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Encyclical left church credibility stillborn.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a momentous year. This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Paris student uprisings, the raucous 1968 Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

In this context, the 25th anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial contraception does not seem that significant. Yet, in the light of the Catholic church at that time and even today, the encyclical has played a highly controversial role.

Even those who lived through the heady days of the Second Vatican Council have difficulty recapturing the spirit of those times. We were optimistic about the life and future of the church. Change and renewal had occurred in the liturgy, in church life, and in the role of the church in the world.

Although at that time I cautioned against the dangers of overoptimism and our failure to appreciate the continuing presence of human sinfulness, I must admit that I, too, was taken along in this optimistic tide.

I returned from doctoral studies in Rome in 1961 to teach at the diocesan seminary in Rochester, N.Y. I had studied the older Scholastic Catholic theology in the seminary in Rome, but in graduate work I came into contact with new approaches in moral theology, especially the work of Bernard Haring, which opened up my whole approach to theology.

The successful development and conclusion of Vatican II after a hesitant start fed my hopes and optimism about the future of the church and the theology. I joined the faculty of theology of the Catholic University of America in 1965.

New faculty members shared the Vatican II vision of the church and formed a true community of Catholic scholars working for renewal. Students were enthusiastic; lectures were overcrowded; laypeople took a much greater interest in theology and religious education than they had before; priests and religious were eager to find out about the work of the council. The optimistic spirit was infectious.

No Catholic theologian had publicly questioned the condemnation of artificial birth control before 1963. Pope Paul VI in 1964 indicated that a special papal commission was studying the question. In 1966, the National Catholic Reporter published documents from the papal commission showing a strong majority calling for a change in the teaching.

Expectations of change ran very high, but the pope continued to delay. Then on July 29, 1968, the pope issued Humanae Vitae, with its continuing condemnation of artificial contraception.

Meanwhile, I had changed my own position on artificial contraception and was urging a change in the teaching. In April 1967, the board of trustees of The Catholic University voted not to renew my contract because of my teaching on artificial contraception and other matters, despite the unanimous recommendation of the faculty that I be promoted.

A faculty-student strike successfully secured my promotion and tenure. With other colleagues, I became concerned that the reiteration of the condemnation of artificial contraception would be unfortunate for the church.

The news media reported on Sunday night, July 29, that the encyclical would be released the next day. I gathered a small group of theologians, mostly from Catholic University, to meet on Monday afternoon, July 30, to study the document, which had been provided us by the Family Life Bureau of the United States Catholic Conference. We concluded that the encyclical offered no new arguments and in our judgment would cause great problems for the church. In that situation, we felt a responsibility to make a public statement.

After much discussion, I drafted a statement that was accepted with some modifications, indicating our evaluation of the encyclical, disagreeing with its specific ethical conclusion about birth control, asserting the common (but not well-known) teaching that Catholics may dissent from authoritative, noninfallible church teaching, and concluding that Catholic spouses could responsibly decide in some circumstances to use artificial contraception.

The morning after Humanae Vitae was issued we held a press conference and announced that 87 scholars in the sacred sciences had signed the statement (subsequently over 600 signed). What was unique about this reaction was the prompt, public and organized manner of the dissent. Such an approach had never been tried before, but we thought it was necessary for the good of the church.

This is not the place to rehash and defend what was done at that time, but I still firmly believe that the substance as well as the mode and manner of our dissent ultimately were for the good of the church as a whole. (In this article I am presupposing that the condemnation of artificial contraception is wrong.)

But all that is history. Humanae Vitae appears to be a dead letter today. Catholic couples have long since made up their consciences about contraception.

Yes, from the perspective of morality the encyclical is basically a dead issue in practice, but from the perspective of understanding the church (ecclesiology) it continues to exercise a significant role. Even in 1968, Paul VI admitted that the primary reason for the teaching of the encyclical was not the moral reasoning as such, but rather the previous commitment of the authoritative teaching of the church and the difficulty of admitting that such a teaching had been wrong.

"The conclusions at which the commission arrived could not, nevertheless, be considered by us as definitive ... above all because certain criteria of solutions had emerged which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the church" (Humanae Vitae, n. 6).

During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul had also acted in an authoritarian manner with regard to the teaching on artificial contraception. The council specifically accepted and promulgated the concept of collegiality - the college of bishops succeeds the college of the apostles and together with the pope has plenary and supreme authority over the church.

The council in its deriberations and acts well illustrated collegiality in action on many significant issues. But Pope Paul intervened twice to prevent any conciliar discussion on birth control (because of the existing commission) and on celibacy. Many more significant and important issues were discussed at the council but not the two sexual issues. Why is sexuality treated differently from all other issues?

But that was not all. In November 1964, Pope Paul intervened in the work of the council, demanding explicit mention of the earlier encyclical Casti connubii (1930) and its condemnation of artificial contraception. After strong objections, the pope backed down somewhat, saying he had not intended to propose a definitive formulation nor to settle the question that was being studied by his commission.

Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens had already warned in the conciliar debates that a renewed condemnation of artificial contraception could become a new Galileo affair. Paul VI thus rejected the findings of his commission and prohibited the exercise of collegiality in even discussing the issue.

The authoritarian aspect of the teaching of Humanae Vitae has become even greater in the life of the church since 1968. The encyclical itself differs from Casti connubii, the 1930 condemnation of artificial contraception by Pope Pius XI, by including a section on pastoral directives. This section admits the difficulty entailed in living married life in accord with the teaching. The pope recognizes that couples will fail but should not be discouraged and should have recourse to the mercy of God in the sacraments. Although the Vatican asked all the episcopal conferences for statements on Humanae Vitae, many of the statements attempted to nuance in some way, without ever denying or challenging, the teaching of the encyclical. Some conferences of bishops explicitly recognized the possibility of dissent; some stressed the pastoral directives' section of the encyclical and pointed out that subjectively there might not always be grave sin present.

The U.S. bishops explicitly affirmed the legitimacy of dissent by theologians from noninfallible church teaching if three conditions were met. The pope himself referred to the response to his encyclical, obviously including the dissent, as "the lively debate." He never again issued an encyclical letter in the 10 remaining years of his pontificate. All of his subsequent documents were of lesser weight.

But as time went on, despite the obvious disagreement by the vast majority of Catholics in their married lives, the position against artificial contraception hardened. The Canadian bishops, for example, after having made one of the more nuanced statements in the aftermath of the encyclical, came back some years later with a more hard-line statement on the role of conscience in such matters.

Especially in questions of population control, the Vatican and some individual conferences of bishops have strongly resisted government support for contraceptive programs. A U.S. cardinal has declared that the conditions allowing dissent from noninfallible teaching are no longer applicable. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has cracked down on a number of those who have dissented from noninfallible teaching in the sexual area. The Vatican has made adherence to Humanae Vitae and no public objection to it a necessary condition for anyone to be made a bishop in the church.

Some good things have also happened in these circumstances. Catholics in the pew have in practice recognized the legitimacy of dissent from a particular noninfallible teaching while still remaining faithful Catholics. The response by the vast majority of Catholics has made theologians more conscious of the concept of reception as necessary for establishing a teaching.

But, still, on balance the present dichotomy between hierarchical teaching and Catholic practice constitutes a major problem of credibility. Andrew Greeley and his associates have concluded that the issuance of the encyclical seems to have been the occasion for massive apostasy and for a notable decline in Catholic practice in the United States in the period up to 1973.

The credibility problem continues today. The great chasm between Catholic practice and hierarchical teaching calls into question the believability of the hierarchical teaching office itself. The Catholic church seems to have lost any credibility in the area of sexuality because of its stand on artificial contraception and other issues.

Evidence is growing that priests and other ministers in the church often say nothing about sexuality because they are not supportive of the present teaching yet prefer not to speak out against it. Teachers report what most of us have already suspected - our Catholic youth do not look to the church for guidance on sexuality as they once did.

Theologians show the great discrepancy between the moral methodology employed in official Catholic sexual teaching and that used in hierarchical social teaching. The former emphasizes the permanent and the unchanging while employing a legal model, whereas the latter emphasizes historical developments and uses a relationality-responsibility model. This credibility problem obviously continues to grow and affects all aspects of the hierarchical teaching office.

Today, paradoxically, while the vast majority of married Catholics act against the encyclical, church authorities have become more rigorous and authoritarian in their continual reassertion of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. What explains this emphasis and intransigence?

All recognize the move toward the more authoritarian in Roman Catholicism, especially in the last decade. One striking illustration in the United States and throughout the world concerns the more conservative type of bishops who have been appointed by the Vatican.

Despite his fear and misgivings, Pope Paul had urged the CDF to work positively to encourage theologians and he never condemned a theologian. However, actions against theologians who have dissented from church teaching have now become more common. Attempts are being made to insure direct hierarchical control over theologians.

The new Code of Canon Law, which went into effect in 1983, really did not bring about any change in the structures of the church, and thus the developments at the Second Vatican Council have never been transferred into practical church structures.

In light of this generally recognized shift to the right in Roman Catholicism, one should expect that the position on Humanae Vitae would harden and become more rigorous. But something else has occurred.

The insistence on Humanae Vitae has become symbolic and taken on added significance. Many issues in the church are more hotly debated today than the seemingly dead issue of contraception. Think, for example, of the ordination of women, celibacy, divorce, homosexuality, and even to some extent abortion. There is really no debate over contraception.

The spotlight shines on Humanae Vitae today precisely because of the question of authority in the church. In the midst of all the other discussions taking place in the church today, to admit error in the case of contraception would be to open the door to the possibility of change in all these other areas. Humanae Vitae serves as a finger in the dike.

The insistence on Humanae Vitae has become the symbol of the hierarchical magisterium's unwillingness to change on any other more important and more debated questions.

One should not underestimate how difficult it is for the hierarchical magisterium to admit that its teaching has been wrong. The very issuance of Humanae Vitae well illustrates the point. Yes, Pope John Paul II did admit a mistake in the Galileo case, but that was long ago and did not directly affect faith and morals in the daily life of people.

Even Vatican II could not admit error in one of the most significant documents of the council - the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Here again conciliar debate showed the primary problem centered on authority and not on the issue itself. The Catholic church in its official hierarchical teaching had strongly condemned religious freedom in the 19th century and continued that teaching into the middle of the 20th century.

How could the church teach in 1965 what it had condemned categorically for so long? John Courtney Murray employed his historically conscious methodology to solve the conundrum. The historical circumstances in the 19th century context were entirely different from the circumstances in the 1960s. These changed historical circumstances meant that the church was not contradicting itself. The condemnation of religious liberty in the 19th century was right and so was its acceptance in the 1960s.

From the advantage of hindsight, one must be suspicious of explaining this change totally in term of historical development. Somehow and somewhere there was error involved in the earlier teaching that was changed at Vatican II. One wonders if religious freedom would ever have passed if the council had to admit error in the past teaching of the church.

Many reasons support the position of not admitting error in hierarchical church teaching. The most convincing reason maintains that the Holy Spirit would not allow the church to err in such a serious matter affecting so many people. From a more practical perspective, the admission of error could destroy the credibility of the church's teaching office. Likewise, fearful people wonder where all this change will end.

This is not the place to develop a long treatise on teaching authority in the church. But there are many aspects in the Catholic tradition that support the position that church teaching can be wrong and in this case should be changed.

The distinction between infallible and noninfallible teaching is not without some problems, but by definition noninfallible teaching such as the condemnation of artificial contraception can be in error. Such an understanding receives added support from Vatican II's insistence on the church as a pilgrim church and on the recognition of the church as sinful.

Catholic moral teaching before Vatican II followed the approach of Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the role of reason in arriving at truth and insisted on an intrinsic morality. Something is commanded because it is good and never the other way around. An act is morally good because it contributes to true human fulfillment. The practical recognition of collegiality and reception provides mechanisms for bringing about change.

In conclusion; I believe that the hierarchical magisterium can and must change its teaching on artificial contraception. I do not expect this change to come quickly or easily. But the Catholic tradition has the resources to admit its error in this case and ultimately to come up with a more adequate sexual ethic that will also avoid the dangers of the individualism so present in our society.

We will also have to address honestly the other important moral issues facing our church today. This will not be easy, but the credibility of the church is at stake. All of us must consider the important particular issues as well as the needs of the community of the church. The pilgrim church, with its emphasis on a living tradition, will always experience the tension of trying to do the truth in love.
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Title Annotation:1968 papal birth control prohibition, 'Humanae Vitae'
Author:Curran, Charles E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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