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We might all be better off if Paul VI had done nothing.

Twenty-five years after the issuance of Pope Paul's encyclical on birth control - 25 years during which I didn't write about it - I think it's time to elaborate on what I said before it was issued.

In the heady days between Vatican Council II and Humanae Vitae, a seminary invited a group of lay couples to meet with seminarians and some faculty members and talk about marriage. My wife and I were one of the couples.

At the time - older Catholics will remember - it was assumed widely that "the church," that is to say, the pope, was about to lift the historical ban on artificial contraception. That certainly seemed to be the consensus in our group when I gave scandal by saying I'd rather see the pope say nothing and let the ban die out.

But what about the truth? one seminarian asked. His tone spelled the truth with a capital T.

I couldn't answer then, can't now. The parallel I had in mind was with the role of sex, or (as we used to call it) conjugal love, in marriage. Holy Mother Church had "always" taught that procreation is the sole purpose of sex. Then Vatican II came along and put sex in the context of married love. "Merging the human with the divine."

That was as much of a change from past teaching as the expected birth control ruling would have been. But by the time the council made the connection, the church already had made it through the sensus fidelium. I don't know how it played out in the rest of the world, but in this country the Christian Family Movement, along with the priests and theologians who worked with it, had developed a highly articulated theology of marriage that anticipated the council.

As we sat in that seminary refectory, some of us at least had a working spiritual understanding of the role of marriage in God's plan, and the understanding was distinctly Catholic. I did not think the pope, or anyone else, was ready to write an encyclical on contraception that could bring birth control into that theology without distorting it.

Well, I got that part right.

Where I was wrong was in not realizing how many Catholics were hanging on a word from the pope on the subject. I thought the debate was more for the classroom than the bedroom. If a couple had to practice birth control, I assumed it would. And if it didn't, it shouldn't.

Only after the pope said the word no did it dawn on me how much I had oversimplified.

The logic of Humanae Vitae remains distressingly hard to follow. (Maybe there isn't any.) But I think the pope was bothered by what was bothering me. It would not be enough to simply say yes to contraception. That would give too much prominence to human mechanics in a spiritual relationship. The answer would have had to be a "yes, but" or a "yes, if."

The argument leading up to the encyclical was not over who had control of a woman's body but whether birth control should be seen as acceptable in certain circumstances. That could have led to a law-book approach under which contraception would be permitted if paragraphs 1, 2 and either 3a or 3b applied. That kind of thinking wouldn't have fit my theology of marriage. Pope Paul (again, I think) concluded he couldn't nuance a conditional acceptance and therefore fell back on unconditional rejection.

"Let them [upright men] consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would ... be opened toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality" if artificial contraception were permitted, he wrote.

I feared a legalistic collection of rules and loopholes swamping couples' internalized understanding of where they stood with God in their marriage. What we got instead from the pope's no was everyone making rules for himself or herself.

That popes and bishops are not part of this personal rule-making is widely recognized. The result is that for 25 years Catholic couples have been formed without the benefit of either the old theology of marriage or the barely articulated theology underlying Humanae Vitae. Marriage, one of the seven sacraments, has become a hot potato in rectories and pulpits. Everywhere else, the environmentally correct numbering and spacing of children holds sway.

Twenty-five years ago, I would have guessed that by now we'd have a theology of marriage open to artificial methods of birth control in some circumstances but always predicted on faith and trust in God.

I don't know if that's how things would have worked out if the pope had done what I wanted him to do, which was nothing. As I just admitted, my analysis wasn't so hot, either. But we do know that things didn't work out well after Humanae Vitae.

That's a truth, without a capital T, about many lives today.
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Title Annotation:1968 papal birth control prohibition, 'Humanae Vitae'
Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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