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive. The underlying, ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity. He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.

With surprising coherence I was eventually able to respond that the Pope’s encyclical deserved the courtesy of a reading. None of us had read it. I continued that, as a matter of fact, I agreed with and accepted the Pope’s teaching as it had been reported in the public media. That response elicited more ridicule. Otherwise there was silence. Finally, seeing that I would remain firm, the ex-Marine moved on to complete the business and adjourn the meeting. The leaders then prepared a statement for the next morning’s daily paper.

The meeting ended. I sped out of there, free but disoriented. Once outside the darkness encompassed me. We all had been subjected to a new thing in the Church, something unexpected. A pastor and several seminary professors had abused rhetoric to undermine the truth within the evangelical community. When opposed, they assumed the role of Job’s friends. Their contempt became a nightmare. In the night it seemed that God’s blind hand was reaching out to touch my face.

The dissent of a few Sulpician seminary professors compounded my disorientation. In their ancient Baltimore Seminary I had first caught on to the connection between freedom, interiority, and obedience. By every ecclesial measure they should have been aware that the process they supported that evening exceeded the “norms of licit dissent.” But they showed no concern for the gravity of that theological and pastoral moment. They saw nothing unbecoming in the mix of publicity and theology. They expressed no impatience then or later over the coercive nature of the August meeting. Nor did any of the other priests present. One diocesan priest did request privately later that night that his name be removed before the statement’s publication in the morning paper.

* * *

…The trajectories of April and August 1968 unpredictably converged. Memories of the physical violence in the city in April 1968 helped me to name what had happened in August 1968. Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content. A new, unsettling insight emerged. Violence and truth don’t mix. When expressive violence of whatever sort is inflicted upon truth, the resulting irony is lethal.

What do I mean? Look at the results of the two events. After the violent 1968 Palm Sunday weekend, civil dialogue in metropolitan Baltimore broke down and came to a stop. It took a back seat to open anger and recriminations between whites and blacks. The violence of the priests’ August gathering gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy, where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue. The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations. 1968 marked the hiatus of the generational communio of the Archdiocesan presbyterate, which had been continually reinforced by the seminary and its Sulpician faculty. Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied. Some priests saw bishops as nothing more than Roman mannequins.

Something else happened among priests on that violent August night. Friendship in the Church sustained a direct hit. Jesus, by calling those who were with him his ‘friends,’ had made friendship a privileged analogy of the Church. That analogy became obscured after a large number of priests expressed shame over their leaders and repudiated their teaching.

4 thoughts on “forty years after Humanae Vitae

  1. Question: how many of those assembled on that sultry evening wound up leaving the priesthood? Did your main antagonist leave? I have often seen such sustained ‘violent’ dissent masking some deeper anxiety.Regards

  2. Good question. I know that some of the signers of Washington statement, such as Charles Curran, left the priesthood and got married…

  3. Clayton, Thanks for posting Cardinal Stafford’s article. While we love Archbishop Chaput (and thanks be to God for sending him to shephard us!), our former Archbishop will always be missed and warmly remembered.In response to Mike’s question, I believe that toward the end of the article Cardinal Stafford mentioned that the ex-Marine died while serving a large suburban parish sometime after 1978. So while I’m sure many dissenters followed Charles Curran out of the priesthood, I don’t think he was one of them.

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